Sure, he’s a maniac, a murderer and a boorish interrupter of performances. But, according to the men who don his mask, “The Phantom of the Opera” is also a human being.
“He has issues dealing with reality and with other people, because of the way he looks. In my mind that’s a big chunk of what makes Phantom ‘Phantom.’ He is incredibly talented, but not great at dealing with people,” Quentin Oliver Lee said during a recent break from rehearsals. Next Tuesday, he’ll take over the role in the touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that opened this week at the Orpheum in Minneapolis.
“That is the beautiful thing about the character: Most people can see how they, themselves, have been a Phantom. They’ve had the ability to do something great but it has gone wrong.”
To be sure, Phantom’s boundary issues exceed most people’s. In addition to the whole murderer thing, he obsesses over and kidnaps opera singer Christine. But Derrick Davis, who is playing the role for the first week of the Minneapolis run, agrees that “human” is the operative word for a character who comes off as less magical and mysterious in the touring “Phantom” than he does on Broadway and in other productions.
“Laurence Connor directs us to perform the show in a very real way,” says Davis, who has been with the show for 18 months and is moving on to other projects. “In order to get the audience to be on the side of this troubled individual, you have to exemplify all of his human traits as clearly as possible. People need to believe he really falls in love and is heartbroken to the point where he is driven to murder. Who hasn’t gone through unrequited love? Who hasn’t dealt with a part of themselves they wish society wouldn’t see?”
But, particularly since audiences have fresh in their minds a slew of news stories about men who abused power in shocking ways, isn’t Phantom apt to come across as stalker-y?
“Oh, he’s a bad guy, says Lee. “It’s great for a person to love another person and Phantom clearly loves Christine. It’s great to use your power to help other people, too, and he does help her to be a better singer. But he crosses a line. He is at fault. But he’s also, in a way, a victim — although I hate to use that word, because he wouldn’t. We’re not demonizing him. People do bad things but they’re not terrible people, forever and always.”
Davis says the Gaston Leroux novel on which “Phantom” is based is enormously helpful, as is his preshow ritual: “I ask that nobody come into my dressing room for 15 minutes before the show. I do a series of stretches. I listen to music [Laura Mvula’s ‘Bread’] and I say a prayer of protection over myself and the company and the audience.”
This is a return trip to the Twin Cities for Lee, who was part of the “Porgy and Bess” ensemble that played at Ordway Center in 2014. He’s still trying to figure out his new character.
“The show has existed now for 30 years and there have been great minds at work, all that time, making it the best it can be, so each sentence has deep meaning,” says Lee. “For me, it’s been about trying to glean all that information from Seth [associate director Seth Sklar-Heyn] and Cameron [producer Cameron Mackintosh, who flew Lee to London for an audition] and the directors and the wonderful script and score, so people will see the man behind the mask.”
The actor also had help from the dude he calls Hal — i.e., legendary, 21-Tony-Award-winning director/producer Harold Prince, who originally staged the musical. Lee met Prince when he was in Broadway’s “The Prince of Broadway,” a musical revue in which Lee understudied the Phantom, who does two numbers in “Prince.” Along the way, he picked up skills that helped him get over his first “Phantom” audition, five years ago.
“It was not great. I’ll put it like that. The material is notoriously difficult — the range of it, going from a low F at the bottom of most people’s ranges to a high A-flat, which is at the top. It’s very hard, certainly for a baritone,” says Lee, a trained opera singer who nailed it when he had another chance this summer.
The transition into the role has Lee scrambling. In fact, with rehearsals in full swing, he still hadn’t purchased a ticket for his wife (nope, no freebies), actor Angela Graham, who will be with him in Minneapolis. To get it all together, he might benefit from his predecessor’s advice.
“It’s an all-consuming commitment,” says Davis, “because people in the audience saved their money and protected that time slot. Theater is not accessible for everyone. There are people seeing this for the first time and people seeing it for the last time, so we do not get the luxury of phoning in a performance, ever.”