An Interview with Hugh Panaro
Broadway star Hugh Panaro has been thrilling audiences for years with his Hollywood good looks and talent to match, but it's his boy next door charm and down to earth personality that adds to his appeal.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 19, 1964, Hugh's love of animals interested him in a career in veterinary medicine. However, after seeing his first Broadway show (the original production of Annie), Hugh fell in love with theatre. His first role, Friedrich in a regional production of The Sound of Music, came when he was twelve. Hugh, who was a church organist at Saint Helena's Roman Catholic Church during high school and accompanied his mother on the organ or piano at weddings, studied music at Temple University (BA in voice, class of '85).
I caught up with Hugh on a Friday about an hour before he was ready to hit the gym, a ritual he tries to keep to keep him in top shape. "I know now how it feels to carry and drag a 170 pound man on your back several nights a week", joked Hugh.
Pati Buehler: Congratulations on landing such a popular role. You are doing a wonderful job with Jean Valjean.
Hugh Panaro: Oh, thank you so much. I am thrilled to be doing this.
BWW Review of Walnut Street's Les Miserables:
PB: Hugh, many fans of the show view Valjean as a valiant hero, but you play this role with several layers of emotions. What is your take on the role?
HP: While I was sitting with the directors and Paul Schoeffler (Javert) talking about the characters, sort of a Valjean/Javert meeting, we discussed the human element of these men. To be honest, I think my take on this comes from my late acting teacher, Freddie Kareman. Human beings are not black and white. I've always found that playing Javert as the bad guy and Valjean as Santa Claus just didn't interest me. In the last scene, the redemption, I feel if you get there way too soon, then why are you doing the show. I was pretty adamant about finding the darker moments for the character, hopefully showing the audience that Valjean and Javert are both men on their separate paths and their own truths.
"As far as my interpretation there's the risk of thinking, "Oh gosh, the audience might not like this." For instance, when Valjean gets the letter from Eponine to give to Cosette, the book shows that Jean Valjean is really jealous. Here's this boy interested in his daughter and he's not ready for this. I said to Mark Clements, our director, "Can I crumple up the letter, toss it to the floor then pick it up?" He said, "that may take too long." So we compromised and I crumple the letter, then decide to flatten it and keep it. I don't know if the audience would be used to this in the character, but I feel good and evil is a choice and at that moment Valjean could have gone either way and he chose the candlesticks again."
PB: That was a very subtle way of showing another facet of Valjean's personality. Also your response to Cosette's plea for more information about the past; that was pretty intense.
HP: I really let her have it! (laughing) I'm so glad you got that.
PB: Here's a question from a BWW reader. Phantom and Valjean are vocally and physically demanding roles. How do they differ in terms of how you prepare for them and maintain top form?
HP: Right off the bat, singing Phantom is much less demanding, no disrespect to that role but Phantom's top note is an A flat and Valjean's sings a high B natural. Vocally Vajean is much more demanding. Interestingly Phantom is physically difficult because of the makeup; being incased in that latex makeup all night long there's a slight bit of a claustrophobic feeling about it.
"In Phantom I would warm up accordingly but with Valjean, I get up an hour earlier, go to the gym, warm up very slowly so that I'm able to sing a few high B's and C's in my dressing room. One of my favorite quotes is from the late great Pavarotti, "God only gives you so many high C's. Don't leave them all in the dressing room". (laughing) So, I make sure I have them, but I make sure I take them on the stage."
PB: Good idea. Switching gears, please tells us about the Streisand tour.
HP: That was pretty amazing and it was this time last year. I'd never been to Europe. It was a great way to see Europe and I was such a fan of Barbra, especially growing up. The fact that she came from Broadway is great. There's really no one like her. I didn't know what to expect from such a huge star. She was so lovely and gracious and this may sound weird but she is really cute. Her ear and her pitch are flawless. She heard something in the flute section one day and remarked, "I don't remember that". It was something that was added and she picked it out the first time she heard it.
"In one of the cities, she had a really bad cold. She sang so smart and negotiated her way through this cold. I thought, "what a professional." She's 65 and still this amazing. Another thing I should tell you is that members of the press sometimes print things that aren't true. I want to say that she sang everything is the original keys".
PB: Another question from our BWW readers. I would like to know that since old theaters are rumored to be filled with spirits and because you played an opera ghost did you ever run into any?
HP: You know what, NO and I'm really bummed that I haven't. I'm a really spiritual person and I've never experienced anything. In fact I'm thinking of taking this ghost tour in Philly. I'm very disappointed that the opera ghost has not met a ghost or an alien or something (laughs).
PB: Speaking of Phantom, a BWW reader wants to know how you landed that role.
HP: Originally, I had just played Ravenal from Showboat for Hal Prince in London and upon my return it turned up that the man that was playing the Phantom was having vocal problems and they asked me if I would be interested in coming in temporarily. I understudied Phantom many years ago as Raoul but I think I'm one of the few guys that never really had his eye on that role. I was never dying to do it because of all the makeup. I thought it was a good opportunity because there was an end in sight. A few months into the role Hal Prince came into the dressing room and said, "We don't think the other actor is coming back." So I was asked to stay. But then I got Martin Guerre and left to do that. Three or four years later the slot opened up again and they asked me to come back and I really grew to enjoy it.
PB: I know that you played Raoul opposite Kevin Gray's Phantom. I would have really enjoyed seeing you both.
HP: Kevin is great! He opened the door for younger actors to play the role. I thought we were a good match because we were both age appropriate. I always found it weird when the Phantom would call Raoul insolent boy and the Raoul was obviously older than him.
PB: One question I always enjoy asking is; is there one person or persons that you admire or have encouraged you throughout your career or life?
HP: Well, I know this may sound corny but I'd have to say my dad. In my entire life growing up I've never heard my dad say an unkind word about anyone. My father has always taken the high road in life and to me he's a complete inspiration without being a pushover. He's just such a good man and role model. I take him with me figuratively every night I go onstage.
"As far as entertainers, I know I'll sound like a cliché but they don't make 'em, like they use to. Barbra Streisand is one of them, also Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. The first theater voice I heard on a record was Ethel Merman and again, they just don't make them like that anymore".
PB: What are your thoughts about Broadway shows over the past few years?
HP: God, I'm a little embarrassed because I'm probably not the most informed person to ask. My criterion lately has been that if I have a friend in it, I'll go to see them. I can tell you that I loved WICKED. I wish there were a part I could play in it. (laughing) What I have noticed which I'm not nuts about that the trend that a lot of shows are hiring the American Idol type of talent without real training and real technique and I think that audiences are smart and sometimes seeing that things are not as high caliber as they were before. I think there is an evolving art taking place on Broadway. We'll have to see what happens.
PB: You have a truly loyal fan base, which I'm sure you are aware of. What do you attribute that to?
HP: Well, that's sweet to say. I'm not sure but I can tell you that I try to do a good job. First for myself, second for the produces and directors and third for my parents and then everyone else. I want to be sure that if people are coming to a show and paying $100 that I want to give them their money's worth. I try to give 100 percent.
PB: And you certainly do. Hugh, besides Phantom which I'm assuming you adore doing, which roles have you enjoyed and which would you love to do?
HP: I loved playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. I mean you can't do better than playing God! (laughing). That's hard to top! I played it when I was 21, way to young to know how to appreciate it. I would love to revisit that role. The three roles that I have always admired are Valjean, Phantom and Jesus and I've enjoyed them all so much. Oh, another role I'd like to play would be George from Sunday in the Park with George. My dream roles since I was very young were Tony in West Side Story and Pippin. But, now I leave that for the youngsters.
PB: Well, you still have a lot of talent to offer us and you are proving that right now with a truly wonderful interpretation of such a great role as Jean Valjean. I hope to catch the show one more time before it leaves.
HP: I really enjoyed this chat. Thank you so much and let me know when you come back to visit again.
Photo #1: Hugh Panaro as Valjean by Brett Thomas
Photo #4: Hugh Panaro in Concert courtesy www.hughpanaroonline.co/nr