An Interview with Michael Crawford
With The Phantom of the Opera approaching its milestone performance on January 9, 2006 as the longest running musical of all time it seemed a perfect time to check in with the show's original star – Michael Crawford.
The Phantom of the Opera was of course a 'phenom' from the moment the show first hit the first London stage. Now, almost 20 years, 80 million plus audience members, 40 million plus album sales, and $3.5 billion in tickets later, did the original cast have any idea about the show's chances for longevity? "Not to this extent, no…" explains Crawford, "I don't know how everyone else reacts to this, but every time that I hear them asked, Andrew (Lloyd Webber) says that he had no idea, and Hal (Prince) says that he had no idea either. I don't know that anyone could have predicted the long, long term success that it's had, but I think somewhere in rehearsals that it began to feel extraordinary; it felt quite special, very, very special."
Over 80 million audience members later, one wonders what it was like to originate, and to develop such an iconic characterization, and Michael was ready with an answer. "It's obviously always extra special to be able to create a character because you spend literally months on it. We spent three months working out the make-up of the character with Chris Tucker, Maria Bjornson, and Hal Prince of course. It was three months of hard, slow work, just going to Chris Tucker's "laboratory" as I used to call it. He'd experiment and stick things on my face to see what we could, and couldn't do, and then came up with a really rather smooth look, which was Valentino-ish I think to finish up with. That way, it had the beauty, the exterior beauty on the visible side, and then you could do what you wanted to underneath the mask."
The creation of that character first in the West End, and then reprised on Broadway, and in Los Angeles clearly touched a nerve in theatergoers the world over, why? "My first reaction to that question, all those years back, was that 'beauty & the beast,' has long been a cultural phenomenon. Those stories have been told since I was a child, and way before that. These stories have succeeded, and I think that everybody identifies with them because we've all loved and have lost as well. There's also this wonderful message in the story, that you don't have to look so great to love. The tenderness of the story is in that, and from the letters that I received, I think that a lot of people felt unloved because of the way that they looked. Of course those issues affect…how many of us in the world? It's a pretty high percentage I think of us, that don't look like the film star image, or the model image that a human being is 'meant to have.' The model look, that society seems to say a human being is meant to have is portrayed in magazines and everywhere so easily. I think that it drew people in, to have a lead, romantic character that was the exact opposite of that. I'm sure that there are many stories like that, but the passionate way and the beauty of the music that was offered to the public became more easily acceptable I think to them. Children would react to that as well, so a lot of young, young children would take away something important from it."
The appeal of the story of the Phantom to those of all ages is clearly a reason for the show's success, and in the fans that Crawford has encountered over the years, he's seen that as well. "I think that this show in particular, took so many young people towards music as well, which is very important. I think that the show has had so many strong impacts, and that this is one of the biggest. There are people that write to me still today, who came to see it when they were 5, or 6 and how many years ago was it now? Now they're in their early 20s, and they're at university studying music, or singing, or playing an instrument and the show took them towards music. I think that Andrew (Lloyd Webber) is very much responsible for that. I think that it also took people towards opera, although the show was not smiled at too readily by the operatic community. I think that it certainly helped their attendance figures, and people like the Three Tenors who hadn't been thought of to sing the popular music that they certainly did. I think that it did a great deal for music, and I'm proud that the show was responsible for that.