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.
Since leaving the role after more than 1,300 performances, which he wrapped up in Los Angeles, back in 1991 there are two things that haven't held much appeal for Crawford – one being to see anyone else play the role, and the other to don the mask again on stage. "I haven't seen anyone else play the role, and I haven't been to the show, because I never thought about going to any show that I've done. If you've done something, or if you've created something, it's so close to you and I think that once you've made your decision to move on, then you move on. In the same way, I've also never really considered revisiting it. I personally find that if I've done something, and I've done 3 musicals that have lasted, in order – Billy, 2 years, Barnum 4.5 years, and 3.5 years with Phantom, that after doing them that amount of time, I can't see wanting to revisit them."
What Michael is however looking forward to is celebrating the show's success on January 9th. "I'm very much looking forward to the celebration on the 9th. They haven't told me what I'm doing yet, but I'm looking forward to being there along with a lot of the original technical people, actors, and the creative team. I know that Hal is going to be there, Andrew, Cameron Mackintosh and Gillian Lynne, of course. One great sadness for me is that Maria Bjornson died a couple of years back and she'll be sadly missed. She was part of that great team that started the show, and was a dear, dear and much loved person. I'm looking forward very much to seeing everyone, and will also be missing Steve Barton's presence. When time moves on this happens, and one loses one's contemporaries, and it's hard to swallow because we're all on that list so it could be any of us…"
After Phantom, Michael Crawford's career next took him the world over, with a successful recording and concert career, a TV special to Las Vegas for EFX, and finally making a return back to Broadway 12 years later in a show that didn't fare quite as well – Dance of the Vampires. "Well, I loved the music, and I loved the idea of doing something that was like rock n' roll, which had never entered my mind before and I love to diversify if nothing else. I will try, and have tried, as many varied jobs as possible. I don't sort of rush at them, and I think that the mistake that I made with it was that it wasn't varied enough from Phantom. The music might have been, but the actual character, sort of tripped over many ways into the character of The Phantom. This is of course all from my point of view, about me, not on everything that happened with the overall project. In this business, you win some, and you lose some. Everybody went into it with good faith, and enormous energy, and the best of intentions to make it work as well as we could, and as well as they could. The fact that it didn't, well, that's just sad. You learn that when things don't go right, that the things that do go right feel twice as good. It was hard."
Also hard was the negative critical reaction that the show received, but it's not something that's often dwelt upon. "I don't remember much of the specific critical reaction really, I don't remember it. I think that you shouldn't dwell on things that don't do you any good. If you're to learn by something, you dwell on it, but I can't remember reading much that would teach me a great deal."
The experience hasn't soured him on Broadway by any means though, and given the right show – he'd gladly return. "Oh yes, if something appealed to me enough, and was again different enough, I'd definitely do it. I'd love to open the door to fall flat on my face again! But, that's the way that this business is, and that's the gamble that we take. Even with the gambles, it's still fun to try, and to work with new people, and exciting people. So yes, I would love to come back and do something."
If he does return though, odds are it'll be in a new show, as opposed to a revival. "I am interested in new stuff for sure. When I look at revivals, I look at things that I've seen a few years back, and I just don't see how or why I'd want to do them. I saw Robert Preston, I saw Gene Kelly – not on stage obviously – but I saw him in things. When you revive certain pieces, and you think about the originals - they're your heroes, and there's no way I could step into their shoes. I'm so impressed by what I heard in the first place that I don't want to try and reprise or recreate those roles. I've again, personally, found it more challenging and more exciting to create a character from the floor up."
So what are some of the memorable shows and performances over the years that have made an impact on him? "The entire cast of West Side Story, the American company of West Side Story that came to London, was the most memorable first sighting on stage of something that I wanted to do. It was so inspirational, and had an influence on my wanting to go on the musical stage. Without a doubt, it was just thrilling beyond belief. My Fair Lady on stage, the first time round was also something that I loved. Bye Bye Birdie, the first time around was such fun, and Company was a great show in London. Mainly all early ones come to mind when I think of that question. To come down the line slowly, A Chorus Line was phenomenal to me, and then I loved Cats when I first saw it in London right after it opened. More recently, The Producers I enjoyed, and I think that it's a fun evening. I don't think it's something that's memorable as a musical to me, as the classic ones that I've mentioned are. Spamalot is another one, which I think was a fun evening, and which there should be in the musical theatre. It's a great time for us to have that kind of show. I'm looking forward to seeing Jersey Boys while I'm in town, which I think that I'm definitely going to like. It sounds as though at last they've seen someone's life, and gotten it right as a musical without it being at all embarrassing. Wicked is another show I haven't seen, but I hear that is wonderful."
Back to Crawford's career, his most recent performance was on the London stage, in Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest show – The Woman in White, for which amongst other accolades, he won Best Supporting Actor in a Musical from WhatsOnstage.com, as well as a Variety Club Award. "I loved the book, and the book excited me greatly from when I first read it, and then when I heard the music, it only added to my excitement and it intrigued me – the idea of building this great man. And, of course it was a challenge, because it was a character, and such a character. A couple of people asked me – if you're going to do a show, why do you want to cover up yourself completely? It's called acting, and it's how you create the character so that was the challenge, and both Trevor (Nunn) and Andrew (Lloyd Webber) agreed that we build the man up to the size that the character was in the book."
Going for that large character, including lumbering around the stage in a fat suit then caused the star health problems. "We went all the way with it, and it unfortunately became a monster for me, because I was losing so much water each show. We opened late Summer, and in London there's no air conditioning backstage. I had it in my dressing room, but there was nothing down on stage, and so I was losing so much water, and so many electrolytes per show that it was killing me. You can't just replace that as if you're losing water, and it diminished my immune system, so I was catching anything that anyone had in the theatre - and in the vicinity of the theatre! That was obviously not very healthy. I got all sorts of nasty things, viruses, and flu type stuff that would just not go away. My immune system kind of hit rock bottom, and to cut a long story short, in the end I had to leave the show. The decision to do that wasn't made in the last minute because I was constantly trying to get back literally every day. I loved doing the show, and Maria and the whole cast and everything and hated being out. I'd think, 'yes I feel better today, I think I can do it,' and then I'd fall down again. I've said before that the one saving grace was that the producer's mother had the same virus, it appeared, so somebody else was experiencing the same thing that I was. It was a weird, and horrible thing because it went on for months after I left the show. I was still not better for at least another 4 months."
Those health problems naturally made Crawford choose not to reprise the role of Count Fosco when the show came to Broadway this season. "I thought about it, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to change the way that I played it by playing him thinner, or costumed differently, so I thought it best not to risk that again. I've never been so ill for so long in my life. It was never critical, it was just aggravating to have no energy whatsoever. It was kind of a post-viral syndrome that just gave you tiredness constantly, so I wouldn't want to risk getting that again."
Now, with his health returNed Crawford has returned to the stage performing multiple concerts this past Fall, with more scheduled for early 2006. "I've gently gone back into doing some more concerts which I just love doing, because you can sing songs from whatever show you like, and you can reminisce. I love doing it, and I love going around playing concerts in various parts of the country, and in various parts of the world. We gently winged our way back in again with five or six towards the end of last year. This year, I'm off to Australia to do 5 in Feburary/March, and 1 in New Zealand. After that, I'm an open book."
Nothing specific as to what might fill in the next page of that book, but Crawford clearly has his pen in hand. "I'm talking to people in London about some stuff, and I'm meeting with people here on Broadway about some stuff here, but I don't know yet what's next. I'm considering possibly another show if the right project comes along, and if it doesn't, I'm more than happy to continue doing concerts for the time being until it does."
One trend through many of the recent shows that Michael has taken on including The Phantom of the Opera, EFX, Dance of the Vampires and Woman in White has been a high-reliance on technology. Is that by choice? Not so much. "That's definitely not out of choice, that just happens to be. That only started I suppose for me in Phantom. Before that, Barnum was pretty straight forward. We had to put a wire up, and to rely on that every night. There's usually something in musicals, going back to Billy, we had bleachers that you had to run up and down and dance up. If they got stuck, what did you do? You danced on the spot instead of on this magnificent staircase. There's varying degrees of all that, but since Billy, which was in 1972, things have developed greatly, to say the least. Now, it becomes more scary, the more that you're reliant on computers. They've only got to crash, and you're in serious 'doo doo.' It can be quite frightening!"
In recent concerts, Michael has been taking audiences on a journey through many classic songs in the theatre world, including of course tunes from The Phantom of the Opera, along with Les Miserables, Hello Dolly!, Jesus Christ Superstar, Aspects of Love, Man of La Mancha and other tunes fans have been hoping he'll record. At the moment, there's no plans to jump back into the recording studio though. "If I did another television special, I might link an album to that, but I don't think that it's the easiest thing in the world for a 64-year-old song and dance man to go out and sell records. I need to be more like Tony Bennett most probably…and as talented! I would love to do another special though, to search out musicals, and some of the more beautiful moments that I've seen on stage to put one together. As for the current concerts, when I go back out on tour, the stories always change, but if you change the music too much, people get peeved because they don't hear what they want to hear. You have to put things in, and take things out very carefully. I'll be doing that next year, putting them in and taking them out very carefully." Fans can't wait!
The Phantom of the Opera rolls into the record books on January 9, 2006 with a gala celebration. For more information on the show, visit www.thephantomoftheopera.com. For more about Michael Crawford, including his upcoming concert dates, visit www.mcifa.com.