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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Kara Klein, from Broadway's Longest-Running Show Ever

On the day The Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway, January 26, 1988, a 5-year-old girl in Phoenix was probably prancing around her family's living room, doing rudimentary arabesques and jetés. When Phantom became the longest-running show in Broadway history on January 9, 2006, that girl was on the stage of the Majestic Theatre, doing much more refined versions of those steps in her role as a member of the Ballet Chorus of the Opéra Populaire.

She's Kara Klein, age 23, whose nascent career in ballet was detoured when she decided to try her luck in theater—and got the first job she auditioned for: ensemble in the national tour of Phantom of the Opera. She was only 18 at the time, and now she's been in the Broadway cast for a year. For most of 2005 she had the featured role of Meg Giry, filling in for Heather McFadden while McFadden was on maternity leave. This year she's back in the Ballet Chorus (and an understudy for Meg).

As part of the Broadway cast, Klein helped make theater history on January 9 when Phantom played its 7,486th performance and surpassed Cats as Broadway's endurance champ. She and her fellow ballerinas performed a special dance (choreographed by Phantom's original choreographer, Gillian Lynne) as part of the "third act" created for the evening, which also featured appearances by producer Cameron Mackintosh, director Harold Prince, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, many original cast members and those who have played the Phantom and Christine over the years, as well as a performer in a cat costume bowing to the current Phantom, Howard McGillin. Everyone joined in to sing "Masquerade," with lyrics written just for the occasion. "It was incredible to hear 150 voices up on that stage and know that everybody at some point had stood on that stage and performed in Phantom," says a still-giddy Klein, who has also performed in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and City Center Encores!

Most of her adult life has been occupied with Phantom, and most of her life since toddlerhood has been occupied with dance. She started with Mommy & Me gymnastics and was dancing on her own around age 4. She had a friend who performed in pageants. "I saw her and I was like, 'Oh, I want to do that!'" Klein recalls. "From the age of 5, 6, I wanted to be on stage—dancing, singing, whatever. I loved to perform."

Voice lessons began at 8, and from the age of 10 on, she spent her summer vacations at youth programs run by such companies as Boston Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. She twice won Dance Masters of America's Junior Miss Dance for the Pacific Northwest and competed for the national title. Used to being away from home for summer dance training, she decided to do so full-time for her last two years of high school. Her family was then living—as they still do—in Vancouver, Wash. (just across the border from Portland, Ore.).

"It came to the point where I was kind of already at the top in Vancouver. I knew that if I wanted to go further, I needed to be around other kids that have the same motivation and goals to become a professional dancer," Klein says. So when she was 16, she moved cross-country on her own to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts for her junior and senior years. Upon graduating, she was accepted into Nashville Ballet.

Before Klein started traveling for dance, she had moved around with her family. She was born in San Jose, Calif., but the family moved to Phoenix while she was a baby. When she was 7, they relocated to the Northwest, first to Salem, Ore., and then Vancouver. It was her father's job with M&M/Mars that had prompted the moves, though by the time she was at North Carolina her father was selling hearing aids. One day, while chatting with a new client who had been an opera singer, he told her about his daughter the dancer/singer. The customer was Ellen Faul, who had taught Sarah Brightman, the original Christine in Phantom. The next time Kara was home on a school break, she went to meet Faul and sang for her. Impressed, Faul told her to contact the voice teacher Joyce Hall if she ever went to New York.

And she did, when she was in New York during her senior year to audition for ballet companies. Afterward, Hall told Klein that as a young ballerina who sings, she'd be perfect for Phantom. Years earlier, Klein's mother had told her the same thing, but she didn't believe it. "When I was 14, I was in New York and I went to see Phantom with my mom," she explains. "I had no idea there were dancers in the show, and my mom was like, 'Look, Kara, you could do that.' I was like, 'Shut up, Mom! I'll never be able to do that.'" Klein had always enjoyed musical theater but thought a career in it was an impossible dream, and she hadn't participated in school plays because she was concentrating on ballet. "Every time I saw a musical when I was younger, I was like: I want to do this," she says. "I connected with it, but I never thought that I would make it there, that I was good enough to actually pursue it."

Her confidence and ambition were boosted by Hall's recommendation. Shortly before Christmas in 2000, while she was dancing in The Nutcracker in Nashville, Klein saw a casting notice for Phantom of the Opera in Backstage. Instead of going straight home to her family for the holiday break, she went to New York to audition. The following month, she quit the ballet and went on tour with Phantom, with her debut performance at Boston's Wang Center. She was at least 10 years younger than every other person in the Ballet Chorus.

"I was so young, and I didn't know anything about the musical theater industry or Broadway," says Klein. "When I went on tour, that was pretty much my education. I took everything in and pretty much learned from everybody." She says Tregony Shepherd, who played the Wardrobe Mistress on the tour, was especially helpful, coaching her on how to prepare for auditions, among other things.

While Klein may have felt intimidated as a teenager on a national tour, the touring conditions could at least help her relax. The show didn't pull up stakes every week, as some tours do, but stayed four to six weeks in a city. She had time to enjoy the destinations, like going to the horse races when the tour was in Louisville and whitewater rafting at Lake Tahoe during the Sacramento run. Klein says Phantom is known as "the Cadillac of tours, because it was kind of luxurious" in terms of the schedule and facilities provided. She also made herself more comfortable by eschewing traditional accommodations. "I stayed in a lot of bed-and-breakfasts because it was more homey, and being so young it was kind of hard to be in a hotel room or apartment."

She was on the tour for two and a half years, dancing in the ensemble and understudying Meg. The first time she went on as Meg was the first time she'd ever acted—as opposed to just sang or danced—for an audience. "It was frightening, but it was fun," she says. Still, by mid-2003, "I felt I had stopped growing. It was very hard to take classes, and I had never been to New York to do the audition scene."

Her first success on that scene was with Radio City Music Hall Productions. She did the Christmas show in New York in 2003 and in Denver the following year. In 2004, she also played a villager and "Be Our Guest" napkin in Beauty and the Beast at Massachusetts' North Shore Music Theatre and one of the teens in Bye Bye Birdie at Encores! She had a solo in that show—well, a trio: She was one of two girls cheered up by dancing with Albert (Daniel Jenkins) to "Put on a Happy Face."

Just as she had joined the Phantom tour not knowing anyone, she had to start from scratch socially when she moved to New York. One place to which she turned was "I was really skeptical of the Internet thing, but I heard people say, 'No, no, it's the new way to meet people,'" she says. "So I put up my profile—I was like, I'm not going to pay for anything; if somebody wants to write me, that's fine." She was contacted by a law student named Michael—"I had seen his picture and thought he was cute"—who used to work in theater, as assistant company manager of Les Misérables and for general manager Alan Wasser's firm. "We ended up knowing a lot of the same people, which made me feel more comfortable," she says. They met in September 2003, got engaged on the first anniversary of that meeting, and will be wed on August 20 this year. Her maid of honor is Julie Hanson, who played Christine and was Klein's roommate (and the castmate closest in age) on the Phantom tour.

Klein has no regrets about switching from ballet to theater, though when the holidays roll around, she does miss doing The Nutcracker since it had become a regular part of her life. She was in it every December from the time she was 8 through her brief tenure with Nashville Ballet (other ballets she was in there include Dracula, Peter and the Wolf and Serenade). And though being in a ballet troupe meant dancing a varied repertoire as opposed the same show every night working in theater, the day-to-day schedule was more of a grind: "You're in your pointe shoes just dancing all day." The pay's much better on Broadway, she adds.

Last year Klein had three regional theater gigs lined up when she was called in for Phantom's Broadway company. She gave up the roles of Louise in Carousel at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, Zaneeta in The Music Man at Atlanta's Theater of the Stars, and a student in Fame at North Shore to join Phantom on its homestretch into the record books. Between her upcoming marriage and the apartment in Weehawken, N.J., that she just purchased three months ago, Klein seems about ready to abandon the itinerant dancing life and keep her career in New York.

One job here that she fervidly pursued eluded her when Movin' Out closed on Broadway in December. The bookless Twyla Tharp production, which Klein calls "my dream show," employed mostly ballet dancers (it's still touring). She's had about half a dozen callbacks for it. But she did get another job last year: ballet dancing in an American Express commercial that aired during the U.S. Open (and was filmed on the Brooklyn Bridge at 4 in the morning). The ad campaign revolved around Andy Roddick's "mojo"—i.e., activities he'd pay for with AmEx—but unfortunately had to be yanked from the air early after Roddick lost in the first round.

Middle photo: Kara, center, dances the "Hannibal" ballet in Phantom; bottom photo: Kara, right, playing Meg Giry, with Sandra Joseph as Christine. [Phantom photos by Joan Marcus] 

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