InDepth InterView Exclusive: Michael Crawford Talks THE WIZARD OF OZ, PHANTOM, Future Concerts & More!

By: Dec. 09, 2011
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If only for originating the title role in the longest-running and most successful musical in world history - THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - which is merely one of the many impossibly impressive moments in a fifty-year career that truly defies description - Michael Crawford is known and loved the world over. From the Broadway and West End stage to the concert stage; the recording studio to the movie studio; performing everywhere imaginable - he has conquered it all. In a resume-spanning conversation that takes us from Broadway to Hollywood and to the stage of the London Palladium where he is now starring as the eponymous WIZARD OF OZ in Andrew Lloyd Webber's new theatrical adaptation of the classic film, Crawford and I take a look back at his many notable stage roles - among them, BILLY, BARNUM, DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES and, most recently, Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE WOMAN IN WHITE - and he also generously shares stories and recollections of the esteemed figures he has collaborated with over the years, including Barbra Streisand, John Lennon, Oliver Reed, David Foster, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Sarah Brightman and many more! Additionally, Crawford offers his insightful opinions on the state of theatre today and how it has changed over the course of his decades spent in show business, as well as looks ahead to returning to the concert stage following his departure from THE WIZARD OF OZ in the West End in February. So, catch Crawford while you can - and your little dog, too!

A Good Nightmare Comes So Rarely

PC: Given that this is holiday time, I am curious if you consider "Not Too Far From Here" a Christmas song? I do.

MC: Oh, yes. Yes, I suppose I do - it's really for, I think, 12 months of the year. But, it's very apt at Christmas, yes.

PC: Are there any particular songs you enjoy singing from the vast Christmas catalogue?

MC: I think "O Holy Night" is my favorite.

PC: Of course.

MC: I recorded that with David Foster and he did such a wonderful job with it.

PC: Indeed.

MC: And, so, I think that one sticks in my mind as being the proudest one I did.

PC: Your recording of that song is truly unforgettable. Right off the bat, I wanted to wish you congratulations on your 2011 BroadwayWorld UK Award that you just won!

MC: Thank you! Thank you.

PC: It's a very exciting time in the theatre now, I think - due in no small part to GLEE. Are you seeing that with the young kids who come to see THE WIZARD OF OZ at the Palladium?

MC: Yes. There are an extraordinary amount of youngsters coming. One can tell - whenever there is not a familiarity with theatrical custom - so, when somebody of some stature comes on, there's usually a round of applause. And, I've noticed lately that I am not getting a round of applause at all! So, I'm either losing my stature... [Laughs.]... or, otherwise, it's getting a much younger audience. And, yes, it really is getting a younger audience in.

PC: New theatre fans.

MC: And, at the end, they are ecstatic! They are just so excited.

PC: How wonderful.

MC: Danielle Hope - who plays Dorothy - and I go out to the front of the Palladium on most nights to sign autographs for youngsters - children and little ones who come dressed as Dorothy and The Scarecrow and The Tin Man. And, it's just one of the most joyful parts of the job - going out and seeing these youngsters who will, hopefully, as we all do, experience something at the theatre and remember it for the rest of our lives.

PC: Was that not a main inspiration for you to take on the role of The Wizard in OZ - so that you could do a show your grandchildren could come and see you in while they were young?

MC: Yes. I hadn't worked for a little while, because, as you may have read, I wasn't too well.

PC: Of course.

MC: So, then, I thought that I wasn't really sure if I wanted to come back and do anything. And, then, this appeared, and, I thought, "It's the perfect time to, maybe, do something that my grandchildren can remember and might appreciate a little more than doing something that was too adult for them," - which the other things seemed to have been. But, it's surprising, because they are 14 - and, you've got 12-year-olds to 22-year-olds coming; great coach parties of them. And, that is unusual. That is very unusual for the theatre.

PC: With THE WIZARD OF OZ, these days it is readily available on DVD, but that is not the case for past generations.

MC: Yes.

PC: So, do you think young audiences want an even more sensory experience of it that this new stage version now provides?

MC: It's extraordinary the power that it has. It's hard to analyze the success of WIZARD OF OZ as a movie that has the staying power that it does today - because it is so childlike. And, yet, the morality of the piece is acceptable to youngsters - they are interested in that morality. The simplicity of someone saying, "You already have a heart," - they know he's got a heart because of his gentility through the piece. And, The Scarecrow's got a brain because of his thoughtfulness. So, the children already know, but it educates them - I think it does something for them, as well.

PC: I totally agree. It's a very instructive and magical piece.

MC: Yes. And, the most perfect casting of all time was Judy Garland.

PC: No doubt. The greatest.

MC: So, it was quite magical - all the casting of it. The Wizard. I mean, everyone was perfect in it - both of the witches; the voice of the Good Witch, Glinda. [Laughs.]

PC: Unmistakable!

MC: It still remains with me. That lovely sort of British, upright voice.

PC: What a perfect way to put it - "upright voice!"

MC: [Laughs.] And, they never forget The Wicked Witch.

PC: Never.

MC: They just grow up, still dreaming of it - I've got lots of friends who still say, "Oh, I'm still scared. I used to run under the stairs when the monkeys were on or if The Wicked Witch was on."

PC: That's totally true. The director David Lynch is a big fan and always speaks of it as being a perfect film. It's a perfect story, too, but, somehow, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have improved it in this new stage version.

MC: Yes. Yes. Between them - with Tim Rice - we were very fortunate with having such lovely additions.

PC: Sir Tim Rice did this column and spoke of how pleased and privileged he was by writing the new songs for you.

MC: Aww, how fine.

PC: We spoke a lot about "Wonders Of The World". Can you recount your initial impressions of the song when you first heard it? What did you think of the melody and the lyric?

MC: I loved the melody. And, Andrew sang it very lyrically and I thought, "Oh, how lovely this is." And, then, when I started to sing it myself and put character to it, it was one of the hardest songs I've ever - and do ever - sing! [Laughs.]

PC: That's hilarious. So, it's a little bit of a challenge to do every night?

MC: Oh, you're jumping octaves! You can't sing it with a lot of strength behind it because it is, in old-fashioned terms, a patter song.

PC: Yes.

MC: But, you are actually using Tim's very, very clever lyrics to show her all these wonderful things around the world - sights; and, some of the seven wonders of the world. And, then, adding that home is one of those special wonders, as well. You've got to act it - it has to be played rather than sung. So, it's a tricky combination...

PC: Indeed.

MC: ...and it's a real test on the voice.

PC: The new songs that have been written fill in the vicissitudes of the score and the story's themes - a Wagner-esque epic anthem for The Wicked Witch; your slightly-Sondheim-like patter song; a little pop gem. It's full now in a new way as an experience.

MC: Yes.

PC: Did you ever discuss having even more new material added to the score? Another song for you, perchance?

MC: Andrew spoke about it at the beginning. But, we didn't do it. He still thinks there should be another Wizard song at the end - but, I will be leaving in February, so I will miss that opportunity, alas. [Laughs.]

PC: Do you think it would work?

MC: I think he could do some sort of farewell. Or, when the awards are given - because I love that scene. I love actually giving him the heart, and, for the first time, there's a sort of silence in the theatre - which is rather nice - where they listen and they are engrossed by it. It's very touching, I find - giving a heart and giving courage to someone. And, giving a brain. [Laughs.] It's very touching.

PC: What do you think of the reality casting method used to find the Dorothys for this production - OVER THE RAINBOW? What do you think of reality competitions in general - like X FACTOR?

MC: Well, I think it's a gentler system or way of doing than is done by X FACTOR, for instance, or something like that. I am not a fan of that. And, I truly believe that we miss repertory theatre in England now - we don't have as much repertory theatre; where people have a grounding and a place to go to learn. I think it's going to be hard for Danielle - I mean, you couldn't have got and you couldn't have found two better girls than Danielle and Sophie. So, whatever they did on that show, it worked.

PC: Definitely.

MC: I was in New Zealand, so I didn't see it myself, but whatever they did, it worked - because they are both exceptional and delightful to work with. So, I am very grateful for the show.

PC: It was a fantastic series.

MC: When you see what happens to some of the singers that come out of some of these reality shows - I mean, they just can't handle what is happening, for one thing; and, they become, I think, very unhappy and very confused by the amount of success they get. If success is gradual, I think you've, by then, experienced a lot of failure, as well. You learn how to handle both things and you learn how to handle yourself. It's a very hurtful business, being in our business. It can be very hurtful.

PC: Without a doubt.

MC: It's very advantageous to be sensitive, in so many ways, with your work - and, yet, if you are sensitive, in reality, when you are criticized, it can annihilate you. It can destroy you. And, now, with the internet, there sometimes is a lot of harm, which I find must be very difficult for youngsters coming on - it can be very harsh; the criticism. And, sometimes, it can be a little cruel - which will make it hard for young performers coming on.

PC: You've experienced it yourself with shows you've done. How do you compare the experiences on PHANTOM and WOMAN IN WHITE - one being a huge hit and one less so, but both original roles in Andrew Lloyd Webber shows? How did the theatre change in those 15 years in your estimation?

MC: Well, I mean, the difference between doing PHANTOM and creating PHANTOM from the word go - making that blueprint which I saw 21 years later in New York for the first time. That's the first time I ever saw PHANTOM. Andrew insisted that I come along that evening to the Majestic and saw the 21st anniversary.

PC: What did you think of the show?

MC: I watched it and I was enthralled. I mean, the discipline that has been maintained from the word go is quite, quite extraordinary.

PC: Without question.

MC: Howard McGillin was delightful - I mean, it was a beautiful performance; touching and so true to the original that it was touching to me, personally, as well, I found. But, the discipline that the entire show had was, I guess... we found something in the beginning and they said, "Don't mess with it," and people have been true to it since. And, other things you see messed around with a great deal - but, anyway, that's aside. PHANTOM was the most memorable time of my career - to have done that and to have had that kind of success just lifted me off of my feet. I was... [Laughs.]... completely overwhelmed by it. And, then, you go back a few years later and do DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES and you are annihilated! [Laughs.]

PC: You can say that again.

MC: You don't know what's hit you! That was extremely painful, yes.

PC: I can only imagine.

MC: As anybody will testify. But, hopefully, most of us have had our successes and we've also had our failures, as well. So, you don't get through this career without making a few mistakes.

PC: It's clear to see the attraction to that material and those roles - all three shows you have done this decade have absolutely phenomenal music for your characters in them.

MC: Yes. They do. They do. That's what attracted me to DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES - the music. And, what I was doing was that I didn't want to be to close to the original and they allowed it to be changed to something that was a little more tongue-in-cheek, and, of course, that was not what was wanted by either the public or the fans of the show. [Pause.] So, our mistake, I suppose.

PC: I felt the show was much better in previews, especially your original Tom Jones-esque "Invitation To The Ball" with the back-up singers and Vegas finery. "The Devil May Care (But I Don't)", et cetera.

MC: Yes. Yes. [Laughs.]

PC: Did you ever record any of the material from the show with Jim Steinman?

MC: Yes, I did do a demo for Jim and then it was never heard.

PC: Did you do "Confessions Of A Vampire"?

MC: Yes, I did "Confessions" and I did my opening number.

PC: "Original Sin".

MC: "Original Sin" - yes.

PC: Did you ever record "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" with Mandy Gonzalez?

MC: No, I didn't. That's the one thing we didn't do - we didn't record that as far as I know. I don't remember doing that.

PC: And you did some post patch-in vocals for the "Red Boots Ballet", yes?

MC: Yes, we did some stuff in the studio for that. You have a better memory than I have! [Laughs.]

PC: The music of that show was absolutely incredible. Jim Steinman is a genius.

MC: Yes, it is - I fell in love with it when I first heard it. I remember that I was recording something for Atlantic Records and we were mixing it. I was in the studio and the fellow who was mixing it was the engineer who did DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES with Steve [Barton] originally.

PC: No way!

MC: He said, "Listen to this! What do you think of it?" And, I said, "Oh, my God! It's wonderful!" And, he said, "They're thinking of doing it in New York." And, I said, "Oh, I would love to do that - I would just love to do that." And, he got on to Jim immediately and that's how it all began - in a studio where we were mixing another record.

PC: What a roundabout way to get there.

MC: Yeah. Yeah.

PC: Do you feel that you want to record any material from the show in the future?

MC: Well, that's a thought, but, I don't suppose that I will now because maybe the years have gone on and maybe my voice... I've sung this patter song and I sing differently in this show than I ever have before. So, it's very hard to get the other voice back. It took me a long time. I used to love singing in concert - I loved it. I'm not sure that I have that stamina now - I'm just not sure. But, I'll try, once I finish this show, to take class everyday and work at it - I certainly will.

PC: Let's hope so.

MC: But, yes, I would like to record them, or, hear those demos again and see what they sounded like. They may be rubbish! [Big Laugh.]

PC: How have you seen the recording industry change in your career? It has virtually disintegrated in the last decade or so, has it not?

MC: Yes, it has. Since I've eased back from it because there is a certain age - if you don't have a high profile and I don't really go for a high profile, I sort of do the jobs I like to do and I don't really go out seeking attention unless I'm doing something, and, then, I have to seek attention because that is my job. But, my ambition is not and never was sort of wanting too much, I don't think - I just did things very slowly. So, I wasn't that affected. But, I noticed it starting to diminish - the record industry - and become something that was different. Computers have really come into their own in the last fifteen years...

PC: Unquestionably.

MC: Very powerful - and the downloading stuff and selling that way. It's not necessarily affecting my market, you know.

PC: Ken Russell just passed away and I was curious if he had a hand in the music video for "The Music Of The Night" with you and Sarah Brightman? He directed the title song video.

MC: Yes, he did. He did "The Music Of The Night" video.

PC: Thank you for confirming that. He is not credited for it for some reason as far as I can find.

MC: Yes. Yes, he did it.

PC: What was it like working with him?

MC: Well, as far as I remember, it was easy. I mean, he was very respectful. It was like recording "The Music Of The Night" with Barbra [Streisand] - she was incredibly respectful of the way it had gone before. So, she just said, "It's your song; you go first."

PC: How fascinating.

MC: And, then, I didn't have to sing around her - which would have been... [Laughs.]... it would have been rather a challenge for me! But, she just couldn't have been more kind or more generous. I mean, it's her song on her album, but, she said, "It's your song; you go first and I'll work around what you are doing."

PC: That arrangement is amazing.

MC: It's the same arranger who did my first albums, SONGS FROM THE STAGE & SCREEN and PHANTOM UNMASKED.

PC: I am assuming that Andrew Lloyd Webber approved of that arrangement - do you look back fondly at that recording? I would say it is the second most famous version of the song.

MC: I do. I do. I love it - yes. But, Ken Russell: he had so many candles - lit candles - on the stage at Her Majesty's that we had terrible trouble for days afterwards because we couldn't get rid of the wax! The dancers were in big trouble. [Laughs.]

PC: That's so funny.

MC: But, yes, we shot that video right after we opened in London.

PC: That's also funny you mention Ken Russell and candles because he is famous for burning down a huge auditorium during the filming of TOMMY by mistake.

MC: Oh, my gosh - wasn't that in Brighton?

PC: It very well could have been. I've always wondered what you thought of TOMMY?

MC: I saw it on Broadway, but I've never sung it - I don't think it would suit my voice at all - but, I loved it. I just loved it.

PC: Did you?

MC: Oh, yeah - I saw it on Broadway, when, I think, it was in previews.

PC: Your recording of "Gethsemane" from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is so stupendous, so I've always wanted to know your thoughts on TOMMY.

MC: TOMMY, I adored. I've never seen JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

PC: Well, now you have your chance.

MC: Now I have my chance! It's going to be on Broadway.

PC: It is.

MC: Oh, [Andrew Lloyd Webber]'s auditioning now, isn't he?

PC: I believe he is! Would you ever be interested in Pontius Pilate?

MC: No, I don't think so - I think he would want a younger man! [Laughs.]

PC: They have announced three different actors so far.

MC: Well, now it all has to be demographics, doesn't it? They've got to draw younger people to the theatre - which makes sense; it's a business.

PC: Do you have a lot of WICKED crossover fans coming to see THE WIZARD OF OZ?

MC: I have no idea. But, they advertise on the back of our program very craftily, so, that's a connection.

PC: Have you seen WICKED yourself?

MC: No, I haven't seen WICKED.

PC: I'd love to see you switch shows as The Wizard. That would be a first.

MC: Switch Wizards! [Laughs.] I will go and see it, because it is still running here, so, I will go and see it when I am finished.

PC: You famously starred in the film version of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, with songs by Stephen Sondheim, so I was curious if you got to work with him at all?

MC: I didn't meet him until we were in New York doing PHANTOM. I had supper with him one evening. It was most entertaining and enlightening. He was a charming man - a lovely man. A funny man - very, very funny. [Laughs.]

PC: So true!

MC: Caustic wit!

PC: Do you remember where you went?

MC: We went to Orso's.

PC: Right next to Joe Allen's!

MC: Oh, yes, I love Joe Allen's! That's where I used to go when we did BLACK COMEDY. I think it had an Irish name - it was an Irish place in those days.

PC: I always wanted to know: did you ever get to meet Michael Bennett?

MC: No, I didn't. I was in London doing BILLY and he was in New York doing A CHORUS LINE. I saw it many times - I saw it many times in New York and I saw it many times in London. I loved it. It was one of my favorite shows ever.

PC: Speaking of BILLY, what about your other famous title role - BARNUM? Neil Patrick Harris told me that is the role he wants to do next. Do you think the time is right for a revival?

MC: Yes. I mean, I think I'd love to see Hugh Jackman do it. It has to be someone very physically fit that could do it. I mean, I did it when I was 40 to 43, 44 - it ran for a long time here.

PC: And you brought it back to the West End, as well.

MC: Yes, we did two years at the Palladium and we did a year at the Victoria Palace.

PC: The video version is from the revival, yes?

MC: Yes. It is.

PC: What a fine preservation of the show.

MC: Oh, we're so lucky. I just wish beyond belief that we had that for PHANTOM.

PC: I was curious what you thought of Gerard Butler in the film version of PHANTOM?

MC: I didn't go - I didn't see the movie. It would have hurt too much. I was just so in love with what we did and what we created that I couldn't see it. [Laughs.]

PC: I would love to hear you sing the new songs written for the film someday, in any event.

MC: Oh, well, I've not heard them.

PC: I thought PHANTOM 25 was the theatrical event of the century so far - particularly since it was broadcast worldwide by Fathom. Were you totally thrilled with it?

MC: Yes, it was exciting - very, very exciting; very exciting to be there and very, very moving, as well.

PC: It was magnificent. Is it true that Sarah Brightman was not originally scheduled to sing?

MC: No - she wasn't. It really was a very special night.

PC: When Hal Prince did this column we discussed some of the elements of PHANTOM that did not make it past previews - do you remember doves at the end of "All I Ask Of You"?

MC: Oh, yes! He had lots of ideas. There were lots that went out the window - but, the doves went into the flies! [Laughs.]

PC: What a shame!

MC: They couldn't get them down again! So, we lost that. And, I had this idea that I would come down as the Red Death on stilts.

PC: Did you ever try it?

MC: [Big Laugh.] Yes, we did! We did try it. But, he just couldn't speak until I got all the way the bottom [of the stairs], and, then, he said, [Gruff Voice.] "Get those things off!" He remembered that the stilts had tiny little feet - he always mentions that. He's very funny, Hal.

PC: He's as sharp and perceptive as ever. Did you feel it was a privilege to work with a great man of the theatre like him?

MC: Oh, yes, I did. I did. He was great. He gave you freedom. And, yes, he was a great disciplinarian about, if you tried something too many times, [Gruff Voice.] "Just stick with it! Now, c'mon!" And, I liked his discipline and I liked the freedom that he gave. He allowed me, at least, to bring certain things out and then develop them, and, then, he could encourage. It was a great privilege working with him.

PC: Wasn't there a live white horse during the title song at one point?

MC: Oh, yes. I don't think I was too much a part of that - the white horse - but, yes, that is something I have forgotten all about!

PC: I'm glad I brought it up, then.

MC: Well, they would have fallen four flights if the horse had tripped! And Sarah would not have been pleased about that! [Laughs.]

PC: Definitely not.

MC: Nor would Andrew! [Laughs.]

PC: Even more so! We spoke of Ken Russell earlier and I wanted to know what it was like working with the star of many of his films - including TOMMY - Oliver Reed.

MC: We did a few films together. THE GAMES, with Michael Winner.

PC: Yes.

MC: And, THE JOKERS, with Michael Winner.

PC: THE JOKERS is a great movie.

MC: Yes, that is how I met him. I, first of all, said to Michael Winner, "We could never do that because I can't play his brother - we look nothing like each other! And, then, along comes Oliver to the theater where I was doing a show and he brought his brother with him - and he was my double!

PC: Unreal!

MC: [Laughs.] He looked just like me! I had no argument left, so Oliver and I worked together. I mean, he was just outrageous!

PC: I bet.

MC: I mean, he... I had very strict discipline about what I was doing and when I was on the set. And, then, in the evening I had to go back and work in the theatre in a show called THE ANNIVERSARY - it was the stage version of a movie that Bette Davis did. So, one day, he put vodka in my water - my sparkling water - and I didn't notice until I had drunk half the glass!

PC: Oh, no! How funny is that?

MC: So, I went back, fozzled for the rest of the afternoon!

PC: What a prankster!

MC: He would do terrible things. Then, we did CONDORMAN together, in which he got in terrible fights with people. [Laughs.] So, he was a character and three quarters.

PC: I've always heard he would just vomit right on the floor of pubs when he went out drinking.

MC: Oh, yes - he did! And, I was kind of shy - so, it didn't suit me at all, but, you know, I had to go along with him. [Laughs.] But, if you didn't go to the pub, then you would suffer far more than going to the pub... [Laughs.] so...

PC: Is it also true that you worked with John Lennon on a film and you actually lived in the same house with him?

MC: Yes, we shared a house together in southern Spain when we did HOW I WON THE WAR. So, we started off in Germany - shooting in Hamburg - and that's the first time that he ever had to have his hair cut off. From being a Beatle, he had to have the short back and sides. I remember how all the press were hanging around because The Beatles were at their peak and you were living with these guys in a house in Almeria.

PC: How incredible.

MC: George came out and stayed; Ringo came out and stayed; Paul came out and stayed - and, they were writing songs. John was writings songs with them.

PC: What do you remember them writing that you heard?

MC: Well, I thought it was "Strawberry Fields".

PC: Wow.

MC: Yeah. And, you know, they play things and then go at the end of it, "Eh. What do you think of that?" And, I said, "Oh, great, John - nothing wrong with that!" [Laughs.]

PC: Of course it's amazing!

MC: What do you say? What do you say? It's like Stephen Sondheim saying, "Tell me what you think of this."

PC: Exactly.

MC: You're not gonna say anything, but, "It's amazing!" are you? Because it usually is!

PC: "Strawberry Fields" to "A Day In The Life": I've always wanted to hear you sing that. Have you ever sung it?

MC: No. But, you know, I was asked to do that by a conductor for a thing with a load of people singing Beatles songs. And, it was their producer who asked for me to do it. But, I ended up not being able to do it.

PC: So, after you depart OZ in February, I hope we can look forward to some concerts in the next year or so? Perhaps a TV event?

MC: Yes. Yes. Hopefully. I would like to, but, of course it depends on whether I am up to it or not! [Laughs.]

PC: You have as many fans as ever and we can't wait to see what you do next! This was so sensational, Michael. Thank you so, so much.

MC: Thank you so much for your support, Pat. All right - thanks a lot for this. Happy Christmas. Bye.

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