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Men Behind the Mask - Kevin Gray, Cris Groenendaal, Davis Gaines & Howard McGillin

As Phantom of the Opera prepares to roll into the history books on Monday night, January 9, 2006 as the longest running show of all time, BroadwayWorld checked in with some of the many men behind the mask. Phantom alumni Kevin Gray, Cris Groenendaal, and Davis Gaines, along with Broadway's current Phantom Howard McGillin each shared their experiences of donning the mask.

Cris Groenendaal, who took on the role of the Phantom on March 20, 1989 began his journey with the show by originating the role of manager Monsieur Andre, and understudying the role of Raoul on Broadway.

"I went through the basic audition process to win the role of Andre, which was a great experience. I'd been playing that role, along with understudying Raoul, for a year and three months. Michael Crawford had left the show then, and had been replaced by Timothy Nolen and they were beginning to look for someone to replace him. I had auditioned for Michael's replacement, prior to that, and they had me learn the role making me one of the official covers. After my first performance as a cover, they offered me the chance to replace Timothy and of course I jumped at it." Having been part of the show for 15 months already, Cris knew that he was somewhere special. "It was extraordinary, and you knew that it was a hit every time that you went out there. Being in the show provided security in a business where there is none, and extraordinary hype like I've never experienced. I remember Hal Prince saying that too, back when we were in previews, to 'just concentrate on the moment to moment work, because you can kind of let the show get away from you if you don't. Just concentrate on what you're doing, and what you need to be doing for the show, because that's what's important.' That was great advice, and helped us all stay grounded despite the insanity that was going on around us."

For this actor, the success of the show wasn't a surprise. "Even before I left, which was after 2 years and 3 months, I had predicted that it was going to be the longest running show in history. It's got a great story, a classic love triangle, really great music, and the direction and the design elements are just absolutely extraordinary. What's always excited me about the show is the cinematic, seamless direction. You can't believe that they're capable of doing what they do and it takes your breath away. It's also an intriguing story, which is beautifully told in every way shape and form. I think that Americans especially love the underdog, which the Phantom is a classic example of. Even though he's all powerful, he's kind of sad and pathetic at the same time. At the core of him is this love, but he's also killing people. I think that people are in a sense of still rooting for him at the end, because they've taken the journey with him. You need to keep them on that journey that the character takes in order to keep them with you. I can't wait for the 9th!" Groenendaal's days under the Phantom umbrella aren't over either, as he's currently involved with a concert series that's been playing across the United States entitled "The Three Phantoms." Along with Kevin Gray, and Craig Schulman (with Mark Jacoby, and Ted Keegan taking turns as well over the years), they've been playing symphonies the world over. Next up are dates in Hawaii in Late January. Click here for more information on the upcoming concerts.

Kevin Gray donned the Phantom's mask on December 3, 1990 after previously joining the company and making his Broadway debut as Raoul, replacing Steve Barton. He played that role for six months, and then took over as The Phantom, replacing Steve Barton then as well. This made Kevin the second actor to play both roles, and he later played the title role on tour.

"I first went out for the role of the Phantom," explains Kevin, "and I auditioned out in Los Angeles for Hal (Prince) and a bunch of others, and basically they told my agent that they liked me, but that I was too young. Being very pro-active, my agent had also suggested for me to play Raoul, as well, but I wasn't what they were looking for. At the time, they envisioned Raoul as having to be played by 'fair-haired' Steve Barton types, who naturally I looked nothing like!" Fast forward in time, and now back in New York, Kevin again got the call to come in and to audition for the show. "I was back in New York and absolutely miserable, I had taken a show that I shouldn't have, gotten fired from it, and basically considered myself to be done in the business. I went out, and I bought a one way ticket to San Francisco, and started planning on joining up with an opera company out there. Just as I was packing, and planning my new life, my agent called me and said – they want you to come in and audition for Raoul in New York, and I thought 'no, no, I can't, I can't, I'm going to San Francisco, we've been through this already, I'm not what they're looking for.' He convinced me to do it though, and the audition turned out to be scheduled for the day before I was set to leave town. I walked up 44th Street to the Majestic Theatre where they were being held, and when I got there everyone was in the street. It was a couple of hours before show time, Cris Groenendaal who was playing the Phantom at the time was out there in half his Phantom make-up. I also recognized a bunch of other actors, many with 'bigger names' than me who were clearly there to audition as well. They told us that a steam pipe had burst, and that they had to cancel the auditions. I told them I didn't think I could make it, because I was set to leave town, etc. and they said to do what I needed to do. I went back and told my agent who convinced me that I was crazy, that he had a good feeling about it to stay and audition. I postponed my trip – went in, and they liked me, and wanted me again to go in to audition for Hal Prince. I went and auditioned in Hal's office, along with the then Christine cover, and after I sang, he said "Well, that was an intelligent reading," which I thought was the kiss of death. After I left, I found out that he hadn't said anything to any of the other actors. Thinking that was hopeful, I called my agent to check in from a payphone, and he said 'are you alone?' And I said no, I'm at a payphone…' he said 'ok, do you promise not to scream?' I said 'yes…' He said 'they want you for Raoul, you're coming to Broadway!' I screamed!"

 Gray followed up his time in Phantom with Kiss of the Spiderwoman, also for Hal Prince, and then after that, wound up called back in to play The Phantom. "The most memorable experience that I had playing the Phantom came early on, when I was up in the angel, where you're crammed in at the end of Act 1, before they lower you down for the All I Ask of You Reprise. You're really sitting in a crouching position so no one can see you, but you're able to see out a little bit through the cracks in the set. It was one of my first performances, and I had family out there, and I just looked out at the full audience, and that's when it hit me, that I was The Phantom on Broadway!"

Kevin gave his take on the $3.5 billion question on the show's success with his own views on its longevity. "I think that the show's success is tied to a lot of things, first of all that it's a great, great romantic musical. Also, it's one of only a very few shows where the costume designer, also did the sets, and that's the brilliance of Maria Bjornson. She created such a wonderful and such a brilliant design for the show from top to bottom which gives the show its perfect work. Of course credit also goes to Hal Prince, who is simply a legend and for good reason. Andrew's score is amazing and memorable as well. Put that all together, and that's why audiences keep coming back. I also think that people are able to identify with the character of the Phantom, because everyone has parts of themselves that they don't like, or don't think are attractive. They identify, in some way with this underdog character that feels the same way. It's a character whose parents shunned him, and told him that he should never show his face, and people can identify with that. It's also a great actor's role because we're so used to rejection!"

Davis Gaines was originally cast as Raoul in the New York production of the show, and later played the title role in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and in New York where he made his debut on July 4, 1994. He played the role for more than 2,000 performances, 800 of which were in the Broadway production.

"At the time, Kevin Gray was playing Raoul on Broadway, and Hal Prince pulled him out of the show for a few months to be in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, and I remember Hal calling and saying that I'd like you to come in and replace Kevin for four months… I went in and sang for Cameron Mackintosh, performing All I Ask of You for him, and got the job right there at the audition. That started my whole Phantom experience, where I went in for Kevin for 4 months, and it was a great experience. The night that I opened as Raoul, Steve Barton opened as the Phantom, who was the first to do both roles, and we both went in that night. Just as Kevin was coming back to the show, I unfortunately broke my ankle on my jump off the bridge in the show. Soon after that, my ankle was fixed, and Hal asked if I would come in to audition for the Phantom. He was up in Toronto at the time, putting together the Canadian tour, so I had to fly there. I remember that I went on second, and when I finished, they came up on stage and asked if I'd like to do the show in LA. I of course said yes, and replaced Michael Crawford out there when he left for the final time."

Gaines wasn't done with the show after LA, later moving to San Francisco and then finally to Broadway with it. "After playing the role out there for a while, Hal called again and invited me to New York to show everyone what I'd been doing the past 3 years, so I said 'sure ok, I'll do that.' For some, playing a role for more than 2,000 performances can get old, but for Gaines, it never went stale. "I loved trying to figure the Phantom out, going deeper into the psyche of this man, and to try to make it clear to the audience what his motivations were. He was a very sad, disturbed character that was sympathetic in a lot of ways. My performances changed constantly, and I was growing I think, and getting clearer as I continued to play him. It was always an evolving experience, and it was a great experience as an actor to keep finding new fresh stuff to make it different. That's what kept it interesting to me."

Playing the role for more than 2,000 performances also gives Gaines a unique perspective on why the show is successful. "I was always asked that question, and I think that it's because of the story. I think that because everyone has loved someone that hasn't loved them back, I think that people feel sorry for that guy, and then the story sucks them in. It was, and is amazing to look at, and ahead of its time – with costumes, and the spectacle and this and that, but I think that people that come back more and more, are coming back for the emotional experience. I also think that the chemistry of the 3 roles is very important to make it work. It's not a cookie-cutter show, and it does make a difference for whoever plays those roles. Hal was very instrumental to allow other Phantoms to bring what they could to the role, and I remember that I would do something that wasn't in the blocking before, and Hal would say – 'I hadn't seen it before, but keep it in…'" Phantom's opened many doors for Gaines, who is now based out of LA and is currently on tour through February with 'Broadway on Ice' along with Dorothy Hamill. After that, Gaines notes he'd jump at an opportunity to come back to Broadway.

Broadway's current leading man is Howard McGillin, who holds the record for playing the title role more time than any other actor in the Broadway production. With that number standing at over 1,400 performances, he was specially selected by the show's creative team to be the man behind the mask for the record-breaking performance. That's not an honor he takes lightly.

"I first became involved with the show through Hal Prince. I'd done Kiss of the Spider Woman with him, and he asked me to come in for Phantom. I went in, and got the role!" McGillin played the role first taking over in August of 1999, taking over for Hugh Panaro. After Panaro returned to the role, McGillin then replaced him again on October 3, 2005. The decision to come back was an easy one to make "I thought that it was an exciting time to come back, because I would be making Broadway history, and who doesn't want a chance to do that? My first time in the show I loved doing it, mainly because the role is so great. There aren't a lot of roles out there like this one for 'leading men' types these days that give you all the opportunities that this role gives you. I never got tired of doing it the first time, and when they asked me to come back, I agreed right away."

McGillin notes that as the show's January 9th milestone approaches, audiences are reacting the same as always to the show, including it's often tear-inducing ending. "There's no real audience changes as far as I can see with regards to recognizing the show's length, which is a good thing as far as I'm concerned. The biggest changes have been backstage, where there's a lot of excitement. It feels like the show is getting ready to open again, with January 9, 2006 being our opening night, not our record breaking performance. As the time grows closer, we've been having a lot of work going on behind the scenes from the top on down. The show has been getting a major spruce up, with new costumes, more rehearsals, and just a general feeling that something very special is coming up. Of course we're all very excited, and full of anticipation for the gala that's coming up as well."

Along with the excitement is of course a bit of pressure as well knowing that the invitation-only audience will feature the show's entire creative team as well as many, many alumni of the production. "I think that everyone is feeling some pressure about it, because as the show goes into the history books we all know what eyes are going to be on the performance. We haven't been told yet what's happening after the show, so all that I can say is that Gillian Lynne will be back in to stage it, and that it's going to be a very special moment."

McGillin is in as good a position as anyone to judge why the show's had its longevity and success, and why he has as well in the title role. "I don't know about the longevity of it really, that credit goes to the fact that at the end of the day it's just a great show that audiences can connect to. I feel a deep connection with the character myself, and a very strong transformation occurs for me when I play this part. I feel a real kind of 'actor connection' with it, I guess that to the extent which any actor brings his own stuff, I've done it here as well. Beyond it for the success of the show - I wouldn't guess. I think that the elements of the show all somehow come together to make it such a magical experience, and such a magical success. You can't beat the gorgeous melody, fantastic stunning spectacle that's up there on the stage, and I think that people really identify with the Phantom as quiet torture. We all have aspects of our own struggles, and our own pain, which I think people see in the character as well. I do think that there's a strong sympathy that we all feel for this guy, which is extraordinary because he's the villain that tortures people, kills people and almost ruins the love story of these two young people, but we have to find him compelling, and to empathize with him. That's what makes it such a special, and unique character."

Since its Broadway debut on January 26, 1988, The Phantom of the Opera has grossed nearly $600 million, making it the highest-grossing show in Broadway history; and total Broadway attendance is at approximately 11 million. The show celebrates its success as it becomes the longest running show of all time on January 9, 2006 at the Majestic Theatre.

For more information, and to purchase tickets – click here.

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