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BWW Interview: Chris Mann Aligns the Stars with 'Constellation'

Watchers of The Voice will certainly recognize Chris Mann; his run through Season 2, not to mention the show-stopping duet of "The Prayer" with Christina Aguilera is merely one facet of a professional who turns his vocal skill to projects with almost deceptive ease.

Chris Mann (photo credit: TheEmmaExperience)

Currently, Mann is touring with an updated Phantom of the Opera, under the direction of Laurence Connor. "The show is magnificent and enormous," Mann says, "and just really fun to get to perform this character and the interpretation of show people have loved for thirty years."

While Andrew Lloyd Webber's score and storyline remain the same, Connor's direction "takes the toy out of the box, so to speak," Mann explains. The changes lead to "making it more reality-based. It's a scarier, more explosive version and from the love trio, it's a more realistic interpretation."

This included making Mann's Phantom about twenty years younger, so he is the same age as Christine and Raoul. "It forces Christine to choose between two men instead of her father and a boy. Being part of this show has been just the most amazing experience to grow as a performer, actor, and singer."

Katie Travis as Christine, with Chris Mann in Phantom of the Opera (photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Mann has taken another step forward as a singer with the release of Constellation, his new recording. As with Phantom, The Voice, and the PBS special A Mann for All Seasons the classically-trained singer now focuses on an area as important to Mann, if not more.

"I've always been a songwriter," he says, "and that's the side of my career that hasn't been too featured. I was signed to Sony a long time ago, and I made an original record, and it never came out. It's very important to be that I be able to share songs that I have written and loved in the past."

Constellation does not fit nicely into a box; there's no way to call this a pop, easy listening or show tunes album. The arrangements are dense, with minimal compression and in the pocket, so Mann's voice, but also his lyrics take charge.

The kickoff track, "North Star" sounds like a song that would fit on the Broadway as well as concert stage. Likewise "Echo," with its ethereal quality in both production and Mann's vocal attack. "Rain Like This" has a meter that immediately reminds of modern pop or Nashville country, but that identification goes away as fast. "These are some of the songs I've written over the past ten years," Mann says, "and each of them to me is a star that represents a part of me, and together they're a constellation."

"'Comeback" is definitely a story song," he says, "right out of my pages. As someone's who's been in the business twelve years, being on two labels, off two labels...it's an uphill battle, there's highs and lows, but you have to keep getting back up. So that's a very personal song."

There's also a variation on "Music of the Night," offered as a bonus track. "We did a somewhat stripped down, more intimate production and the song explodes symphonically," Mann describes. "In the end, it's a version I'm really proud of and happy to pay homage to the show."

Another song is a mixture of a historically dark day, but also the personal clouds Mann has experienced. "'City on Fire," I wrote that right after 9/11," he says. "I had just lost someone in my family, and that feeling of isolation and loss. I think it's a very compelling story."

Mann's story begins in Wichita, Kansas, in a growing-up world of music. "I'm a big pop nerd," he admits, "I'm really a pop singer that sings classically. So I was huge on all the David Foster stuff, N'Sync, Backstreet Boys, but I was also a huge country music fan, that's really what I mostly listen to now.

"My grandfather played the Great American Songbook," Mann explains, "and that's how I was introduced to the Tony Bennetts, the Barbra Streisands, the Frank Sinatras, the Nat King Coles; that made a huge impact on me. I was able to work with Paul Anka on my last record, on "My Way," which was such a special experience.

Mann and The Voice eventually found one another, as did the millions who avidly watched the program, but not without the fight above. Trained in opera at Vanderbilt, Mann's road was one of the clubs, getting signed and later unceremoniously dumped. Eventually, the breakout recording Roads offered a rethinking of pop music.

And of The Voice? "It was not something I was expecting," Mann admits. "I'd auditioned for these shows before, and had no success. People ask me how to get on The Voice, and I tell them, it's like winning the lottery, the odds are so slim. I was presenting myself with my classical background, and I auditioned in Italian. I think they had no idea I was potentially going to win the whole thing."

For someone who has performed before huge audiences, none was like the show's audition, "which was the most terrifying experience of my life," he confesses. Just the pressure and bizarreness of it all. It's like being on the Grammys every week, they have full, giant productions that they custom for each artist, and working with Christina, to personally pick the songs and choose the direction and be able to perform before an audience of millions of people. The premier episode I was on had 36 million viewers; I mean you can't make that stuff up for yourself. It's so fortunate for the people who get to be on a show like that."

Mann's respect for the show and the experience it gave him is clear, as was working with Aguilera. "I learned a lot," he says. "One lesson I learned from her, in particular, was that she gives 100 percent, no matter what. Whether it's rehearsal or a live performance, it's the same Christina. In Phantom for example, if you're in a rehearsal you give 100 percent, there's no phoning it in, or marking.

"Our most special moment to me was when we did to "The Prayer," so we were able to count on each other and to rely on each other and really collaborate. She is a very private person, but ultimately is a wonderful artist and someone who really cares."

Mann is touring with Phantom through October, and will later promote Constellation. He will also do shows entitled, Golden in Concert, dedicated to the Great American Songbook and musical theater, done with symphonies in a cabaret setting.

Reassessing songs that might seem quaint, even stodgy to some and make them over, but also his own is what Chris Mann has done. No matter your preference for standards or contemporary songs (or especially his own), Mann takes up the challenge, and flat out delivers.

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