BWW Interview: Franc D'Ambrosio
Just imagine playing the same role for more than 2,300 performances. For most people, doing the same job over and over would eat their brain, but Franc D'Ambrosio, "The Iron Man of the Mask" manages to make every performance fresh. He held the distinction as the "World's Longest Running Phantom" for more than a decade, with more performances under his belt than Michael Douglas and Davis Gaines.
That's a daunting task that requires patience, energy and commitment of biblical proportions. BroadwayWorld had to find out what makes Franc D'Ambrosio stand apart from other Broadway singers.
D'Ambrosio's exceptional talent is another stratosphere. Francis Ford Coppola had sent five talent scouts on a two year search to find the person who would play Anthony Vito Corleone, the opera singing son of Al Pacino's character, in the film, The Godfather: Part III. Coppola required "a singer who can act and an actor who can sing," recalls D'Ambrosio. That talent scout found the perfect candidate in D'Ambrosio, who was then performing in the chorus of the first revival of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. He was also a standby for the roles of Anthony, Tobias and Pirelli. For the Coppola film, he was competing with about 2,000 performers around the world for the role of Anthony Vito Corleone. Two screen tests and 10 auditions later, the role was his.
"Taking on those three roles in one show was the most challenging thing," he remembers, because he sang the characters with different voices and different accents. It gave him a "newfound respect" for understudies, he said.
Pure luck was hardly a factor in D'Ambrosio's success. He worked hard then and he doesn't rest on his laurels now. He studied singing at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. He was an opera major and a dance minor. He also studied under the Hartford Ballet School. At one time he found he was putting in more time and energy into dancing than into studying music. "You have to get to the point where you have to at least sign up with the singers who dance during an audition....You have to be the best singer who can dance pretty well. Or the best dancer who can sing." This is because of the various times of auditions when people are called by their talent or labels. "You can actually hold your own in the worst case scenario." D'Ambrosio also studied acting with William Esper, who teaches the Meisner technique. He believes that reading Carl Jung and all the psychiatrists can help an actor. "Ultimately we are always looking to where the character is coming from. Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances and how one finds the way to do that is a large part of their technique."
Although still a full-time performer, D'Ambrosio is the co-founder and chairman of the board of the Accademia Vocale Lorenzo Malfatti di Lucca, where he gives master classes during the summer. He studied with the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti and worked with Eileen Farrell. He says, "I think that much of all singing is rooted in classical technique.
"You can get through the first six months of your Broadway show on fear alone," he says, "on the currency of youth. Later you get tired. Or a cold. You have to know how to sing on your worst day. Everyone can do it on your best day." This is something he teaches in master classes, which he loves to teach. It's something performers would otherwise learn on their own. "Three Phantoms are ready to jump into my shoes or mask at any given time," he notes. Talk about pressure. He has always taken voice lessons and worked closely with vocal coaches to avoid compromising his vocal health. "You have to stay above vocal bench line, so above that you're always healthy," he advises.
For his role in Phantom of the Opera, D'Ambrosio "dived completely into the back story of the Phantom. I knew the lullaby that his mother sang. There was never a moment where I wasn't revealing something to somebody that they didn't know. I never told anyone my back story.
"Acting has to be an intimate experience. Intimacy is growing, revealing and discovering yourself in the presence of another individual. So for me I had such a back story that I was always communicating... discovering who Eric was on a nightly basis. There was never a point where I could get Christine to not understand. I just loved the craft of musical theatre acting and opera."
Currently, D'Ambrosio is touring in "The Phantom Unmasked - The Songs of Broadway." What makes this concert different from other concerts with show tunes? It's not a cabaret-style show in any shape or form. It is a one-man, two-act show created by writer-director Abe Reybold and music arranger John Boswell. There is a story line that is fast paced and humorous. D'Ambrosio does about 90 concerts a year, and works very hard at giving "the audience the experience they want. Once we get on stage, it's not just about us anymore. It's about giving the audience the best performance you can." That means spending an immense amount of time at the venue and working as closely as possible with the sound person and being as patient as possible. They may have to move speakers all around, shut some off, turn on others. "Anyone with a set of ears has an opinion," he says, so the performer has to be incredibly flexible. "Every time I go into a new theatre," he explains, "I ask the sound person to come on stage with me so they hear what I sound like unplugged." He asks the sound person if he is familiar with the house sound, and how much absorption the performer gets when people come in. How do the acoustics change? He spends time with the on-stage monitors to learn what becomes an issue and address it before the performance.
D'Ambrosio is taking a short detour from his Performing Art Center touring schedule by being the Grand Marshal of the Columbus Day Parade in San Francisco. Then it's down to Saõ Paulo to perform his one-man show for Brazilian television. After that, he will perform in Stamford, Connecticut in "The Phantom Unmasked - The Songs of Broadway." The concert will take place at Temple Beth El Stamford, 350 Roxbury Road on Sunday, October 18 at 7:00 pm. Cantor Magda Fishman, a mezzo-soprano and performer of Israeli music, will make a guest appearance. General admission tickets are $50. Reserved seating is $75. Student tickets are $36. Seating is limited. Tickets are available at http://tinyurl.com/tbebroadway. To learn more about these unique artists, visit www.francdambrosio.com, www.cantormagda.com and www.shorashimmusic.com.