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BWW Interview: Jacquelynne Fontaine of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at Orpheum

I am personally excited to see the spectacular new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA coming to Omaha this week! Hailed by critics as "bigger and better than ever," Laurence Connor's re-imagination of the longest-running production on Broadway is drawing superlatives: "stunning!" "spectacular!" "brilliant!" "majestic!" and "beautiful!" Because of all the references to beauty, I called Jacquelynne Fontaine, who plays Carlotta, and happens to be a former beauty title holder.

You were Miss California 2006 and Top Ten for Miss American 2007. When did you first compete in a beauty pageant?

I always wanted to be Miss America. I watched it growing up and I had a little coloring book. I think when I was a junior in college, I told my mother, "Mom, I think I want to do this." So we went to a local pageant and watched it. The girl that was giving up her title---she's actually my agent now in Los Angeles---is just a wonderful woman, incredibly talented, so warm, so lovely. And I said, "You know, I think I can do this." So, when I was a senior in college, that's when I did it. My mom was Miss Fresno, so I knew about pageants. She had a really nice time doing it, so she encouraged me.

What is more difficult: winning a pageant or winning a role on Broadway?

I would have to say winning a pageant. My interviews for the local and state competitions were difficult, but also very loving. They allowed my personality to shine. At Miss America, we had former Miss America Susan Powell and others who were just lovely people, but we also had Chris Matthews who basically did MSNBC hard ball with us. So that was a little bit difficult. I also had the flu. And I was telling myself, "Why is this so hard?" I think doing pageants helped prepare me for auditioning for Broadway shows. Once you're on stage at Miss America, you tell yourself, "I can do this." A funny little game I play with myself... At the time I wasn't so much Broadway oriented; I was opera oriented. When I went out for Miss America I said, "You know what? I'm not afraid right now because next year I'm going to audition for the Metropolitan Opera and THAT is what will scare me." The next year when I did the Metropolitan: "Nope! I'm not scared at all. I did Miss America. I'm okay." You play little mind games.

You play Carlotta in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. She is not what you would typically consider a beautiful, winning person, so how do you use your experience as a beauty pageant title-holder to play this character?

What's great about this new production directed by Laurence Connor (He directed the new SCHOOL OF ROCK on Broadway, and the new LES MISERABLES on Broadway: He's a genius!) is that Cameron Macintosh wanted a fresh take on PHANTOM. So, instead of the archetype characters the original had, he wanted it to be a more three-dimensional. The lines were a little bit blurred. Carlotta (I'm hoping it's true!) isn't just this ugly character--like "Thank goodness, she's off the stage!" She really is someone who is in the prime of her career. She's worked hard to get where she is. It's not so much that she's untalented or not worthy of being where she is-- it's just that the Phantom is in love with Christine and holds the opera house hostage because of her. Carlotta is talented and has great potential. It's more so the love story because Phantom connects with Christine as a broken person.

Is your intent to make Carlotta more likeable?

Umm...I think more relatable. You can't change her. She still has her demon fits. The way that we do it is a little bit more understandable. Her beginning exit speech when she has to leave the stage and they have to put Christine on, it really is "What have you done? You haven't done anything for three years and people are getting hurt and you're blaming a ghost. I'm throwing a fit and leaving." Actually, of course I'd absolutely love to play Christine, but Carlotta has so much sass. After going through the pageant system you learn how to stand on your own, have an independent spirit and really speak your mind. What the Miss America organization promotes are strong, independent thinkers. So the fact that Carlotta is that and she gets to wear the best costumes in the show, that's a plus! Several of my costumes weigh about forty pounds. So I really use all that pageant training, elegance, and presentation, you know, commanding the stage that I learned through pageantry. It makes Carlotta bigger, so the costumes don't wear her.

What's different about this production? I hear it shows more of the Phantom on stage.

It's more so for the super-fans that watch closely. The original is brilliant. It is more fantastical. It's more magical. The candelabras rise beautifully from the fog. Somehow the Phantom transports himself all the way across the stage. In this production you see more the practicality of it. The Phantom pulls a lever and stairs emerge. His lair is not a gothic magical place; it's beautifully designed with props stolen from the opera house. You can see him dressed as a stagehand crossing behind. You can see how he infiltrates the opera. You can see his darkness and then how he's redeemed. The music is gorgeous. The set, the technology, the pyrotechnics are really something beautiful. I'm really proud of this production.

Have you done a tour before?

I did a short tour in Italy. We did the Magic Flute. Our home base was about 40 minutes north of Rome. We just traveled around. We'd perform that day, then get on the bus and then go somewhere else. That was really fun. We went to the Roman baths, little towns, castles, town squares... It was really special. I got to audition in all of these opera houses! Holy smokes! So beautiful!

Would you be more interested in doing opera or musical theater?

Gosh, that's a good question. I think I've been bitten by the musical theater bug. I love it. I've gotten a little spoiled doing THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, so I will definitely keep auditioning for theater. I'll throw my hat into the ring for television. I'll definitely keep singing, keep giving concerts-- orchestra concerts. If I could have it all, I would. I love teaching too. I teach a bunch of the cast and even some of the crew on tour. That's my joy. And I'm taking violin lessons!

Anything you'd like to say to your audience?

One of the great things I learned is that you're not competing against anyone else. It sounds trite, but it's really true. You aim to do your best and to have the best experience possible, and to really give back as much as you can. If you always approach it...whether it's pageantry or a career in musical theater...with "how can I serve" rather than I'm better than them, or they're better than me, you'll always be happy. You'll always direct yourself to the correct place where you're needed. It's a tough career. You've got to do a lot of soul-searching.

Photo credit: Chris Carroll

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From This Author Christine Swerczek