BWW Interview: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA's Emma Grimsley

BWW Interview: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA's Emma Grimsley
Photo: Dylan Patrick

PHANTOM fans get excited, because the national tour of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is in New Orleans right now! That's right. Through March 25th you have the opportunity to get yourselves over to the Saenger Theatre and experience one of the most classic shows of all time. This year marks 30 years that the show has been on Broadway and what better way to celebrate than to go see the show in your own hometown?

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, with music by the one and only Andrew Lloyd Webber, tells the haunting tale of Christine Daaé and the opera ghost who is her completely infatuated voice teacher. The story is of course more complicated and more beautiful than that, but you'll have to see the show to find out the rest!

I was lucky enough to speak with Emma Grimsley, a NOLA girl at heart and fellow writer, who is both an understudy for Christine and an ensemble member of the current touring cast. Although she didn't originally set out to become a stage actor, she has fallen under the Phantom's spell and now enjoys performing eight shows a week on the road. Keep reading below to learn more about Emma's journey to the stage and what you can expect from this amazing and revitalized production of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA!

So I heard that you're a New Orleans girl!
I am! I will say I can't claim that the way that the really true New Orleaneans can because I wasn't raised there. My dad was born and raised there and his family lives there. I was born in New York and raised in Pennsylvania, although I travelled with them a lot because they're both performers as well. But, when I went to college I went to Loyola. I lived uptown for four years and when I graduated my parents moved there so now whenever I go home to visit them I go to New Orleans.

Is there anything you're looking forward to sharing with your castmates when you're here?
Oh my gosh, so sometimes when we go to someone's hometown on tour we will... so that person will post a quick list of things to do on our cast Facebook page. I went way over the top and posted a 3 page PDF of restaurants and activities. So yeah there's a bunch of stuff. One that I'm looking forward to is when I was in college at the end of every semester or usually at the end of every school year before I went home I would make sure to stop and get beignets as the last thing I did in the city before I left, so hopefully I'll get to do that with them before we go.

Tell me about your experience in school. Did you go to school for theatre?
I didn't, actually. How anybody knows who they are and what they want to do when they're 18 is beyond me. I picked Loyola because it was a Liberal Arts school and there were a lot of different paths to go. And, social justice is always important to me so that's a huge part of their curriculum. I showed up and just started taking classes in all the realms I was interested in, and by the end of my first year I declared and English major. That's what my degree is in. I have a degree in English with a concentration in writing, and a double minor in music and women's studies. I took some theatre classes while I was there. I did a summer at a drama school in London one year. I've kind of been collecting different versions of education. I wasn't ready to stop reading books and talking about them and that kind of stuff so when I thought about pursuing a degree in music, especially at that age, I wanted to stay in a more academic curriculum I guess. I stayed with writing because I loved to write and I still do, but also because I figured if I did go on to be a performer it's still storytelling and it's good to know it from the inside out.

So many performers I speak to know from day one that performing is what they want to do. What has it been like in your experience figuring out that this is what you wanted to do a bit later on?
Yeah, it was an interesting journey especially because both of my parents are opera singers so I was raised on the road with them. They would go to a job and I would... you know, one of them would be singing somewhere and the whole family would go. I'd sit in rehearsals and watch and just absorb as much as I possibly could, so there's part of me that sort of knew it was inevitable the way that many things are. It's just in my bones. When I got to the point of actually making decisions about that stuff I knew that there was more I wanted to... I've always had trouble picking one thing. I still consider myself a writer. I still consider myself with my women's studies minor like an active social justice... a feminist and an activist and all of these things that are still very much a part of my life. One thing that they tell you a lot in training for musical theatre, because it does take such dedication, there's sort of this idea that you have to pick one thing and marry yourself to it so that you can get good enough at it to have success. I've always felt the need to challenge that notion and that you could get really good at a bunch of stuff. That's one of the reasons I came to it so late. Those doors started opening when I was in college and so that's sort of the direction I headed in.

I saw on your website you have some links to articles you've written for Playbill and you have your blog. What kind of things do you like writing?
That's a great question. It's so funny now to do a phone interview with you like this because I did a bunch of these when I was working for Playbill. I do really enjoy that kind of writing because it blended the worlds that I love... writing and theatre, which is also why I love playwriting. That's sort of what my concentration was. My mentor in school was John Biguenet who works at Loyola and who's a pretty accomplished playwright. My senior thesis was a play, and lots of plays. And, I also love short fiction. Short fiction's a big favorite.

How do you find that being a writer sort of translates over to performing? Like you said earlier, they're both storytelling.
I think I've always found... I've always been someone who wants to know the thing I'm doing from every possible perspective. Even when I was living in New York and super broke and desperate I would work as an audition monitor, and having that experience really formed the way I audition. Once you can see everything from all sides it helps me approach moments on stage because I know structurally what it took to get there in the writing of the story and to identify the key beats from a writer's perspective. It's essentially the same perspective, but you know one from the inside out and one from the outside in.

Tell me about this amazing tour that you are on right now. So many people know about PHANTOM. What has your experience been like so far touring with this show?
It's been incredible. It's been amazing. The tour part of it is pretty familiar to me because I travelled so much as a kid. It feels very normal to show up in a city in a random Airbnb and unpack all my stuff and then two weeks later pack it back up. That part I really love because I get to see so much of the country. The constant moving feels right to me at least for now. The cast is amazing. How much talent is in one group of people is insane. And, it's been kind of a journey. I hadn't seen PHANTOM when I started this job. So many people have seen it. For many people it's like the first show they saw and really fell in love with, and I came to it very late. I don't know why, but I showed up on the first day of work and they handed me my ticket and that was the first time I had ever seen the show live. It was spectacular. We sort of joke about our title... there's the brilliant originals on Broadway and we're the spectacular new. But, it really is... the spectacle is insane. Our chandelier, which... spoiler alert... there's our big chandelier that falls during the show. I think everybody who's ever even heard of PHANTOM knows that by now. It weighs two tons and it has over 60,000 beads, and it's a huge amazing piece of machinery that... I mean PHANTOM's a magical show because it extends beyond the orchestra pit. It turns the theatre itself, whatever theatre we're in, into the Paris Opera House in a major way. It feels almost like immersive theatre in that way so the audience's reaction to things are at times part of our scene. They're our scene partners in a major way.

I think probably most people know the story, but for those who don't can you sum it up for me?
Yeah, absolutely. It's the 1800s in Paris, and there's the opera being put on at the Paris Opera House. The Opera Populaire is what' it's called. They're on the eve of a big performance called Hannibal. The soprano quits just as the two new managers of the Opera House are introduces because mysteriously a sandbag falls from the rafters and almost kills her and she's been dealing with weird occurrences like this for three years. She up and quits and they have no one to star in the show that night, and one of the ballerinas in the ballet corps pushes forward her friend who is having secret voice lessons and says she can sing it. It ends up that she can and that's Christine Daaé, and she goes on to have huge success in the role. When she gets a moment alone after the performance we get to meet her voice teacher who up until now for her has been a disembodied voice coming from the vents or the heavens or somewhere. We learn that it's actually a man who lives in the canals in the caves beneath the opera house, and he takes her down into his lair and after that moment the story sort of spins into essentially a love triangle between the very rich and handsome Vicomte de Chagny, Raul, who has known Christine since she was a child who saw her at the performance and sort of fell for her and the Phantom who has been working with her for a long time. It builds and builds into a fairly violent and scary climax. They're moments for everyone to learn about compassion.

What is your role within this show?
I am one of the Christine understudies... Christine being the main character... and, shows when I'm not on as Christine I'm in the ensemble.

Let's talk about that for a second because understudies and the ensemble members in my opinion are like the bad asses of the theatre because you have to learn so much. There's so much that you have to keep track of that... not to discount the principal actors because they're amazing... but, it's just a different brain game almost. How do you tackle all of that?
It's something I never had to do before to learn two... we call them tracks... essentially roles... to learn two tracks in one show and to know like at this moment when the music does this thing, as an ensemble member I'm gonna go here, but if I'm on as Christine I'm gonna go here. It's keeping the tracks clear in my mind. I was really nervous about it because when you think about it objectively it sounds ridiculous and super difficult, but it ended up being very manageable. One of the jokes we have backstage is that it's all in the costume. Once you've done it a couple of times whatever costume you have on knows where to go, and it'll take you across the stage. Ensemble members who are understudies are one thing. The real superheroes, especially on tour, but really of any big show like this are swings who are awesome. Because I come from the opera world I hadn't heard really or understood what a swing does honestly until I wrote a piece for Playbill about SCHOOL OF ROCK. I got to talk to some of the swings from SCHOOL OF ROCK, and they are... swings are everybody's understudies. They know sometimes 15 different tracks. We've had swings go on mid show. We've had swings go on last minute, and they just look at their book and go alright who am I today? This person. And they go and they do it. It's incredible. So what we do is like a very minor version of what they do all the time.

Have you ever had to go from your ensemble role into your understudy role in the same show?
I've never done it in the same show. We do it in the same day pretty often. Christine is historically performed six of the eight shows a week just because it's a really big thing. Every Christine has ever done it on Broadway and on tour. They only do six shows a week, so the Christine understudies go on at least twice a week. The Christine's sometimes choose to take off on a day when we have two shows in a row like Saturday or Sunday, or a Thursday on our first week for our schedule. Often times I'll do a Christine in the afternoon and then an ensemble show at night.

What's it like wearing these costumes? The whole show when you look at it is not just the music, is not just the show itself... the stage and the costumes and everything are just absolutely gorgeous.
Yeah, it's really exciting. Playing dress up is like 70% of why I do this, it's so fun! Especially with these costumes because they're iconic. This production that we're touring now is... they're calling it the 25th Anniversary production. It's a new production; it's not the Broadway show. The Broadway show is very much what it's been since the 80s. This one is new. It has a new set. It has a new concept. It has lots of things different from the show on Broadway except for the costumes. The costumes stay the same.

What are some of the things that are different? The tour came here maybe about three years ago now, but I'm sure things are different even since then.
Yeah, I mean the show grows and changes. I think the heart of it is probably the same as it was back then, but we've got a whole crop of new faces and new energies that'll change. I wasn't with the tour back then so I'm not sure what it was like, but how is it different... I'm trying to think of the best way to say it. I think it's just taking these classic lyrics and this classic music and approaching them from new perspectives. They're allowing it to have moments that maybe don't exist in the original version.

What're some of your favorite moments in the show whether or not you're in it?
Oh "Masquerade" at the beginning of Act II. It just has so much life to it, and it was really cool when we... so when I showed up my first day of work on tour, my first time encountering being a part of something this big... the first thing we do when we get to every city is that we have a company meeting and then we do soundcheck. The Phantom will come out and sing some of his stuff, Christine will sing some of her stuff, Raul and Christine will do their duet just so the sound guys have a sense of how their technology is going to work in this hall. And then to get everybody's mics tested and working we do an ensemble soundcheck of "Masquerade," and so my first day of work I wasn't in the show, but I had come out to tour to rehearse with them for about a month before I actually went into the show. I hadn't really met anyone yet and I went out and sat in the house and watched the "Masquerade" soundcheck, and it was... it's just astounding. Everyone was in their yoga pants just sort of marking through it, but it took my breath away. So when you put lights and the costumes and the set behind it it'll take your breath away.

What should people know about the show before they come to see it?
I don't think there's anything about the show that they need to know. I think all they need to know is that it's been running for 30 years, and it's still just as exciting as it was the first day. It's that kind of show. It has a legacy. That's one of the cool things to see when you meet people at the stage door you meet people who saw the show as a little kid and now they're bringing their little kids to it. It's something they grew up with in their house, and it's been non-stop since like 1987.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is open at the Saenger Theatre through March 25. Make sure to visit http://www.saengernola.com for tickets and more information. The Phantom and I will see you there!

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