BWW Interview: Ben Lewis Talks THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Ben Lewis's past work includes Forbidden Broadway and Candide at Menier Chocolate Factory, Annie Get Your Gun at Sheffield Crucible, and playing The Phantom in the original Australian production of Love Never Dies. He's now donning the mask again to lead the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera.
What was the first musical you saw?
Having opera singers as parents meant that I was exposed to the theatre at a very young age. I used to sit side of stage in the Sydney Opera House when I was little and watch on in wonder.
Musicals came much later - I don't specifically remember seeing one until my teens. I clearly remember watching Philip Quast and Anthony Warlow in the original Australian production of The Secret Garden and thinking it was pretty wonderful.
When did you realise you wanted to perform professionally?
Not until university really. I did a few plays at school, but I was completely obsessed with playing sport. I played rugby, cricket, tennis, golf, athletics, anything I could get my hands on to be honest. Up until I finished school I would've given anything to play rugby for Australia.
When I got to Sydney University I got involved in the drama society and then another company called the Australian Theatre for Young People. It was during this four-year period that I began to think more seriously about performing. Eventually I was skipping English or History lectures to help paint sets and rig lights for the next production I was doing.
Where did you train?
The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in Perth.
What was your first professional acting job?
It was actually before I went to drama school on an Aussie TV series called McCleod's Daughters, which was great fun. It was filmed in the bush outside of Adelaide and the experience on a film set was kind of mindblowing at the time.
When did you first encounter Phantom and what was your response?
I first saw Phantom here in London when I was a teenager. It was a long time ago now but I guess it is the imagery of the piece that stuck with me. The Lair and the Boat and the Chandelier are not easily forgotten.
The last time I saw Phantom was in Australia, maybe 10 years ago. My brother, Alexander, was playing Raoul and understudying The Phantom. I went to watch him the first time he went on as The Phantom. I was probably more nervous than he was and spent the whole show just watching him, so I don't remember much else about the experience. He did an awesome job though and I was super proud!
How much will your Love Never Dies experience contribute to your performance in Phantom?
It's not an easy question to answer. In many ways, they are just two different shows with completely different demands. My approach to each role I do is much the same. There aren't really any short cuts to rehearsing and developing a character, so in that sense this show doesn't feel any different. I take all my cues from the script and the score.
However, there is an understanding and a comfort that exists, no doubt. I've always found the character of The Phantom easy to relate to and that feeling is perhaps amplified this time round because I have lived with him before.
There's also the comfort that comes from understanding some of the technical aspects of the work. Wearing the mask, prosthetics, wig etc. can be quite a shock and an adjustment, but for me it has felt so familiar and that has probably made the transition from rehearsal room to stage a lot easier this time round.
What was your way into the character, and what do you think you bring to the role?
My way in is always script and score first. In a good text, as this is obviously, everything you need is there for you, or at least the jumping-off points are all there. Given that the audience is introduced to a man who is highly developed intellectually and creatively but emotionally underdeveloped and malnourished, a deep understanding of what has happened in his life to bring him to this point is essential.
Being specific about these decisions is important to me and helps create a strong framework within which I can play. Then it's just about trying to be as detailed as I can be from moment to moment through the play. In terms of what I bring to the role, I don't really know how to answer that. My goal is just to be honest.
How do the Phantom and Love Never Dies scores compare vocally - with one another, and with other shows you've done?
Love Never Dies was a joy to sing every night and this show is living up to that experience. The thing that sticks out to me about both shows is the range and vocal choices that are available to me as an actor.
Plus, it's a score that requires a strong connection with the conductor. Singing a score that's conducted live every night and is a living, breathing thing is one of the things I love most about what I do. The conductor is as much an actor as those of us up on stage and this relationship is something I cherish.
Both shows are demanding vocally, but they also offer a rare opportunity to stretch myself beyond the constraints of some other shows.
What's your favourite song to perform in Phantom?
It changes every day at the moment. The Final Lair is just a great scene to play and explore with your fellow actors, but "Music of the Night" is one of the great musical songs of all time. The way in which the music and the language are blended, and the incredible storytelling that takes place within each moment are a rare gift to an actor, and I feel privileged to be able to take up the challenge each time I sing it.
How does it feel coming into the West End?
The West End has never been the goal for me to be honest. Don't get me wrong, I am very proud to be performing in one of the great theatre capitals of the world, but what makes it so great is the work that is going on everywhere in the UK.
The West End offers a unique opportunity to shine a light on a small proportion of the amazing theatre that continues to be created by a huge range of artists and companies, and it's wonderful to be able to stand in that light for a little while. It's the history of the West End theatres like Her Majesty's, and the understanding of who has come before you, that makes it a magical and very humbling experience to be a part of.
What other roles are on your musical wish list? Another Lloyd Webber maybe?
I just like telling good stories and expressing my deep love of music when I can. What I love about living and working in London is that you never know what work might be just around the corner. I like to think that my dream role hasn't been written yet, and that's why I love being involved in the development of new works.
Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's music continues to play a huge part in my life and I love performing it, so hopefully there will be more opportunities to do so in the future. Indeed, we shall be a Lloyd-Webber Only household for the next little while as my wife Melle Stewart is about to perform in By Jeeves, which will be directed by Sir Andrew's collaborator, Sir Alan Ayckbourn.
Any advice for budding musical theatre performers?
Just work hard. Put your phone down and work hard. There are so many talented people out there, but it means nothing without graft.
Finally, why do you think Phantom is still so beloved?
First and foremost, it's an outstanding piece of theatre - from the magnificent music and language to the iconic design and direction. The story is a universal one. The characters are relatable and at its heart it's a love story. Who doesn't love a love story?!
The Phantom of the Opera is currently booking at Her Majesty's Theatre until October 2018. Book tickets here
Photo credit: Johan Persson, Sheridan Johns