As The Phantom of the Opera celebrates 30 years in the West End, Matthew Hemley speaks to past and present cast members about its ongoing success.
What went through your mind when Andrew Lloyd Webber asked you to play the title role?
It was terrifying. I’d always wanted to do it but I didn’t know that anyone else would see me as Phantom. I don’t think I am an obvious Phantom choice. It was a dream come true but then terror hits in – I have got to deliver to 30 years’ worth of fans, who have favourites who love it sung or acted a certain way. You are going to be compared to people all the time. I found that with Jesus Christ Superstar, too – you get massive comparisons. But all you can do is live it, breathe it and believe it when you are on stage. At least then I am being honest. That is the main thing that an audience relates to: honesty.
You seem to have really made the role your own…
When Andrew asked me to do it, it was important not just to come and sing it. My brief from Andrew was to explore it, act it and not just sing it. It was really important I looked into the Phantom as a person, into mental illness and being deprived of compassion and humanity. It’s an amazing role if you look into it. The role develops all the time.
What makes it so special?
It’s the most beautiful love story and most tragic tragedy. People become human and feel compassion for this guy who has murdered people. As a performer, somehow you have to find a way to make the audience care about who you are.
You’re contracted with The Phantom of the Opera until March next year. What then?
I hope in March I am not just closing the door – I hope the door stays open, as I have never been happier in my life. Sometimes a job is full of routine and this one just isn’t.
How does it feel to have been part of the 30th celebrations?
I feel very privileged to be in the show at a time when this anniversary comes along. There have been 30 companies of Phantom and only three or four have had an occasion like this to mark. To share the stage with people involved in the very beginning – I won’t forget it in a hurry.
How did you feel about singing with Michael Ball as part of the special finale?
My mum is going to be very happy I shared a stage with Michael Ball. As a child I used to watch him on TV on Saturday night. I used to watch him on the Les Miserables 10th anniversary DVD and think, ‘I like his career.’ Suddenly I am staring into his eyes and nearly kissing him. So yes, surreal but cool.
And the original Phantom, Michael Crawford, appeared too…
Michael has got such a lot to say about a character who is essentially a psychopath with loveable tendencies. He could give you a 100 reasons to love him and to all of them you go: “Fair point, we will forget you murdered everyone.” The show is so well written – the Phantom does so many things wrong but in that last scene all you care about is that he’s heartbroken. It’s not that you want him to stay with Christine romantically. It’s just you don’t want him to be alone.
What is it that makes the show so appealing to audiences?
I think it’s the combination of the music but I also think it’s the design. A lot of other shows opened in the 1980s that maybe looked quite of their time but because this is designed realistically, there is nothing in the show that dates it for me to 1986. If you have a show that looks authentically period you can watch it now or 30 years ago or in 30 years’ time and you will get you’re in that time period. That, combined with the music, means there is no reason for it to date or feel old when you watch it.
How was it being part of the show tonight?
It’s the first time I’ve seen it since I was in it. The show doesn’t age as a piece – they have kept it so tight, with a great company. Everything works. It was a real nostalgia trip.
What has changed since you were in it?
The only thing I noticed that is different is the sound quality as they have a new sound system. That was awesome. But The Phantom of the Opera is now and forever – or was that Cats?
There was a real boom for musical theatre in the 1980s, wasn’t there?
It was when we ruled the world for musicals and there was such an extraordinary creative team working on them. These guys got together and interchanged between shows like Les Mis, Cats and Miss Saigon and we were leading the world and those are the shows that are still running now. Can the show run another 30 years? They can do another 30 years. As long as there are people who still want to go to the theatre. Generations keep coming and finding stuff in these shows. As long as they keep coming we will keep doing them.