“If Michael Crawford is ever in the audience, do not tell me. Please. Please. Or dare I say, Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ll do it, but don’t tell me - tell me at the curtain call,” says Jonathan Roxmouth, with a laugh.
“Anybody who plays this role, if they say to you, ‘Oh, I never bothered looking at Crawford’, they’re lying. It’s his role - I’m renting it from him at the moment, but it’s his role. It always will be,” says Roxmouth, with unshakeable conviction. (His other inspiration was the late conductor Leonard Bernstein, “because I’m obsessed with hands and he expresses music through his hands all the time… When I watched footage of myself, I was doing Bernstein without even realising it. It’s so funny what comes to the surface.”)
Roxmouth pays homage to Crawford’s Phantom by bringing back an aesthetic detail: differing contact lenses - one dark, one light blue. “The minute I can’t see my own eyes, I can’t see myself. And there’s something psychologically that happens,” says Roxmouth. “Think about kids at Halloween, when they get dressed up, they behave in a way that they normally wouldn’t, because it’s not them. There’s no accountability. And the same thing happens with this role. I think that’s why it can get into your head a bit, because it’s not you, so you’re justified.”
The long-running production tells the story of a deadly artist, known as the Phantom, who lives beneath the Paris Opera House and haunts a singer named Christine Daae as he becomes increasingly infatuated by her. Roxmouth’s first introduction to the ‘Phantom’ came when he was “five or six” years old.
“We used to have a family lunch every Sunday afternoon at my grandparents’ house, and at the end of the lunch, my granddad would always say, ‘Come with me,’” recalls Roxmouth. He’d just bought a new Mercedes that had a tape deck - that’s how old [it was] - and he taught me how to conduct to a tape of the original London company of Phantom of the Opera.”When the production of ‘Phantom’ took place at the South African State Theatre (Pretoria) in 2004, Roxmouth was in the audience. “The music is beautiful and you love the songs, but when you see them in context of the show itself, they’re completely different. It’s like you’ve never heard or seen them before. I wanted to be part of the show,” he says.
The production returned to South Africa in 2011. Roxmouth was 24 when he auditioned. “I was cast as Raoul [Christine’s lover] six shows a week, and the Phantom twice a week, which is kind of [like] getting your bread buttered on both sides, that’s just ridiculous,” says Roxmouth. “We went into rehearsal and our Phantom got sick,” he continues. “They said, ‘Look, our Phantom is going to step out for a while, would you be interested in being the Phantom indefinitely?’ When I woke up, I was the Phantom.”
He adds, with a laugh: “I never went on as Raoul. I was the tallest Raoul they ever had, they had to make all my costumes brand new, and I never wore them.”
A LONG-LASTING AFFAIR:
‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is the longest-running Broadway production in history. It debuted in New York in 1988, but the story goes back decades further, starting with Gaston Leroux’s 1909 eponymous French novel, ‘Le Fantome de l’Opera’. Despite its dark, obsessive protagonist, who might be off-putting to a 21st century audience, the show has enjoyed a longevity that many others haven’t.
“Thirty-two years on Broadway means something. Musicals that get lucky don’t run for 32 years - musicals that mean something, do,” says Roxmouth. “Phantom’s become an heirloom that families pass down through generations. I was one of those kids…The fact that it’s not set in a relatable time helps. It’s far away from our reality, but it’s passed on through generations. It’s become part of theatrical initiation, I suppose.
“It’s a story about what makes us human in the first place. It’s about love. Who doesn’t have an opinion on that? Who hasn’t been touched by that? Who hasn’t experienced that - or been denied that?”
Other than the Phantom, does Jonathan Roxmouth have a dream role he would like to play? “This is going to sound so ungrateful, but no…There’s enough in this role that I could play this for 10 years and still never get it right. There’s so many layers that you never get it 100 per cent right every performance, and it’s so addictive that you want to try again,” said Roxmouth.
NEWER, SHINIER PRODUCTION:
It’s the same old ‘Phantom’, but the touring show underwent a face lift to reflect today’s technological advancements. “There’s a lot less hand cranking - everything is far more digitised, the scenes are slicker and they happen much faster now. Our chandelier is the fastest,” says Roxmouth, adding that this becomes especially significant at the end of Act One. “We have had lots of people in the cast who’ve done the show before, and even they were going, ‘I’ve never seen it look like that before.’”
In addition to a fresh coat of paint, the production has a new orchestration and new threads. “Normally people who go into ‘Phantom’, stuff is pulled out of stock…You don’t always have the luxury of things made up from scratch,” explains Roxmouth. “[But] they flew us to New York and I met with [costume designer] Eric Winterling in his offices…All my stuff is brand new - even my shirts are new. That doesn’t happen. That should give you an indication of the level of production that we’re dealing with.”
One scene where this is more noticeable is ‘Masquerade’, the masked ball that opens Act Two. “Everybody’s in a fancy dress costume - somebody’s dressed as a harlequin, somebody is dressed as a fish, as a butterfly. The burst of colour on that stage [is] amazing. It’s always looked great, there’s just something about this production - there’s a gloss on it that I’ve never seen before.”
GETTING THE LOOK:
The Phantom’s face is a production in itself. Splashed across posters, flyers and billboards is his iconic white mask that partially obfuscates his facial features. According to Roxmouth, he and his make-up artist Alice Cridland have gotten their make-up and foam latex routine down to one hour and 10 minutes. “Alice does a bald cap, she glues all [the pieces] on, she blends it all in, she bases me down, and then we start in with the colours. She does everything from scratch, by hand, every day,” says Roxmouth. “It takes me 10 minutes and I forget I’m wearing it.”
Sixty-nine-year-old special effects prosthetics veteran Robert McCarron - known as Dr Bob for also being a medic - is responsible for the design of the make-up on this ‘Phantom’ tour. "Because it’s foam latex, it’s porous, so you don’t get claustrophobic. It’s very, very comfortable and as it heats up, it molds even better to your face, so you don’t lose any performance,” says Roxmouth.
“Bob’s design is so generous because I never feel I have to overreact to be seen through it, I never feel that I have to compensate for it or that I’m inhibited by it. It becomes a second skin almost immediately, and it actually helps getting into character.”
5 questions with Claire Lyon...The Australian actress plays the object of Phantom’s obsession, Christine Daae.
Q: How did you prepare for your role?
A: I was lucky enough to perform this same role back in the last World Tour from 2012-2015 … Even four years later, the music and staging was still in my muscle memory so it was much more relaxed.
Q: Tell us the toughest part about your role?
A: Stamina! It’s an extremely taxing role, physically and emotionally. I’m on stage for the majority of the show, and if I’m not, you’ll likely find me side stage with a team of dressers from the wardrobe department, quick-changing me into another costume, giving me a sip of water or fixing my wig.
Q: What is your favourite part of the production?
A: This is a tough question as there are so many aspects to this show that I love. An obvious one is getting to sing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music every night, but I’m also a huge fan of costume design — and these costumes are to die for. No expense has been spared.
Q: Is ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ a story that can transcend time and generations? Why, or why not?
A: Absolutely. At the heart of it, the story is one of love, compassion, rejection and fear. I’m sure anyone, no matter how old or young, can relate to this in some way.
Q: Can you relate to your character in any way?
A: In some ways I can, yes. I have found myself in past relationships not wanting to let go, as Christine does the Phantom, even though she knows it’s not and can never be a conventional relationship. I have much more life experience now compared to when I last premiered the show back in 2012, so I hope to bring more depth to the character this time around.
‘The Phantom of the Opera’ runs at the Dubai Opera from October 16 to November 9. Tickets, starting at Dh250, are available online.