As we all know, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and romance is blooming in the air. It’s a time for love, dates, and other coupley things, and it’s especially a time for single people like me to look forward to the heavily discounted candy that always graces the shelves the day after. So, in honor of this decidedly romantic holiday, I’ve decided to take a look at one of the most romantic musicals of all time and rank my favorite actors in the title role himself: the Phantom of the Opera.
Alluring or standoffish? Soft or terrifying? Sensual or awkward? Tame or bouncing off the walls? These five Phantoms cover a good range of takes, and I feel they’re all worth commending in the ways they took on Broadway’s iconic role. Without further ado, here they are!
5. Michael Crawford
Okay, okay. I know I’m cheating a little on this one, considering I’ve never actually seen Crawford perform the whole show. (As much as I would love a time machine that would allow me to do so!) But the truth is that, even if you haven’t seen him in full, you can still get a good idea of the way his performance was if you combine the available clips online with his vocals on the cast recording. My verdict? Crawford’s Phantom provides a deep, sympathetic character with the most soothing voice in the world. What’s more, there are many acting and costume choices from Crawford himself that went on to be passed down to every Phantom across the world, including the short sleeves that gave the onstage illusion of ghostly, sensual hands, the catlike movements the Phantom adopts, the kiss with Christine at the end becoming two kisses. His Phantom invented so much that makes other Phantoms great, and while the ability to actually watch other Phantoms makes it difficult to be able to rank the original man higher, it’s only fair that Michael Crawford be on this list at all.
4. John Owen-Jones
Oh, what a voice! This is the second and last West End actor on my list, and boy, does JOJ deserve some recognition. Did you know that this man hasn’t had formal vocal training? You would never be able to tell if you heard him sing this score! His “Music of the Night” was heavenly, and his booming vocals in the more dramatic parts provided the exact kind of bravado needed in a Phantom. He made it all seem so effortless. His acting skewed more towards the angrier side of the Phantom; shouting and accidental cussing were the standard fare for his Phantom, yet he managed to blend it together well enough with the sympathetic aspects in order to cook up a villain we could all feel sad for.
3. Gary Mauer
I’ve always maintained that Mr. Mauer needs to return to Broadway for another go in the show. His Phantom was a lovely, lovely tenor, and his acting, while fairly standard from a general standpoint, was sprinkled with little bits of genius throughout. He would add these little touches that, though brief, gave great depth to the character’s mindset; one example in particular I remember was that his Phantom caught a glimpse of himself in the shattered mirror after Christine unmasked him for the first time and, wincing in pain, cowered away from the sight, curling in tears on the floor. It was a brief moment, but that brief moment gave the audience so much to go with. Aside from that, Mauer’s Phantom is the first on this list that I could comfortably call romantic...you know, as romantic as we can get with a deranged Opera Ghost. The chemistry he had with the two Christines I’ve seen him with (Elizabeth Southard and Jennifer Hope Wills) was electric, truly the kind that left steam radiating throughout the theatre, and there were bits of pure tenderness that really gave one the impression that this Phantom loved Christine in his own way. All in all, a great Phantom with a magnificent voice.
2. Hugh Panaro
I know I’m being a little basic with this one, but let’s be fair! There’s a reason why Hugh Panaro is one of the actors with the most performances as the Phantom on Broadway, and that reason is definitely not because he sucked. The best thing about Panaro’s take on the role is that, what with having performed in the show for so many years, he eventually began to test out different quirks each night, so that audiences could see the show two nights in a row and walk out with vastly different experiences each time. Some nights, his Phantom would be cold and calculating in his anger; other nights, he would be bouncing off the walls in delighted lunacy as he tied Raoul up with the noose. He played around between genuine affection towards Christine and possessive obsession that could barely pass for “love.” And yes...his Phantom was routinely, deeply in the mood during “Music of the Night.” He took all the chances he could as an actor, because what did he have to lose?
1. Norm Lewis
Let’s get one thing straight: I adore Norm Lewis. His voice is a gift from God, and he always brings his A-game when it comes to his acting. It also helps that he’s a swell dude at the stagedoor, too! When he was first announced to be taking over the role from longtime veteran Hugh Panaro, people’s reactions ranged from bubbling excitement to bafflement. Norm Lewis is a baritone, isn’t he? Will he be able to sing this score? Well, I’m here to tell you that yes, yes he most assuredly could! When I went to see Lewis in the show on my high school graduation trip, the first thing that struck my mind was how refreshing it was to hear such a deep, rich voice booming from behind that mask. It just felt right. And I know that some of his acting choices ultimately proved to be divisive among Phantom fans, but I’m clearly in the camp that absolutely loved what he brought to the role. His Phantom was extremely immature and childish, particularly during the “Final Lair” sequence at the end, and the scenes that were meant to build sensual chemistry with Christine actually ended up displaying in their awkwardness just how tragically inexperienced Lewis’s Phantom was at the whole romance thing, with the final takeaway of it all being that years of abuse and societal rejection made his Phantom fold in on himself and revert into a childlike state of mind as a coping mechanism. You know what? It was different, and it worked. You didn’t come away from this performance wishing Christine had gone with the Phantom, but rather, you came away from it heartbroken and wishing that the Phantom’s life had been different from the very beginning, so that he would have never dug himself into the mess he’s in now. In a musical where the narrative clearly tries to show that Christine sympathizes with the Phantom while ultimately choosing to go with a different man—the man whom she truly loves—this is the exact kind of feeling I believe we should be having towards the Phantom as we walk back into real life. Bravo, Norm! Bravo!
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)