michael crawford debuts as the phantom -- 5/10/19

Today's selection -- from Unmasked by Andrew Lloyd Webber. In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber picked Michael Crawford to play the part of the Phanton in his new musical, Phantom of the Opera. It was to lead to one of the most stunning successes in Broadway history:

"Phantom was accelerating fast by [1986]. [Famed director] Hal [Prince] ... had done some work with [actor] Steve Harley and wasn't averse to him playing the Phantom. The single was now in the Top 10 and picking up massive radio play. Abetted by the Ken Russell video, some press pundits had already presumed Sarah [Brightman] and Steve were our stars.

"I got Steve to sing 'The Music of the Night' on the unreleased orchestral track of  'Married Man,' the song I had originally writ­ten with Trevor Nunn. We were really pleased with his vocal in the studio but back home I had doubts, particularly about his diction. Cameron and David Caddick were also seriously worried whether Steve could sustain eight live performances a week. One evening I picked Sarah up from her vocal lesson with Ian Adam. Ian had al­ready coached Steve and had a lot of time for him. But he too knew how operatic the score was and worried that Steve would be out of his depth. Suddenly Ian cut to the chase. 'You need Michael Crawford'.

"I was taken aback. Michael Crawford was best known in Britain as Frank Spencer, the gormless high pitch voiced rather effeminate star of the BBC's smash hit comedy series Some Mothers Do ' Ave 'Em. True in 1969 he had co-starred with Barbra Streisand in the movie of Hello, Dolly! and was currently the lead in Barnum at the Victoria Palace. I had seen him walk that famous tightrope a few years before at the London Palladium. It was a charismatic bravura performance but nothing suggested Michael had the vocal chops to handle what I had written nor had his vocally bantamweight performance in Billy, Don Black and John Barry's musical based on Billy Liar which I had seen with Tim Rice on the night of the coat saga.

1987 Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in The Phantom of the Opera.

"However I also recalled seeing Michael in the late Seventies in a musical by Charles Strouse, the composer of Nightingale, called Flowers for Algernon. Michael played a mentally retarded man whose only friend is a pet mouse. There was a staggering scene in which a mouse ran all over his shoulders. Years later Michael did a variation with a rat when he played Count Fosco in my The Woman in White. Although Flowers for Algernon had been a disaster on both sides of the Atlantic, I found Michael's performance intensely moving. Ian offered to discreetly get me a tape of Michael singing opera. The mo­ment I heard it, I had to meet Michael. It took a bit of doing. Michael was paranoid about secrecy. He insisted the venue for our tete-a-tete was the Angus Steakhouse right next to the Victoria Palace -- a bit too close to the stage door to my view, but Michael's reasoning was that nobody we knew could possibly go there. Michael was right. It was deserted, apart from a wizened Polish couple in a corner who I was quite certain were spies. He agreed to meet me again to hear the score. ...

"Ask anyone who knows Michael Crawford and the first thing you'll learn is that if he says yes to a challenge he will deliver it. He in­sisted on doing all his own highly dangerous stunts on Some Mothers Do ' Ave 'Em. No way was there a safety net near that tightrope in Barnum. So I didn't need Ian Adam's assurance that Michael could smash the role of Phantom. If Michael said he could ditch skinny Frank Spencer and become a commanding sexy high baritone come opening night, he would. The issue was to make him say yes.

"I knew Michael was snared when I played him the overture. The moment when the full orchestra enters clinched it. It was a hot sunny afternoon and I had the windows open onto the gardens at the back of the Green Street flat. I described the auction scene and how the big organ chords heralded the chandelier rising high above the auditorium and the opera house bursting into life. Sod The Neighbours, I thought as I pressed play. Michael clutched the sofa as the organ thundered and was standing next to me when the orchestra lurched in.

" 'Andrew,' he whispered, 'this is the most thrilling start to a musi­cal I have ever heard.'

I" had netted the most consummate theatrical performer I have ever worked with."

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Andrew Lloyd Webber


Unmasked: A Memoir


HaperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2018 by Andrew Lloyd Webber


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