Phantom with a side of slapstick

By Tim Smith

Where A r [ts] Thou?

#768

Dates matter, and linger, if only as memory enhancers, and such was the case a few weeks ago as I happened upon an interview with Sir Michael Crawford, whose real name is Michael Patrick Smith, conducted by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber – my, that is a number of “Sirs,” in celebration of the anniversary of the London opening of the original production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” on October 9, 1986.

The enjoyment they shared in mutual reflection took me back some 48 summers when I made my first overseas trip.

The epicenter of the time abroad would be London, where I had the opportunity to enjoy Shakespeare, the musical version, (are you ready), of “Gone With The Wind,” to some good old English slapstick, bawdy, double entendre, drawing room – ‘Katy bar the door’ – comedy, and titled, “No Sex Please, We’re British.” Yep, and it only gets more bizarre after the curtain is raised.

A leading character in this madness was none other than the first Phantom himself, one Michael Crawford.

I remember so little about the aforementioned plot, however, the descriptive images presented above are to establish, and I am safe in saying, that like most scripts of this ilk, all are simply “cookie-cutter,“virtually alike in every way, and this was a shining example.

What still resonates decades later was the timing of the actors, especially Mr. Crawford. It is one thing to be able to complete pratfalls and deliver clever and witty dialogue, yet quite another to get them to land, to” hit their mark,” every single time while respecting, yet sustaining, the ensembles pacing.

As a student of the art form, I learned more in that two hours than I had in all of my previous education and stage experience. I simply drank it in. Actors do that, we are, after all, an extended family who support and on occasion ‘borrow’ from each other.

At the final curtain, and ever the inquisitive one, I found my way backstage, and there in the hallway, was Mr. Crawford who graciously shook my hand and thanked me for taking the time to say hello. I simply had to make that physical connection-sealing the deal as it were.

Fast forward, nine years, and my wife and I are on a trip to the British Isles and our last stop was spending a few days in the London area.

I wanted her to get a taste of theater as it was her first trip, so we took in a variety of genres, including securing tickets to see Mr. Crawford in the new musical, “Barnum,” based on the life of P.T. Barnum, the flamboyant international showman. Who better to play this role? It was a casting decision made in theatrical heaven. I also remember how thematically decorated the outside of the theatre had been conceptualized/executed.

It would be an event like none we had experienced. With tickets in hand, our drink order secured for the interval, we took our seats in the balcony of the London Palladium Theatre, just as the house announcer came on to say:

“The role of P.T. (numbness was setting in quickly) . . . usually . . . (it was over) played by . . .” and before we knew it, our time with Mr. Crawford was complete even before the curtain had come up, he was being replaced due to illness, (the flu we would later learn), by his understudy. I was sick as well, and so disappointed for my wife, she simply could not miss out on this opportunity. And then, after a long pause and in what seemed like a lifetime, the announcer returned and said, (something to this effect):

“As bad as Michael feels, he knows that you are here to see him perform, so he decided that you would feel worse than he does in not seeing him, so, he has determined to come in after all.” The place erupted. I secretly knew he was a trooper. Wonderful creation, adrenalin.

I bring the “Barnum” evening to you because in the aforementioned interview, Mr. Crawford and Lloyd Webber reminisced, that during this run of “Barnum,” they were concurrently in serious discussion about the new Phantom project.

If you have seen “The Phantom of the Opera” you know for certain the leading role is not one for someone who would let a simple case of the flu get him down.

Footlight – footnotes: It would be a number of years before we saw Phantom in an excellent touring production in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and with a very strong lead, but he was no “Mr. Smith” . . . Crawford.

Trivia: Speaking of troopers: Did you know, that over her entire stage career, through some 16 Broadway musicals, from 1930-1970, it is widely shared that Ethel Merman never missed a performance. The great ones never did.

“Re-runs”: I invite you to look for a recently showcased/virtual Facebook offering (10.17.20), “Into the Webs: An Online Musical Theatre Workshop,” presented by Chino Community Children’s Theatre, Chino, California.

From the posting: “Take a look into the minds of teens as they navigate new technology, connect in the virtual realm, and come together when everything else seems lost.” Visit Facebook, then search for @ccctbuzz and or, try Vimeo shortly. For updated information, check the Chino Community Theatre website: Chinotheatre@verizon.net.

“The song, or should I say, 'The music of the night,' remembers when.”

Connections made, locally inspired, from our town – and across the sea, since 1/06.

See you in the local paper

No non de plume here – it is

t A s

(This is #768 of Where A r [ts] Thou? by Tim Smith)

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