The Phantom Phenomenon

Howard McGillin in top form as Broadway makes history

Much of the excitement on the stage of Broadway’s new longest running show can be directly attributed to the performance of Howard McGillin as the Phantom.

On Monday, January 9, “Phantom of the Opera” eclipsed “Cats” as Broadway’s longest running show with performance number 7,486 at the Majestic Theater. The show, which has taken in more than $3.2 billion in global box office, took in almost $39 million on Broadway in 2005—clearly a force to be reckoned with—and has been breaking attendance and box office records in recent weeks.

Economics and popularity notwithstanding, the show has never looked or sounded better, and that took me by surprise. When I last saw the show in 1997, it seemed to be showing its age and seemed to be on the verge of becoming a popular tourist destination but not necessarily an exciting piece of theater.

No more. The current production has an electricity about it that is unmistakable, and despite knowing the score backwards and forwards, I found myself on the edge of my seat—enjoying the journey as if it were the first time. The company is full of top-notch singers who, even with the amplification and effects overlaid on the songs, are fully in command of the difficult material, making it seem effortless and giving the performances a level of romance and tension that would make one think the production is in its first weeks—not its 18th year.

Much of the excitement on the stage can be directly attributed to the performance of Howard McGillin as the Phantom. He brings a passion and a desperation to the role that is consistently remarkable—to say nothing of his voice, which has consistently been one of the finest on Broadway for years. When I spoke with him after a nine-performance week, he seemed fresh and boyishly excited about the role and being part of Broadway history. What’s kept the show in such great shape, he said, is that the creators have stayed involved.

“Hal’s [Prince] basic note is that you cannot lose the sense of imminent danger and doom,” McGillin said.

And doom has hung over his head for nearly 1,400 performances he’s given since he first assumed the role in 1999. He left in 2003 to participate in the development of the Sondheim musical “Bounce” that closed out of town and most recently spent 10 months touring with Cathy Rigby in “Peter Pan” as Captain Hook, which he said was not a role he would have considered himself for because it is so “flamboyantly theatrical… a license to steal.” He was brought back by the production team to carry “Phantom” over its historic milestone and is committed to the show at least through next April.

Offstage, McGillin is as understated and warmly funny as the Phantom is overwrought and anguished. In fact, one of McGillin’s gifts is an ability to bring a compelling humanity to extreme characters. In “The Secret Garden,” he replaced Mandy Patinkin and found a new depth in his portrayal of Archibald Craven, a role that McGillin said was particularly timely for him as he was coming out as a gay man himself even as he played a character coming to terms with his own shuttered heart. With “Phantom,” he said, “it is a simple story of unrequited love,” but that the extremity of it is what keeps the character so compelling. And McGillin is only too willing to throw himself into it.

In this case, “throw” is meant literally. Over and above the vocal demands of the show, the physical challenges are extreme. McGillin said that Hal Prince never comes to see a new Phantom during the first three weeks he’s in the part because he knows that the actor is trying to get used to the physical demands, such as climbing ladders in the dark, in a cape in time to make cues. Or, there’s the challenge of standing immobile in a cross atop a mausoleum for ten minutes. Or perhaps waiting, suspended 30 feet above the stage, for another ten minutes before being lowered into the proscenium with only a wire to hang on to. The role, McGillin notes wryly, “is not for the claustrophobic.” And, he added, the first time he signed the contract to play the part he was baffled by the fact that he got no hazard pay. He’s not any more, though he works hard to make sure that all the effects work, taking a break in our interview to practice a bit with a noose that had gone a little roughly at the previous performance.

Not surprisingly, McGillin said, taking care of himself physically and vocally is a major challenge when he’s not onstage. He gets a 30-minute nap between shows on matinee days and says he spends a lot of time resting when he can, though he added that as an actor, even in a hit show, there is always the job of looking for work. For now, though he’s delighted to be at home when he can spend time with his partner and his dog. After 10 months on the road with “Peter Pan,” he was ready to come home.

“The road is for the very young,” said McGillin, who turned 52 in November.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a much more demanding role. At least an hour before every performance, McGillin is in the make-up chair getting layer upon layer of prosthetic deformities, wigs and microphones glued, taped, and otherwise cemented to his body under the watchful eye and skilled hands of Thelma, who has been deforming every Phantom for the past 18 years. As McGillin’s matinee idol good looks disappear under the grotesqueries of greasepaint and the silicone, his eyes still twinkle, and he seems more than excited to be going back out there once more.

“I’m so lucky to be doing this,” he said.

As are the audiences who experience his performances.

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