Interview with Craig Schulman
Craig Schulman has entertained audiences for over 10 years as Jean Valjean in the world's most popular musical, Les Miserables. Craig holds the record for playing this coveted role more than any other actor in the world, almost 2,000 times. He holds the distinction of being the only actor in the world who has also portrayed the title roles in Phantom of the Opera and Jekyll & Hyde. But Craig has done so much more in his long career. I recently caught up with Craig for an interesting conversation.
Pati Buehler: You have met and performed for so many remarkable people, from presidents to movie stars. Would you share a memory or two?
Craig Schulman: I've been honored to meet many wonderful people. It's one of the things I enjoy about touring. Meeting the Reagans backstage at the Kennedy Center was very special. I really enjoyed meeting and working with England's Sarah Fergie' Ferguson on a benefit project called "Chances for Children." I have a lot of respect for this remarkable lady.
PB: When did you realize you had a gift for performing on stage?
CS: From my earliest memory of "what do I want to do when I grow up?," I always saw myself performing. Like many Broadway actors, I took my turn in high school plays and concerts. My first inkling that I could do this professionally was during my senior year of high school. I was cast in a production of a play called Flowers for Algernon. I found that I was able to take the lead character, Charlie, through all the emotions and stages in his life. At the end of the play, as the stage went dark, I heard people in the audience crying. It was so exciting to realize I could convince an audience that I was a character other than my real self, and that I was capable of moving them to tears. That did it for me.
PB: Being the only Broadway performer in the world to play Valjean, the Phantom, and Jekyll & Hyde, three of the most amazing and coveted roles, how would you compare the roles as an actor?
CS: It's funny, Valjean was such a milestone in my professional career and people remember me most for that great role. It's an incredible role to play for so long. But my all-encompassing favorite role is Phantom. Many actors seem to try to imitate Michael Crawford's performance, and why not? Crawford really was wonderful in the role. Though once I read the book and really started thinking about this character, my take on the role became different. I was inspired by the human elements of the character, his deep need for love and the constant pain of rejection, even from his earliest memories of childhood. I was struck, at the end of the play, when the Phantom says, "This face which earned a mother's fear and loathing, a mask, my first unfeeling scrap of clothing." I felt that this statement informed his entire character, and I drew on this as the essence of my characterization.
When I sing "Music of the Night," the audience response is incredible. In my first solo concert program, Craig Schulman on Broadway, I had initially planned to close with "Bring Him Home." "Bring Him Home" is an incredible song but the audience response doesn't come close to the reaction I get from "Music of the Night," so I switched the order of these last two songs.
As for Jekyll and Hyde, I honestly only got to play the role about ten times, so I really didn't get the time to be familiar enough with it. But it was a physically incredible role. I thoroughly enjoyed the acting challenge of playing two distinct characters in the same play.
PB: You seem comfortable going between the worlds of Broadway, opera and symphonic pop concerts. What challenges do you face vocally and physically for these different types of music?
CS: Coming off a big Broadway role right into an operatic role is very challenging. My first professional job in NYC was at the Light Opera Of Manhattan. I sang 650 performances in exactly two years. I wound up becoming the "house tenor," performing 15 different roles, including 10 of the 13 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
The first opera that I saw (and surprisingly loved) was La Traviata. Alfredo, from La Traviata, became the first operatic role that I performed. Eventually, I started studying and training for opera. I did an apprenticeship with the Chautauqua Opera in 1983, and it helped me greatly to build my confidence as an opera singer.
In opera, one listens for "the line of the voice," a consistency of quality of voice. As a classical singer, it's something that you train very hard for. But, as in the musical theatre world, it's very difficult to find enough work to go around. And even if you are lucky enough to be working all the time, there isn't much time left for family life.
Broadway shows are changing. I'm not so sure it's for the better. Still, I find myself learning more pop style songs. Sure, I grew up with rock and roll, but I prefer the more traditional, emotional moving roles. Roles that some are not willing to do.
PB: You've also done Ché in Evita and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Do you have a dream role?
CS: I would love to create a new role. Really, that's the brass ring. I've had some wonderful opportunities, but I would like to create something new.
PB: Let's talk about Valjean. Almost 2,000 performances, with six Broadway contracts over a 10-year time span. How do you sustain a role for so long?
CS: What can I say? It has been the better part of my Broadway career. I'm thankful I was in good health, especially early on. In 1987, at the start of the tour in Boston, I was understudying Valjean. In March of 1988, I was asked to take over the role on the 1st National Tour. At that point they had no other cover ready. This meant that I wound up performing eight shows a week for eight weeks! I was so thankful for my classical vocal training and technique.
At this time, early in the run of Les Mis, it was expected that every Valjean would sing the role like Colm Wilkinson, the role's originator. I believe that this policy was in effect so that the audience would, in essence, hear a performance as much like the original recordings as possible.
However, I needed to sing the role in a way that not only allowed me to protect my voice, but also to do my own interpretation of the character. This met with some resistance from the "higher-ups" initially, but I was determined to stick to my guns and it paid off. When I was able to demonstrate my consistency in the performance, and the audience response was as good as Colm's they began to see thing my way. In fact when a new actor was preparing to take over the role of Valjean in one of the other productions, they sometimes brought him to see me sing the role to learn as much as they could from my performance. That was very flattering. I always urge singing actors to learn the strengths and weaknesses of their own voice and learn to protect their instrument.' Too may actors will not or perhaps can not afford to give up a role in order to protect their voice, but if you damage your voice, it is difficult to bring it back to its original condition.
PB: Tell me about the 10th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
CS: That was undoubtedly one of the most incredible experiences ever for me. I was one of the first pair of Valjeans to enter Royal Albert Hall. My heart was pounding, as this incredible multitude of people were standing, roaring, waving as if we had won an Olympic event. To share the stage with Colm and Phillip and that incredible cast was an amazing experience and privilege.
PB: Who has inspired you as a stage performer?
CS: Even at age 5 or 6, I remember my mother relating her theatrical aspirations to me, though she ultimately did not follow her dream. I remember her telling me about seeing Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. She spoke of Zero's amazing transformation of becoming Tevye during the monologue before "Tradition." I have always remembered the description of Mostel's moment on stage, and how instructive this idea of becoming' a character was. As an actor, it's so rewarding to be able to touch lives in this way.
PB: A recent trip took you to London to record your new CD, "Craig Schulman on Broadway," at Abbey Road Studio with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. How exciting was that?
CS: (laughing) You have no idea what an amazing and all consuming project it was. From raising the money, and then more money, to record in London (which I originally thought would be impossible) to actually recording with my own orchestra and the excitement of just being at this famous studio.
One of the lessons I learned on the project was that it's OK for me to ask for help. I was able to put together some great people and I am very pleased with the overall result. It's truly a story in itself. So much so that I posted an article about the entire experience on my website, www.craigschulman.com
PB: This seems to be your year to concert here, there and everywhere. What's ahead for Craig Schulman?
CS: I really love touring and meeting new people. My concerts are very well received and I truly enjoy them. I would like to develop a property into a Broadway show for myself. I know this is a bit down the road. Until then I will continue to perform and learn and grow.
PB: Craig, I'm so glad you took this time with me to get to know you a bit better. You are a very driven, dedicated and talented performer. Thank you for chatting with me.
CS: I enjoyed this very much. Thanks for asking me.
Craig's CD, "Craig Schulman on Broadway," can be purchased from his website at www.craigschulman.com and at Colony records.
Also see Pati's recent interview with Danny Zolli.
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