What's New on the Rialto
Broadway's New Longest Running Show
by Matthew Murray
Where else but the theatre could Ethel Merman return to Annie Get Your Gun 20 years after creating Annie Oakley, or Carol Channing ecstatically revisit Dolly Gallagher Levi four decades after her original Tony-winning triumph in Hello, Dolly!? History matters to the theatre like to no other art, rewarding initial achievement and auspicious returns with equal prestige (if not always equal accolades). But if theatre loves its people, it's often much harder on long-running shows, which fall victim to the ravages of changing times and tastes more than do performers: Once-opulent scenery starts looking antiquated, seriousness seems stodgy when free-wheeling musical comedy comes back in vogue, and economic and social changes can make huge hits into instant has-beens.
For The Phantom of the Opera, all of this applies and yet none of it applies. The venerable Andrew Lloyd Webber-Charles Hart-Richard Stilgoe musical now stands as the sole remaining soldier of the British Invasion that took Broadway by storm in the 1980s, with other high-powered pop operas entries like the Boublil-Schönberg Les Misérables and Miss Saigon now long closed. (Perhaps Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White will lead a new charge, but it seems unlikely.) Though Phantom has made plenty of history, breaking box office records and grossing over $3.2 billion worldwide, it's not yet finished: On January 9, when The Phantom of the Opera plays its 7,486th performance at the Majestic, it will become Broadway's longest-running show (the current champ is Lloyd Webber's Cats).
While a large cadre of fans will gleefully regale others with their adoration for and familiarity with the show, how many can truly say they've seen it all? That's an honor reserved for a select group of 44 who've haunted the vaunted halls of the Majestic continuously since the January 26, 1988 opening. This group, which includes performers, backstage staff, musicians, and others, have never had their names above the title, and audience members have seldom remembered them on their long rides home. But they've nonetheless made themselves as ubiquitous and important presences as does the Phantom himself in the musical.
Of those 44, George Lee Andrews has been unquestionably the most visible. While he originated the roles of blustery baritone cuckold Don Attilo in the Il Muto section and servant Passarino in the Phantom's Don Juan Triumphant, he's spent most of his time playing one of the new opera house managers, Richard Firmin or Gilles André. (He spent nearly 11 years in the former, and began playing the latter in 2001.) While the 63-year-old actor - who also starred in the original Broadway productions of A Little Night Music (as Madame Armfeldt's butler, Frid) and On the Twentieth Century (as Max Jacobs) - has managed to find long-term security in a profession where it's practically unheard of, he's never been able to slack off.
"It is very important to the producers and director [Harold Prince] that every audience have the same experience that the opening night audience had," Andrews says. "Therefore, the show is watched always, and kept at top level by various supervisors." Andrews says he's worked hard to incorporate this into his own performances, though he admits it's "daunting to do eight shows a week for a long time. It can take a physical and mental toll; one must learn to work through those things and carry on."
And though it's a much understood, admired, and even criticized requirement of any actor in any show, the challenge of keeping one's work fresh eight times a week over the course of many years is one that extends beyond the footlights, as trumpeter and orchestra contractor Lowell Jay Hershey will tell you. "I do think it is difficult to be focused all the time," he admits. "During scenes where they aren't needed, the actors and dancers are offstage in their dressing rooms. The musicians are confined to the pit for the entire show. I have periods during the show of up to 10 minutes where I have nothing to play.... I keep my mind active by reading, studying a language, or doing a crossword puzzle, then when I play I approach the music as if I'm doing a practice session. That forces my mind to focus on all the elements of the music."
Hershey, whose last major job was the original Broadway production of Big River, hasn't been privy to most of the changes that have happened and re-happened over the show's tenure (though he does feel a recent reconfiguration of orchestra seats has helped improve sound quality). Dresser Rose Mary Taylor, who's worked with the many actresses who've played Meg and Madame Giry for the past 10 years, might have been too close to the action, at least early on.
"It was back-breaking work in the beginning," Taylor says of working the show, which features some 230 costumes designed by the late Maria Björnson. "The costumes have either become lighter over the years, or we've all become stronger!" Which isn't to say that some mistakes haven't been made along the way: An actor playing temperamental tenor Piangi once went onstage wearing half of two different gaudy plaid suits, leading one stagehand to comment, "Who's dressing him, Stevie Wonder?"
Taylor, who came to Phantom fresh from the Broadway production of Breaking the Code, essentially lucked her way into the show - "I applied for day work in Wardrobe on the day another dresser turned the job down. Instant career!" - while Hershey was approached by outside music contractor Mel Rodnin and Andrews got his job the old-fashioned way (he auditioned). All three, however, knew the show would be successful, though neither Andrews nor Hershey expected a run of 18 years. Taylor, though, points out that someone did: "Adelaide Laurino [the original wardrobe supervisor] promised me Phantom would run forever."
Even if Phantom doesn't run that long - Cats adopted "Now and forever" as its slogan, but didn't make it - all three are grateful for their time spent with the show, though they don't have many illusions about what will happen afterward. Taylor plans to stick with Phantom until the very end, and retire when it closes; Hershey intends to stick around until the final performance, or until he reaches retirement age; Andrews wants to keep his options open and hasn't ruled out moving on at some point, though he is determined to "keep acting and keep having a wonderful and full family life."
A worthy aspiration, even if it's difficult now to imagine the Broadway Phantom family without him, Taylor, Hershey, and the dozens of others who've been integral - if often unsung - parts of the music of the night since the very opening measures.
Photos by Joan Marcus. First photo: George Lee Andrews. Second photo: Tim Jerome, Anne Runolfsson, and George Lee Andrews.
The Phantom of the Opera
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