PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael Crawford

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Michael Crawford Michael Crawford, still the world stage's most famous Phantom of the Opera, will soon be coming back to New York in another memorable role. The English actor had been scheduled to star in the high-camp musical Dance of the Vampires this spring at the Minskoff Theatre. However, the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon created too many delays and problems, and now the new show, a hit in Vienna with a different cast, will arrive at the Minskoff next fall. In an early October phone interview, Crawford discussed Phantoms, real and fictional; Vampires and Witches, and perhaps the ultimate Phantom antidote: Walt Disney.
Michael Crawford.
Michael Crawford. (Photo by Photo by Creston Funk)

Michael Crawford, still the world stage's most famous Phantom of the Opera, will soon be coming back to New York in another memorable role. The English actor had been scheduled to star in the high-camp musical Dance of the Vampires this spring at the Minskoff Theatre. However, the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon created too many delays and problems, and now the new show, a hit in Vienna with a different cast, will arrive at the Minskoff next fall. In an early October phone interview, Crawford discussed Phantoms, real and fictional; Vampires and Witches, and perhaps the ultimate Phantom antidote: Walt Disney.

Playbill On-Line: So what happened with Dance of the Vampires?
Michael Crawford: I don't really know. I was traveling yesterday and hadn't heard [the postponement] completely confirmed. My answering service had a message to call producers. I knew they were considering it, though. They thought it would be prudent under the present circumstances. It was a decision made surrounding the tragic events.

PBOL: Sorry, but there's no avoiding the question: Where were you when...?
MC: I was in Los Angeles and was awoken by a friend from New York. They were incredibly upset. "Are you watching?" It was six o'clock in the morning, so I obviously wasn't. I turned the television on. I don't think life has been the same since that morning for any of us. I traveled to New York two days later on a friend's private aircraft. It wasn't the New York, obviously, that I had known and loved anymore.

PBOL: What was so different?
MC: Well, I'd been working till late in the evening on the script. I came home the third night after the event. I walked seven blocks and passed three people. This was from Fifth Avenue to Sixth, four blocks across from 57th and 54th Streets. One of the people I actually I bumped into — we had our heads down. Everyone is so reflective. No, I didn't go down to Ground Zero. I went as far as the public were allowed. I didn't ask to go further, out of respect; I just wanted to stand with the others. There's been an amazing outpouring of sympathy for the tragedy. Those pictures still move me. Last night I went through Grand Central and saw all these photographs, still, of people missing. On one photo it had "Found." The tears began to flow again. It's so somber still. It's such a small world, the British and Americans. I called my daughter at home to say I was okay, and I delayed my visit by two days (I was due to fly in that day). Her best friend's husband was in New York and was late for a meeting he was chairing at Risk Waters Group (a financial publication) that was meeting in the restaurant on the top. Forty other people, British people were lost.

PBOL: And ultimately the producers made the decision to delay Dance of the Vampires.
MC: Yes. Though I don't know what the team have got in mind as far as the future. I think everyone will be supportive of whatever's best for the show and the community. PBOL: Before the disaster, where was Vampires at in terms of readiness for Broadway?
MC: It's still a work in progress, but we're pretty near now what we want. I think it's changed considerably from the original production in Vienna.

PBOL: Have you got a handle on Count von Krolock?
MC: I'm still working on the character. I need to get the walk and the understanding of him and why he says certain things. I need to straighten out a line for the character from beginning to end. I like Jim [Steinman]'s music very much. That's what first attracted me to the project. For me, it's a slightly different kind of music to sing, more of a rock-type base than I've ever sung before. More gritty. So I work very hard every day. I'm vocalizing two or three hours a day to strengthen up the cords. Only time will tell if I have to lessen my role. One doesn't want to go into a show and miss performances. I've had that happen, and it's very, very upsetting to an artist if they can't perform and they're supposed to. There's a great sense of responsibility about that.

PBOL: Speaking of missed performances, whatever happened with bringing The Witches of Eastwick to Broadway?
MC: We did talk about that. I spoke with Cameron Mackintosh for quite a few weeks about the project, early last year or the year before. It did interest me, because I enjoyed the movie. But the time frame didn't work out in the end. I needed more time. I'd just finished a concert tour around the world and was absolutely exhausted. I needed a few more months, and they had to go sooner than I felt I could. Since then I've heard no word of it coming to New York, but I don't have a big ear for gossip.

PBOL: And speaking of gossip: What's the latest on the "Phantom" movie?
MC: At this point, if you hear anything, do let me know. The artist is the last one to hear. If the movie's ever made, I'm sure their choice will be a wise one. But I can't live waiting for that. I had a wonderful time doing it onstage, and it did an enormous amount for my career. For that I'm eternally grateful.

PBOL: Any odd or embarrassing stories about your years in the mega musical?
MC: So many things go wrong and you get by them. The gondola in Phantom was one of the banes of my life! I don't know if it's affected Phantoms ever since. The device was run rather like a child runs a toy car around the room with a joy stick. That's what controls this very heavy iron gondola. When they first learned to operate it, it would run amok many nights. One time, two wheels ventured over the pit. I leapt out and grabbed it before it slapped the string section. I lost the look of the cool Phantom that evening. But remarkably, when I asked them, "Did you see what happened with the boat?" They didn't notice. I must've got out in a smoother way than I thought I did. They didn't see the sweat pouring down my face. Also, the organ would go off in the early days. When the stage is run by computers, you never know what's going to happen. They're wonderful when they work, but computers do worry me a little. When the computer went wrong, the organ would simply disappear into the wings. What do I do? Mime that there's an organ there? But I swung out of the way and it came back on. The bed would come on from another scene. Then go off. Then come on again. Oh, the poor person controlling the computer!

PBOL: Yet another reminder that anything can happen in a live show, and you have to be ready for whatever.
MC: True. I've always gone on my instincts. One should always be very prepared for success or failure. I'm obviously very nervous about doing Vampires; I haven't chosen to do a show for 14 years. I've been doing concerts. There was my Las Vegas show [EFX], yes, but that's not quite the same as doing Broadway or a West End show. I think the first thing to be prepared for is failure. You must also be prepared for success, so you know how to handle it. The success of Phantom made me so happy. And you never forget it for one minute how hard the climb was to get to that position.

PBOL: Do you recall the first live stage show you saw that made a huge impression on you?
MC: Danny Kaye at the London Palladium. I just thought he was electrifying and so charismatic. I was very shy, painfully shy as a child. I still am in many ways. I'm not a likely candidate, necessarily, to go onstage. But I had every desire to go on the stage after I saw him. To this day I don't know why I'm an actor. I'd wanted to be a pilot. But it takes a brain to do that — they didn't tell me that! The academic side baffled me somewhat. My performing career now goes back 45 years. I started at 15 with Benjamin Britten in the English opera group, which was an ideal way to start because they were top professional people, wonderful people. The best people will always help you and will always teach you something. You just have to be open to hear that voice. It's such a great profession where you absolutely never stop learning. When you work with an exciting director, they can introduce you to an aspect of your character you never knew you could portray. That's exciting. The child should never leave you. It should never leave any of us. The wonderment.

PBOL: Which brings us to Walt Disney. You've just released an album of songs from the more recent Disney animated musicals. Is there a particular theme or perspective running through the album?
MC: They all happen to be love songs. But that really is coincidental. I like the feel of the album. It was my choice to put them in the order they felt they just sat, with the finality of "I Will Go Sailing No More," at the end. (The end of my life? I hope not!). I found it very healing, especially at this time. Especially some of the lyrics. I like the modern Disney music. I listened to about 300 songs to choose these 10. It took a long time and a lot of thought as to whether to go with the beautiful old-fashioned music, but I knew that more contemporary songs would be a bigger challenge.

PBOL: What was your favorite Disney movie as a kid?
MC: It was "Dumbo." My lone "old" entry on the CD, from the early years [1941], is "Baby Mine." It was such a beautiful song. I liken it to The Phantom, that is, someone rejected because of what they looked like, but the inner self came through in the end. I think they taught good lessons to children.

PBOL: So in the months waiting for Dance of the Vampires to gear up, will you tour to promote the album?
MC: I don't want to take on a strenuous tour, that's for sure. A tour is very, very tiring. But I may do a few concert dates. Go back to Australia, New Zealand. I haven't been to Canada for a while. The album went to number 1 in Australia, and went platinum and to number two in New Zealand. I couldn't get past Dido — you're up against the strangest names and types of music! Seriously though, we were releasing this album when the tragedy hit in New York, so I thought it was a little — the wrong time to promote a product. So we delayed it. Now we'll be promoting it just before Thanksgiving, though it's in the stores already.