THE LEADING MEN: All I Ask of Hugh

News   THE LEADING MEN: All I Ask of Hugh
March 21 isn’t here yet, but it might as well as be spring with these "Leading Men" to brighten our days: Hugh Panaro (The Phantom of the Opera), David Osmond (Cast Party) and Marcus Simeone (Cat on a Leash).
Hugh Panaro
Hugh Panaro Photo by Ben Strothmann

It takes an hour of makeup to transform the handsome Hugh Panaro into the hideous-looking Phantom of the Opera, but nothing can mask this Broadway hunk’s thrilling tenor or incredible charisma. Norm Lewis, his co-star from Side Show, raves, "Even with all that makeup, he’s a sexy Phantom. He can’t hide it." Stephen Buntrock, who played opposite Panaro in Martin Guerre, gushes, "Hughie redefines the role. He brings this sexy creature to the front, but he also has this childlike persona that could break down like a five-year-old at any moment. He’s breathtaking." Erin Dilly, another Martin Guerre co-star and Buntrock’s fiancée, adds, "We were sobbing from the word ‘go.’ He’s such a soulful actor and he’s like my big brother."

Panaro, who made his Broadway debut in Les Misérables, started acting at 13, doing dinner theatre in Philadelphia. At 15, this one-time "chunky" actor lost 50 pounds in three months by dieting on oyster crackers, cheese, horseradish and water. Years later, he got his Equity card doing Mary Sunshine in Chicago in Connecticut, and because he was so trim and the same size as Lucie Arnaz, Panaro wound up wearing one of her costumes, "without an alteration," recycled from I Do! I Do!

As impressive as his resume is, he says, "I’ve always had to fight for my roles." In David Wienir and Jodie Langel’s new book, "Making It on Broadway" (Allworth Press), Panaro says, "It wears you out. I [still] have to audition and keep proving myself and hone my craft. . . . I’ve had to talk myself off the ledge a lot of times. But, somewhere, I find it: the love and the heart [of theatre] that I still remember when I was 13."

Away from the stage, the charming 6-foot actor dotes on Soot, his adorable black Labra-poodle puppy, and loves to cook: "Julia Child is a god. Growing up, I watched her show all the time. When I was 8, I could make puff pastry."

Question: Phantom just celebrated its 16th birthday, but you have quite a history with it. You played Raoul in 1991, then the Phantom in 1999 and now you’re back. Why do you think so many folks identify with the Phantom?
Hugh Panaro: He’s deformed on the outside, but people identify with his pain on the inside. The Phantom was abused from birth. His mother slapped a mask on him and shunned him as did the rest of the world. Plus, he’s a genius, and the line between genius and crazy person is pretty thin. I did Show Boat with Cloris Leachman, and she’s one of the most phenomenal actresses, and I love her, but she’s eccentric. Q: When you first played Raoul, you were 26, and now you’re playing the Phantom and just turned 40. How have you changed as an actor?
Panaro: I’ve lived so much more life, and it hasn’t all been happy. I’ve been through an engagement, a marriage and a divorce [with Tracy Shayne, who played Christine in Phantom from 1994-97]. Every night Christine hands me the [wedding] ring back at the end of the show, that whole portion of my life comes flooding back. You think things will last forever, and it’s not that way. As you get older, your responsibilities are greater. When I was 26, I didn’t think about mortgage payments as much as, "Oh, I have to go to the gym because Raoul has his shirt ripped open."

Q: Are you looking forward to the "Phantom of the Opera" movie?
Panaro: Are you kidding? I can’t wait. Emmy Rossum, who’s 16 and plays Christine, has been by the theatre and hung out in my dressing room. She’s a doll. I asked her if the Phantom’s makeup was gonna be similar to the stage version. And she said, "No, I don’t think it’s going to be as extreme; they want him to look hot!"

Q: Have you met Gerard Butler, who plays the Phantom?
Panaro: He’s come to see the show, but he didn’t stop backstage, which says to me that he’s going to steal some stuff and was too chicken [to see me]. [Laughs.]

Q: And do you know Patrick Wilson, who’s playing Raoul?
Panaro: I do. I finally saw him in "Angels in America" [on HBO]. He’s brilliant. He’s a theatre person and can really sing. He’ll be great.

Q: Speaking of movies, you were in a cute romantic comedy: Victor Mignatti’s "Broadway Damage" (1998), now out on DVD. Was it fun playing a pop musician and hustler who falls for an actor (Michael Lucas) and calls musicals "cheesy"?
Panaro: I loved it. I had a ball and filmed it while I was in Show Boat. I never get to play the bad boy. I’m always the boring romantic nice guy. To be cast as the gay prostitute, the one that wears leather vests, cracked me up.

Q: Phantom is the second longest-running Broadway musical, but you also were in one of the shortest-running ones: The Red Shoes (1993).
Panaro: You mean The Dead Shoes. When I did the workshop with Susan Schulman, it was a beautiful experience. It had songs by Jule Styne and choreography by Lar Lubovitch. Then some egos got out of joint and Susan was fired. It was so sad. She was replaced by someone [Stanley Donen] who made "Singin’ in the Rain" and all those Audrey Hepburn movies, but had no business directing a stage musical. He’d never directed a stage musical. It was a nightmare. One day he cut a whole section of dialogue and I spoke up, and he said, "Hugh, don’t be a moron." I said, "Mr. Donen, please don’t call me a moron." And he said, "Then don’t act like one."

Q: How did that experience compare to Side Show (1998)?
Panaro: That was an absolute love fest. It was the most amazing cast: Emily Skinner, Alice Ripley, Norm Lewis, Jeff McCarthy. Plus, there was Henry Krieger, Bill Russell and Bobby Longbottom. But the show’s publicity department never picked up the ball. A TV commercial was never made. There weren’t even photos in front of the house. We had a cult following, but not enough people knew we existed.

Q: You’re best known for playing the leading man in musicals, but you once did a revival of Joe Orton’s farce Loot in Dallas. How was that?
Panaro: It sounds odd since I’ve done so many musicals, but that was the best summer of my life. They didn’t want to see me because I was a musical theatre actor, but I got cast. It was a great play with great actors. I got to do comedy, which I seldom get to do. I’ve always felt like a character actor in a leading man’s body. People have asked me, "Wouldn’t you like to do Curly in Oklahoma!?" No, I’d rather play Will Parker or Judd. In Phantom, you’re behind a mask and makeup, and all you have is your voice and your physicality to convey this man’s life. That’s why I love the Phantom."

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When it comes to talent and the Osmond Brothers, and their sons, there’s apparently not "One Bad Apple" among them. David Osmond, the 24-year-old son of Alan Osmond and nephew of Donny, proved that recently when he wowed the crowd at Jim Caruso’s Cast Party by belting "Puppy Love." He quipped, "This is so cheesy. Donny would kill me!" Actually, David understudied Donny in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and starred in the national tour for two years.

With his good looks and great pipes, though, David can stand tall on his own, and not just because he’s 6-foot-4. He says, "The biggest misconception people have about the Osmonds is we’re all rich, spoiled kids, and that ain’t the truth. We’re not clones of our dads; we’re our own individuals. That’s why I’m breaking away from my brothers and writing my own material." In fact, he’s working on an alternative R&B album with pop superstar Brian McKnight; Donny will produce, and it might be out late this summer. David adds, "I’m writing as many songs as I can. Brian taught me that even a sucky song can be a good song because of the experience you had writing it."

And would he like to be on Broadway? "Absolutely! I love musical theatre, and I studied it at NYU. I auditioned for the role of Fiyero in Wicked, but they wound up with someone completely different." David jokes, "I must’ve scared them away!"

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When it comes to high and heavenly voices, I doubt even St. Peter has heard one as angelic as Marcus Simeone’s. You’ll swear he sounds like Johnny Mathis, especially when he croons "Answer Me." One of his fans even gave Simeone a gift: a Taco Bell chihuahua doll that plays "Chances Are." He says, "Mathis was a big influence because my mom always played his records. I just saw him, and he’s still amazing."

But Simeone, 37, has a dynamic and distinctive voice that is very much his own, whether he’s jazzing up Cole Porter’s "Miss Otis Regrets" or singing Janis Ian’s haunting "He Must Be Beautiful." A 2002 Cabaret Hotline Award winner and a 2003 Bistro Award recipient, he will appear March 5 at the Hoboken Cabaret Festival in New Jersey and perform with Sue Matsuki on March 13 in West Nyack and March 19 at Odette’s in New Hope, Pa. And the two-time MAC Award nominee brings back his show, Cat on a Leash, on March 14 and 21 to Danny’s Skylight Room in New York.

The show’s title is based on a new tune by Nicholas Levin, inspired by Simeone’s tabby, Nazo, which — unlike most cats — allows itself to be walked on a leash. He says, "The song’s about being different and finding your own voice." Another tune in the show is Maria Gentile and Caren Kole’s "If I Were a Boy." Though it was written for a woman, Simeone tackles it because "when I heard those lyrics, ‘If my clothes were different, if my voice were deeper,’ they spoke to me. Even in cabaret, if I were singing with a deeper voice, like Brent Barrett, [people would] know where to put me."

The Brooklyn native says his show is about empathizing with others: something he does daily as a social worker who deals with blacks, Latinos, people with HIV and the homeless. He knows what it’s like to be perceived as different. Though he’s three-quarters Italian and one-quarter Puerto Rican, the olive-skinned entertainer says, "I’ve been mistaken for light-skinned African-Americans, and they’re beautiful. Maybe it’s my lips. Someone once told me that I looked like Shari Belafonte. I said, ‘Not even Harry?'" He jokes, "Maybe my next show will be devoted to Shari’s music."

Influenced also by Jane Olivor and Diana Ross, the 5-foot-7 singer is drawn to tunes that are true to life: "That’s why I love Luther Vandross’ ‘Dance With My Father.’ And when I first heard Tom Andersen and Tim DiPasqua’s ‘Then Again,’ I bawled my eyes out. Everyone’s been in a relationship that changes. Those songs are so real." Also close to his heart is his own lovely "Lullaby," which he wrote with Charles Rice.

Aside from his music, this sensitive soul says he’s happy spending time with his boyfriend, cooking, cleaning and collecting old movies. He also relishes being with his seven nieces and nephews ("I would love to have children"). Looking back, he wanted to sing like Michael Jackson when he was five. But he was so shy that he never joined the choir or sang in the school musicals. Simeone didn’t really start performing until he was in his twenties — when he appeared on "Star Search" and "Showtime at the Apollo" — and he made his cabaret debut only in 2000: "Doubt and fear are crippling. I used to be a drama queen and didn’t believe in myself. But now I say, ‘To hell with it.’ I’m going to be happy and enjoy the journey!"

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There’s so much to see in New York: Ben Strothmann, the fantastic photographer who shoots "The Leading Men" for this column, celebrates his 25th birthday at Jim Caruso’s Cast Party on March 1 at 10 PM at the Ars Nova Theater, 511 W. 54th St. (212-868-4444). He’ll even croon a tune. See more of Ben’s fine photos of Broadway and cabaret stars at

Gregg Marx, who won a 1987 Emmy Award as Tom Hughes on "As the World Turns," will leave his soap fans in a lather with his New York cabaret debut on March 16 at 7 and 9:15 PM at Danny’s Skylight Room, 346 W. 46th St. (212-265-8133). The act’s called Wet Night, Dry Martini, and his musical toast will include the Gershwins, Sondheim and Rodgers & Hart. By the way, this soap stud’s grandfather is Gummo Marx, and his granduncles are Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo.

Finally, I recommended Brandon Cutrell’s new cabaret act with "No Reservations," sight unseen, last month. Having gone to the opening, it’s a pleasure to report that this 2003 MAC Award winner has turned in his best show yet. The boyish tenor, 27, is laugh-out-loud funny with an old Dinah Washington tune, "TV Is the Thing This Year," but it’s his vibrant vocals and excellent acting that steal the show. Backed by the lovely Lisa Asher, Cutrell closes his show with a compelling a cappella version of the spiritual "I’m Going Up a Yonder." As directed by Phil Geoffrey Bond and musical-directed by Ray Fellman, Cutrell’s stock will be definitely going up a yonder itself. He plays again March 6 and 13 at 7 PM at The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212-255-5438). Visit

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at

Until next month, let’s hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for the San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

Brandon Cutrell (left), David Osmond and Marcus Simeone
Brandon Cutrell (left), David Osmond and Marcus Simeone Photo by Ben Strothmann
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