Michael Crawford is best known as the original Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, but the dark angel of music actually made his name in musical comedy before leading what has become the longest-running Broadway show in history.
In fact, he credits his role as Cornelius Hackl in the Hello, Dolly! film as the paradigm-shifting moment in his career. “It changed my life,” he tells Playbill. “It’s not something that would turn you into a star; it was something that taught me and gave me the biggest opportunity of my life.”
Though he made his Broadway debut before Dolly, the lessons he learned from director Gene Kelly as well as co-stars Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau led him on the path to success. He made a name for himself with physical comedy on the London stage in No Sex Please, We’re British and on BBC TV with Some Mothers Do ’Ave ‘Em. He starred as P.T. Barnum in the West End production of Barnum, for which he won his first Olivier Award. Phantom would earn him a second and a Tony Award, as well.
As Hello, Dolly! prepares to hit the big screen August 11 and 14 in honor of its 50th film anniversary, courtesy of Fathom Events and TCM, Crawford reveals the story of his audition for Gene Kelly—and the coffee table dance to go with it—secrets from the original film set, how he transitioned from the gawky and buoyant Cornelius to the haunting and mysterious Phantom, and how he could be coming back to Broadway.
On landing the role of Cornelius Hackl.
“Roger Edens saw me doing a play called Black Comedy on Broadway. He went back to Los Angeles and told Gene Kelly and suggested that I might be suitable for the role of Cornelius. So when I got back to London, my agent got a call that Gene Kelly would like me to fly out and meet him in San Francisco, and so on a plane I got. I was given a large suite at the Fairmont Hotel. Finally, the bell went and I opened the door and there he was and he said, ‘Hi kid, can I come in?’ Watching him walk, he’s just dancing. He’s always dancing. He said, ‘Do you sing?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I started in choir in London and Saint Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey…’ and he said, ‘All right, can you dance?’ and I said, ‘I’ve done a bit in the bath’ and laughed. He didn’t laugh, so I thought Don’t try be funny. He said, ‘All right, listen. I want to see if you can dance.’ Suddenly—there was a coffee table in the room—and there was Gene Kelly. On a coffee table. He did about four or five steps and said, ‘Now get up here.’ So now I’m standing next to Gene Kelly on a coffee table in the biggest hotel in San Francisco and I’m petrified. He said, ‘Can you count to four?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And then he said, ‘Then you can dance.’ I began to get off the table and he said, ‘Get back up there, you gotta try it,’ and he had me by the collar and picked me back up onto the table. I must have gotten it right vaguely. If you walk and bend your knees every step you take, that’s how I was doing the steps. He said, ‘Listen, what we’re looking for for Cornelius Hackl is an attractive idiot. Now my wife thinks you’re attractive, and I think you’re an idiot.’”
On working with Gene Kelly.
“The biggest step of my life was to play Cornelius and to work with Gene Kelly. He was so kind to me, was so good to me, and patient. His enthusiasm… he never stopped. He cared that much that he would come up [to my house] and maybe bring his daughter with him. He was so disciplined. If you went along with it and you worked, he would nurture you and he would encourage you and it’s never left me.”
On crafting his Cornelius.
“What Mr. Kelly had seen was the naivete, and that’s what he wanted—an honest naivete in the character so that you weren’t playing the comedy role, you were playing a man that was really in pain because he couldn’t find a girl. There’s so much farcical comedy that should be played that way, I believe. If you play a clown, it’s very different from being a clown. A clown could be a very sad person, or could be a very disturbing person.”
On learning he was almost dubbed out of the film.
“Something I learned about a year ago is that, after the film, the producers wanted to dub my singing voice because of the way I sang ‘It Only Takes a Moment.’ Because it was too sensitive. And Gene fought for me, apparently. This story was told to me by his widow, Pat Kelly. One more reason for me to love him even more than I already do.”
On the high timbre of his voice.
“I didn’t [think anything of it]. I think the lower tones were needed for Phantom, for instance, and my teacher worked on me in that area. You get that breathiness—somebody’s soul singing, somebody’s gut. It’s coming from a growl not just saying ‘slowly, gently.’ That’s not seductive. That’s not hypnotic. I wanted to tell [Christine] how much I loved her (and in his mind he loved her), and it was in this dark way. I wanted it to be beautiful. And then you go high to notes like ‘Start to soar’ where the soft voice was still lingering and I could use it. As a singer, I’m more an actor, and I just took months to get that right.”
On singing “It Only Takes a Moment” for Hello, Dolly!.
“It was like my youth. I was really shy and I was intimidated by girls and I was a sort of skinny youth and I could make people laugh, but I didn’t have the bad boy look or anything. When you can’t have a relationship with just a simple girlfriend, you’re very sensitive about it. It’s, of course, wonderful to find in a character that requires that emotion. So I was able to draw from true life. The lyrics worked perfectly for me, saying, ‘It only took a moment for our eyes to meet and then my heart knew in an instant that I’d never be alone again.’ I mean, it’s so sad. Gene let me put that emotion in it. At the end of it, he just came over and there were tears running down my cheeks as I finished the song. Even though you were miming, you were singing full out and he threw arms around me and there were tears in his eyes.”
On the most joyful he felt on the Hello, Dolly! set.
“When I got a scene right, honestly. When I could sing ‘Put on your Sunday clothes there’s lots of world out there’ and you saw a smile on Gene’s face and [choreographer] Michael Kidd’s face at the end of it and all four of us had got it right with our steps, that we were all together and in sync with those brilliant dancers. To get me to be able to keep up in some way with these amazing dancers and still retain a character and look as though you’re enjoying the words, you feel like a duck on a pond.”
On a secret from the set.
“The ‘Waiter’s Gallop’... I’ve never felt energy like that from dancers. Changing costumes—because there were about 12 or 14 star dancers and they would keep changing costumes. They’d put a beard on someone and then they’d put glasses on them and they’d all be in the same number and it looks like there’s about a hundred of them out there. There’s a blonde boy with glasses then you see him without. Then he’s in front as one of the leading waiters carrying a tray and he’s got a little goatee beard.”
On transitioning from musical comedy to playing one of the most romantic leads in theatre history as the original Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera.
“I will never believe that people are fortunate enough to choose their parts. I do believe that these things can just cross our paths and if we’re lucky enough to have the map, you’ve got to be prepared. Comedy is a very serious business, too. I loved Joe E. Lewis when I was a kid, I loved Laurel and Hardy, I loved all those characters—Buster Keaton—they were idols to me. To go into Phantom it was, again, a tragic character, but I just wasn’t making people laugh. It was unrequited love. He goes through rejection. That, I felt, was my connection to everyone in the audience; rejection has hit us all. You’re not thinking, ‘I want to prove I can play drama.’ It’s a truthful story that you’re taking moments in your own life [to use].”
On his inspiration behind his Phantom.
“I was doing some entertaining in a hospital when we were doing Barnum. There was this little boy that I met in this old hospital. He was under the stairs on the way out in a bay and he was disfigured. He had a very large head and I just looked at him sitting cross-legged and those great big eyes were staring out. I just stood and looked at him and I thought, ‘This is my character.’ I can’t talk more about it, he just moved me so much. I based Erik on that little boy. He helped me create that character who went all over the world and made such an impression on people.”
On how a mistake in rehearsal became an iconic Phantom moment.
“At the end, when Christine drops her veil and [the Phantom] picks it up, that was an accident. Sarah Brightman, it had come offer head because she was running out in the rehearsal. I picked it up and put it to my face and smelled it; I likened it to my grandmother dying and I could smell her on her jackets.”
On what comes next.
“I’ve got the chance to make a recording. I’d like to sing song about changes in one’s life. When you get to this age—it’s high up there—you reflect and look on relationships or your children or your grandchildren and things that you look back on. I’m not doing this song, but it’s like singing ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ when you’re 20 and what do you know? So when you sing that in your 70s I think there’s a lot more depth to it, looking back and reflecting on the loves of your life. And I may be doing one more show in London next year, which will hopefully come to Broadway. Then I think I’ll call it a day.”