They’re In It For the Long Run!
One of the greatest challenges facing any actor is playing the same role in the same show, eight shows a week. So think about what it’s like to perform the same role in the same show for years and years! TheaterMania recently spoke to four such veteran performers: Hugh Panaro, who has starred in The Phantom of the Opera in both the title role (his current assignment) and as Raoul; Judy McLane, who is about to begin her seventh year as Tanya in Mamma Mia!; Alton Fitzgerald White, who has played Mufasa in The Lion King on Broadway and throughout the country for a decade; and Jersey Boys‘ Peter Gregus, who has played Bob Crewe since the show began its run at the LaJolla Playhouse in 2004.
THEATERMANIA: Hugh, can you talk a little about your journey in Phantom?
HUGH PANARO: It’s pretty neat. When Phantomfirst came out, I was doing Les Misérables. I hadn’t seen it and got the audition for Raoul. When I was playing Raoul, I had no desire to play The Phantom; Michael Crawford and Mark Jacoby were men, and I was only 25 years old. Eight years later, I got my first taste at being The Phantom, but only for six months. I feel that I am the right age now — at 47 — to be The Phantom. I am a more seasoned human being.
TM: Are there people still at the Majestic from your first go-round?
HP: I knew some of the guys and girls in the crew as kids, since their fathers were the stagehands when I was playing Raoul. Over the last 23 years, we’ve had people retire and, unfortunately, people pass away. This last time coming back, I really didn’t know too many cast members, but I knew the doorman.
TM: How do you keep the role fresh after all these years?
The role is pretty complex and layered, and the audience is different every night. So the energy exchange between the actor and audience is different each night. On a business level, I know how much money people are paying to see the show, so will not let them leave without giving them 100 percent.
TM: What are the challenges of playing the role for so many years?
HP: One of the biggest challenges is reeducating your body. When you sing the same role over and over, it’s important to sing other material. You need to constantly change your muscle memory. Sometimes, you will find me putting on a Billy Joel record and singing along. When I warm up, I sing anything but Phantom songs.
TM: So, what are the benefits for staying in the same part for so long?
HP: You really get to work on a character in-depth. You can dissect a piece over time. Some nights, things come out a little different and you learn from it. It fascinates me that you can still learn something after all of these years later. There is always something to work on. It’s also nice knowing that you will have a steady paycheck in New York City!
JUDY MCLANE: I’m fortunate enough that the producers keep asking me to come back each year, and that they let me leave to do other gigs. These are the best producers I have ever worked for. It’s a happy environment. I work with great people. You are in the Broadway community. We have an amazing cast of people — you really have a family here. What I also love about being in this show is that it is an introduction to Broadway for people. Kids and young adults come to see this show. It’s a positive experience and will keep them coming back. I have more energy in my life because of this show.
TM: How do you wind down after each performance?
JM: I take the train home, that’s how I start to wind down. Once I get home, I will play with my cats and watch So You Think You Can Dance. My family works the day shift, so they are on a different schedule than me. They’ll ask, ‘why are you going to bed at one or two in the morning!’ I like to read and sometimes that helps, but it can also keep you up at night.
TM: Is it challenging to play Tanya night after night?
JM: I have to make sure that I don’t do too much during the day, so I can give the musical everything I have when I get to the theater. I still take voice lessons. The physical part is actually the most challenging. I am going for massages and physical therapy. And, the team changes the choreography from time to time. Today, we had a rehearsal and changed a few things. I know this role really well and I like to play games. I will take a line in the musical and do it differently to see how the rest of the scene goes.
TM: What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you on stage?
JM: So many weird things have happened over the years. I once went on with two different colored shoes for the wedding scene and didn’t realize it until one of the chorus members said something to me!
ALTON FITZGERALD WHITE: Mufasa is an iconic father. He is stern, but loving. He is the father we all wish we grew up with. He doesn’t have a lot to say in the show, so his words are chosen carefully. Ten years ago, I was in my late 30s; I had lots of energy and I wished Mufasa had more to say or another song to sing. Now, having another 10 years under my belt, I really can use my own life experiences and wisdom to be Mufasa without that.
TM: What are the challenges of playing this role for so many years?
AFW: The challenges of a long-running show are the repetition and performing the role consistently well every night. Some of my best professional training came from working in a theme park. I was doing five shows per day. When I landed my first Equity show, I thought, only eight shows per week? It takes a different discipline doing a long run. Balance is key and you need to find new things. I am lucky that I get to alternate my Simbas. They are very different, so I speak to them differently.
TM: What do you love most about still being in this show?
AFW: The benefit of a long-running show is the great lifestyle I get to live. This is my 20th year in New York and I get to live and work here. I have been blessed. Disney has been tremendous in letting me come and go to do other things. This is a family. There are New Yorkers still seeing this show for the first time. My friend just turned 55 years old and came to see the show. He said it took him back to his childhood.
TM: What else does playing Mufasa mean to you personally?
AFW: To be a black male actor and play a King on Broadway in this iconic story and deliver such a strong message to a black child is extremely powerful. This goes beyond color, age, and race. It’s a tremendous gift to me.
TM: What do you love about being part of this particular show?
PG: Jersey Boys is a small company. We only have 17 people. We go out a couple of times per month. It’s very intimate. We love to have new people join the cast, but it doesn’t happen that often — everyone stays! It also gives me an opportunity to try other things. I was the associate director of Broadway Bares for many years, and I am adapting a play by June Havoc called Marathon 33, which will have its first run at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
TM: What has been your biggest challenge?
PG: The biggest challenge is you forget that you’re telling a story that most people are hearing for the first time. So as an actor, you have to make sure everyone understands that story. I have my notes from La Jolla and Broadway rehearsals in my dressing room and look at them weekly. When needed, I will read over the script and everyone else’s lines to get back on track.
TM: What have you learned most from being in Jersey Boys?
PG: This has been a training ground for me as an actor, so I have learned a lot of lessons. Not every audience responds the same way to the show; sometimes audiences won’t applaud until the end of the night. Our director, Des McAnuff, said that the audience is not one person; they are a group of individuals acting in their own way. You have to be truthful about how you are telling the story and they will react in their own way.