On July 1, 2011, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with the extraordinarily talented award winning Hugh Panaro (along with his cute and adorable dog "Soot"), who's vocals I could listen to for hours. In addition to his talent, Hugh is personable, inspiring, grounded, and most of all kind-hearted. He has once again returned to Broadway's "The Phantom of the Opera" to entertain the eager and excited audiences who are still coming to see the longest running show on Broadway. Hugh is one of the few actors who have been cast as both "The Phantom" and "Raoul" in the Broadway production and is thrilled to have had the opportunity to play both roles. He has happily been part of "The Phantom of the Opera" on and off since 1991. In addition to "Phantom," Hugh has had the pleasure of working in two other Cameron Mackintosh productions. He made his Broadway debut in the smash hit musical "Les Miserables" as "Marius" and created the title role in "Martin Guerre." Hugh also originated the roles of "Buddy" in "Side Show" and "Julian Craster" in Jule Styne's last musical "The Red Shoes." He received an Outer Critics Circle Award Nomination for his performance in Elton John's "Lestat" (based upon Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles") and made his West End debut in Harold Prince's "Show Boat" as "Gaylord Ravenal." At the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, Hugh received the Barrymore Award for his performance as "Jean Valjean" in "Les Miserables" and was recently nominated for his portrayal of "Fagin" in "Oliver!" When Hugh is not performing in a show, he can be found singing around the world in concert. He has toured Europe with Barbara Steisand and played numerous concert halls with various symphony orchestras.

To experience the talent known as Hugh Panaro, I would highly suggest going to see him in "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre in New York City (247 West 44th Street, between Broadway & 8th Avenue). Click here for tickets!

For much more on Hugh be sure to visit http://www.hugh-panaro.net!

1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? My parents felt it was part of my education to be well rounded to take your child to the opera, to ballet (I remember seeing "The Nutcracker") and so they took me to New York to see my very first Broadway show, which was "Annie" because Andrea McArdle was from my neighborhood in Philadelphia. Technically my parents were the catalist for the inspiration, but Andrea was the first person my age I'd ever seen on a stage and just blew my socks off. She was the first person to make me go, "Hmmm, I don't think I want to be a vetenarian anymore, I think I'll be an actor." Me: Have you gotten to work with Andrea before? We have actually. We did an evening of Tim Rice music together and sang "A Whole New World" from "Aladdin" which was really fun. We got to hang out together and tell stories and of course I had like a million stories about "Annie" and Dorothy Loudon, who I also got to work with and I was just blown away. Dorothy was also an inspiration for me to become an actor.

2. Who is the one person you haven't worked with that you would like to? Oh my gosh, there are so many amazing people I'd love to work and other people I'd love to work with again. Unfortunately, a lot of the people I'd like to meet, let alone work with, are no longer with us like Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Alfred Drake, or John Raitt. I always feel like I was born in the wrong era. I never got to see Ethel Merman live. I've only gotten to see video and TV appearances. Of current performers, I idolize Meryl Streep. I think she is just amazing. The whole "Side Show" experience was also so incredible. If there was a way to get Norm Lewis, Alice Ripely, Emily Skinner, and myself back together, I would do it, in a heartbeat. Me: That would be great. Maybe even just a concert. Hugh: Yeah, just something fun. They're family to me.

3. You have been part of "The Phantom of the Opera" now for several years now. Hugh: Since 1991, I think, when I played "Raoul." Me: What initially attracted you to the show and what keeps you coming back? Well, initially, it was such a new show back when I joined. Prior to "Phantom," I was playing "Marius" in "Les Miserables" on Broadway when they were having auditions for "Phantom" and the word was Kevin Grey was going to be moving up to play "The Phantom" and because Kevin was one of the first young "Phantom's," I think they needed someone who would look compatable with him. So, I came over and auditioned. At that time, "Les Miserables," "Phantom," and "Cats" were the three big British mega musicals, but "Phantom" was the gold ring if you will, so the chance to be in the show drew me to it and the idea that I would get to play "Raoul" was even better. Interestingly enough at that time, I was 25, I didn't have any designs to play "The Phantom" at all. I was very happy playing "Raoul" and I didn't really think in terms of "I want to play The Phantom" because there were other roles I was dying to do like "Tony" in "West Side Story" or "Pippin," but eight years later, I came to play "The Phantom" and I think the big difference was age. Even five years from the last time I played the role, the age helps tremendously to understand the character because there's so much father figure imagery built into the lyrics and the show.

The thing that I love about "Phantom" and that I identify with is that "The Phantom" represents anybody who has ever been teased or made to feel unloveable by the world. I think that's why "The Phantom" and "Elphaba" from "Wicked" are so popular with teenagers because I think when you are a teenager you feel like an outcast a lot of the time whether you have green skin, a deformity, or some other difference. I think that's why "Phantom" is still so relevant today, during these times of kids being bullied. When I was younger, I was teased a lot because I was heavy...being called fatso, "Fat Albert," and "Pugsley" from "The Addams Family," which doesn't compare to what some people have gone through, but to me at the time, it was very hurtful. It's rough out there and people can look at these characters like "The Phantom" and "Elphaba" and identify with the hurt. "The Phantom" wasn't born bad, society sort of made him that way. I mean the first thing his mother did was stick a mask on him. He was a tortured soul.  How do you keep the role of "The Phantom" fresh for you? That's an interesting question and I have a really dumb answer. It's different everynight because it has to be. Everynight is a different audience. That energy exchange, where you do something, they react, or you do something, they don't react. It teaches you and it refines your performance each night. Also, on a very technical level, I'm lucky because I've worked with four "Christines" over the past two weeks and I love that because it's new eyes to act with everynight. When you are doing the role opposite four different leading ladies, it's going to be different each time and I love that. The beauty of live theatre is that it can never come out the same way twice. You can try as hard as you want, but it always is going to come out differently. I do also believe it's part of our job to keep it fresh because I know how much tickets cost these days, so I feel it is part of my job description that each audience gets the best show that I can do. You can't save it or think in terms of "I'm going to take it easy today." I don't want an audience to walk away and think I wasn't good.

4. What is the make-up process like for you to transform into "The Phantom?" At this point in playing the role, does it still help you embody the character and get more excited to go on stage or is it more of your time to just relax before the show? It's definitely not time to relax for me. Having been an actor since I was 12, I'm used to doing my own make-up, so to get to have someone do my make-up for me feels ridiculously luxurious. I'm lucky because I've known my make-up artist Thelma Pollard since I was 25 and having watched the make-up process, I actually get to help. The actual act of putting your make-up on, that to me, is part of the process of getting into the character. I played "Fagan" in "Oliver" at the Walnut Street Theatre and I would get there early just to start gluing on my prostetic nose and start the shadows. I loved the fact that I got to do it all myself. It was like me creating the character, turning myself into this character. Thelma and I together are a good team. The actual process takes about 45 minutes to an hour, but we usually play music. Since "The Phantom" backstage, is a very solitary track, I don't get to see a lot of people, so the make-up time is usually the time when people come to visit me and just hang.

5. What have you learned about yourself from being an actor? I've learned, especially from specific roles how to be a good leader and how to be a team player and still be a good leader. I think we are really lucky to do what we do. I try to come to work and put my best foot forward and have a really good time. If everyone comes in with that attitude, the whole atmosphere will be joyful. I've learned how important it is to treat everyone the same and that we are all in this together. That goes from the actors to the wig department to the guys running the spotlights and sound to the ushers. You know that saying "It takes a village to raise a child, well it takes a village to put on a show."

6. What is your favorite part of the rehearsal/preview period in a show? I love rehearsals because it's so social. We have rehearsals at "Phantom" occassionally when someone new is going into the show and it's my favorite time because again the track of "The Phantom" is so solitary, that it's my time to see everyone without their wigs and make-up. It's just so nice to have that time with your family. I really feel that we are a family. We bring Krispy Creme donuts or bagels and we get to hang out and find out who's having a baby, who's getting married, etc.

Previews are tricky, at least from my experience with "Lestat." I was sometimes handed a song at 5pm to be put in at 8pm that night. Same tune, but new lyrics. It was just plain nerve racking. I would write the lyrics on cue cards behind my conductor in the pit, but what I didn't realize was that the lights were so bright at night that I couldn't see anything I wrote and it was scary. So, I would take rehearals with Kripsy Creme donuts anyday over previews where you're changing things at 5 minutes to 8pm.

7. Favorite place to practice/rehearse on your own? I have a weekend place I like to go to because I've warmed up in my apartment before and then I'm waiting at the elevator and someone will say "I heard you practicing in your apartment last night." That makes me really uncomfortable. So I love going to my weekend place where there are a lot of woods/hiking trails around and I can really talk or sing as loud as you want and no one can hear me or I can just sit on a rock and recite my lines and no one is judging me, including myself. A car is another place I like to practice.

8. Favorite way to stay in shape? I do love spinning because I'm half-Italian, half-Irish and the Irish don't really have a butt, so the spinning gives me a butt.

9. Boxers or Briefs? Definitely briefs. I like structure, I don't like to be dangling in the breeze.

10. Favorite website? Oh my gosh, I love foodnetwork.com. I love to cook, mix drinks, and eat. I'm such a foodie. I also love Overstock.com because I just love to look for bargains. Half the time, I don't even need anything.

11. "Mary" or "Rhoda"? Oh man, they're both amazing, but I'm gonna go with "Rhoda" because I identify more with "Rhoda's" mother "Ida Morgenstern."


11. What's the best advice you've ever received? When I first moved to NY Mandy Patinkin was the "IT" guy. I would go into every audition and try to imitate him and sound like him because I thought that was what they wanted. One of the the accompanist's was really helpful and told me "You need to figure out who you are and be the best version of yourself rather than an imitation of somebody else." That advice that was life changing for me because after I stared I doing that, all of a sudden I started getting hired. The advice follows through because if I tried to go out on stage and do Michael Crawford's performance of "The Phantom," it would be ridiculous because I can only do my work as I understand it. I tell this to young actors all the time because it's really tempting to watch American Idol and try to be like so and so, but you should really just try to be the truest version of yourself so that people will at least see you. They may not like you or they may love you, but at least they'll see you. 

12. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? My doooggg! He's my little guy and I'm stupidly attached, but I'm an animal freak.

13. What was it like to tour Europe with Barbra Streisand and did that experience change the way you perform in anyway? It was absolutely amazing. She was AMAZING, kind, generous, funny and the ultimate professional. Growing up, Barbra was one of the voices that literally taught me how to sing, especially when it came to breath control. So to be onstage holding her hand and singing with her was a dream come true! As if that wasn't enough, I got to see Europe at the same time! For me, watching Barbra is a lesson on being authentic – a clear vision of who you are as an artist. I'm still workin' on that!

Jan Maxwell Victory Interview

Tommy Greenwald