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‘Phantom doesn’t need me,’ says Jonathan Roxmouth

The man behind the mask and the lead actor in the Middle East debut of Phantom of the Opera provides his insight into one of theatre’s most exciting roles 

The Phantom is a loving man! He feels things on a level that most of us would never, ever understand. He is one of the most incredible people because he’ll make you feel things you’ve never felt in a way that might terrify you.

Phantom doesn’t need me.” It’s fair to say Jonathan Roxmouth’s nonchalance catches me off guard. 

The night before, after all, the South African actor had been announced as the titular character in the Middle East debut of The Phantom of the Opera. And he’s surprisingly calm. 

“The thing is, the show is written by luminaries of musical theatre,” Roxmouth explains. “You have Andrew Lloyd Webber who wrote the score, you’ve Hal Prince directing, Maria Björnson designing, you have Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe doing the lyrics… With all of that, there’s enough there for me to trust that whatever happens — as long as I perform that faithfully and I myself have faith in it and I play for the truth of it — I’ll be fine. The show doesn’t need my help.”

Despite his top billing in one of the most anticipated shows, Roxmouth remains humble. “I’m fully aware that this show is bigger than all of us. While I’m lucky enough to be a custodian of this role, it didn’t wait for me.

“By the very nature that it’s being performed by somebody different, my stamp will be on it no matter what. I’m not going out there consciously to do that.”

Roxmouth finds this realisation freeing. 

He grew up with Phantom of the Opera courtesy of his grandfather, who taught him to conduct to a cassette of the original cast recording — the bestselling cast recording of all time with more than 40 million sales worldwide. “I was about five or six, so the music itself is part of my family. And the more I do the show in different territories the more I realise how true that is for a lot of people — Phantom has become an heirloom of sorts that’s passed down from generation to generation. 

“To play it now, 32 years after it was written, is insane because it has the same effect on people, if not more so.”

The Phantom is a loving man! He feels things on a level that most of us would never, ever understand. He is one of the most incredible people because he’ll make you feel things you’ve never felt in a way that might terrify you.

Roxmouth has played a host of popular characters on the international stage, including Billy Flynn in Chicago, Che in Evita, Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Danny in Grease, but Phantom remains a career highlight. The character delivered his breakout role in 2011, when he became the youngest English-speaking Phantom in a production that also toured the Far East. He believes he doesn’t need to adapt his performance for the different territories. “The writing is good enough,” he says. 

“If I start adjusting it according to the audience, I’m not doing Phantom of the Opera any more. The show needs to be the same everywhere it goes. Otherwise, people aren’t going to be getting The Phantom of the Opera as we know it.”

With that, though, comes a certain amount of pressure — especially from die-hard fans, who call themselves “phans”. “It’s on another level, because there’s an ownership by the fans of the show and indeed this particular role. They have an idea of how it should be played and if it’s not that, they’re up in arms. If you miss a word or if one bit of staging is slightly different because that night you’ve stepped aside — down to that minutia. They’re present and it’s their show. But how lucky are we to perform for people who have as much ownership of the show as we do!”

Excited as he is, the demands of the role creep in. “The pressure of that is immense because you have to deliver on the level of Michael Crawford or nothing. And that stays with you, every night — I always feel it.

“When I come off the boat for the first time, you can feel the audience go, ‘There he is, don’t mess up,’” he laughs. “It’s never a case of, ‘Oh, well — show us.’ 

“That’s wonderful now, but when I was named the youngest English-speaking Phantom ever the pressure was awful, because then instantly people were interested to see what the fuss is all about. Whereas now, older and greyer, I’m more relaxed.”

It’s been almost a decade since he was first tapped for the role, giving the Phantom time to grow with and in him. “A lot happens in eight years; we evolve as human beings. We have successes, we have failures we, have loves, we have heartbreaks, and all those things inform something like this so much better. 

“Certain core things remain the same but coming back to it in effect a new man there are many things I don’t have to think about. Things that were a stretch at 24, I now understand better.

“It’s still as hard a role as I remember, though,” he admits. 

Phantom is the longest-running show on Broadway, having celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018, and the second-longest-running West End musical. The production has won more than 70 major theatre awards, including seven Tony Awards and four Olivier Awards. It boasts a cast and crew of 130 people for every performance, and has played to more than 145 million people in 150 cities across 30 countries. 

“They all have their idea of how it should be played,” Roxmouth says. “That’s why bringing it to a territory for the first time and being part of the premiere is the dream.” 

One of the show’s biggest themes that he finds particularly relevant is that of knowing when to quit and bowing out gracefully, exemplified through the character of Carlotta, a mature singer who doesn’t know how to let go when the young up-and-coming soprano Christine starts getting all her roles. “There are so many people of a certain age still trying to stay young and fresh and doing things they don’t have to. I can’t help but think, ‘Please stop. I want to remember you as you were, not as what you’re trying to be now.’ 

“That desperation to stay relevant is cringeworthy.”

A consummate gentleman, Roxmouth laughs off an invitation for names, even off the record. However, a topic he’s passionate about is misconceptions about the lead character. “I was asked in a previous interview if I’d agree that the Phantom is a lurk-in-the-night figure, and I got so defensive and upset,” he says. 

“Urgh, he is a loving man! He feels things on a level that most of us would never, ever understand. He expresses himself through music because he’s stunted. You know, he’s the ultimate Peter Pan; he’s the boy who never grew up but he is one of the most incredible people because he’ll make you feel things you’ve never felt in a way that might terrify you. But he’s special. 

“I often hope audiences would wonder what would have happened had he been accepted by society and not shunned… Because he is an architect, a composer, a genius, a designer — all these things, but relegated to the shadows.

“Ugh! The tragedy of that is horrendous. Just think what he could have contributed!” 

The award-winning actor’s voice breaks to reveal a tenderness when he talks about this character. “I talk about him as if he’s a real person. But I believe that somewhere along the line there are elements of truth in the show. Gaston Leroux [the French writer behind the original novel] certainly based a lot of those characters on real people that were in Paris at the time. So, who knows who the real person was that he based Phantom on...”

The Phantom, he says, is the perfect representation of what happens when society comes across somebody who’s born different. “Sadly, that hasn’t changed. Beauty and the Beast. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Phantom of the Opera… I think it’s human nature to fear what you don’t know or understand, but the reverse is also true — to embrace that can be so rewarding and fulfilling. General acceptance, I think, is the goal.”

I point out that 2019 is the Year of Tolerance in the UAE. “That’s fantastic,” he responds. “There’s no better time for Phantom to come here, then. And I think not just in this country, or this territory, this city, this region — that theme is sadly still relevant all over the world, and it shouldn’t be. It should be a default for us; hopefully it will be one day.”

Roxmouth describes this as the Rolls-Royce of roles and productions. I ask if there are any others on his wish list? “It sounds so glib to say this, but no,” he answers. “Any actor in musical theatre with a solid A-Flat in his range and a brain [laughs] wants to play the Phantom. It’s not only a rite of passage; it’s still regarded as the premium role. So, in terms of roles in existence — no. 

“I’d like to think that my dream role hasn’t been written. Hopefully, there’s something original down the line where I’ll meet the composers and the writers of the show and we’ll go, ‘This!’ 

“Hopefully there’s a show that’s waiting for me to be creative. Phantom isn’t it,” he laughs. 

The Phantom of the Opera makes its Middle East debut on October 16 at the Dubai Opera

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