As the first (and for some only) Phantom, Michael Crawford captivated the New York theatrical community when The Phantom of the Opera began performances at the Majestic Theater nearly 14 years ago. Although Crawford walked away with every theater award available that season, he hasn't appeared in a Broadway show since, instead he chose to enjoy a successful career as a concert and recording artist (and a high-paying run in Vegas' EFX). Of course, all of this will change next fall, when he headlines the new musical Dance of the Vampires, which is scheduled to open at the Minskoff Theatre. Crawford recently sat down with Broadway.com to chat about the ambitious new show, as well as The Disney Album, his latest recording featuring the hits of such contemporary Disney classics as The Lion King, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Mulan and the Toy Story movies.
Michael, you've been terribly missed on the New York stage since Phantom. That show was such a big deal when it opened-how do you look back on that time in your life?
It was a larger than life experience and it was frightening as well. When we arrived in New York, it was on the news. We hadn't robbed a bank or anything, but we were on the news. That was very scary. And I avoided doing interviews. I didn't want to somehow preempt the show. I just wanted to come in as quietly as possible without sounding like we were coming from a big success in London and were expecting the same response here. It's like playing comedy-a joke's never a joke until someone laughs at it. So we truly had no idea whether our show would be accepted-you'd be very arrogant to think otherwise. Hal [Prince] said, "Kid, this is gonna be so great for you. All of New York will know you." I said, "Please don't say anything like that." I was going around touching wood, any chair that I could get a hold of. Then the morning after opening night, I was walking down 57th Street to go to the throat specialist and people were looking at me on the street. I thought, I do not believe this, so I put my head down a bit and looked up again and a couple of people were pointing and I thought, I don't know how I'm going to handle this-I won't be able to go anywhere. And I got to the doctor's office and sat in the waiting room and people were still looking at me. So I put my head down and realized that my fly was open, and that my shirt was sticking through. And I suddenly realized why everyone was looking. I looked up and said to everyone in the waiting room, "Oh deal. And I thought I was famous!" When I zipped up, I realized that my fame wasn't as big as I thought it would be. And nobody else looked at me for the rest of the year that I did the show!
Phantom launched a big recording career for you.
Yes, that was a wonderful opportunity for me. Doug Morris, who was then with Atlantic Records, signed me up. I've been with them for 12 years now. It's been kind of great to be on a historic label like Atlantic. My kind of music isn't their kind of music necessarily, but they treat me very well. It's hard nowadays to get this kind of music played. Larry King's been spotlighting a lot of Broadway singers and adult contemporary singers on CNN. And Regis and Kelly do a terrific job, as well as Rosie. Letterman is also good, but I don't think it's really his kind of music. But a lot of these shows in New York are very supportive of Broadway and they're seen across the country. Broadway still has an enormous influence on the country. It still maintains its great name. It's still, as they call it, the Great White Way.
How did you pick the songs for The Disney Album? Obviously you're not doing songs like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."
This album came together because I did a duet of "Music of the Night" with Barbra Streisand that David Foster produced with Jay Landers. We had a good time working together and wanted to something together again. Jay Landers is now one of the heads of music at Disney and he called me last year and said they were going to try theatrical recordings of Disney music. He said, "Are you interested," and I thought for a half a second and said, "I'd love to." So I asked him to send me everything that they had and I spent two months listening and short-listing the songs that I wanted to do. It was more difficult than I imagined to form an album out of it all. I found that I wasn't really going anywhere by doing the earlier stuff. The only older song that I do is "Baby Mine" from Dumbo, which was the first movie that I ever saw. That's a beautiful lullaby for any new parent or grandparent. Overall, I found myself drawn to the more contemporary stuff which was written in the last ten years. The interesting thing is that I hadn't seen any of the films. I guess I stopped going; I didn't see The Lion King, Tarzan, Mulan, Toy Story. I just heard the songs on their own and thought they were beautiful pieces of music. The only way I could do them was to put my own feeling to the lyric. For instance, "You'll Be In My Heart" from Tarzan is sung to my daughter. Saying I'll always be there for her as a parent. "Even when I'm gone, just look over my shoulder and I'll still be with you." Of course, later on I find out that it's sung to a monkey in the movie!
Although you excelled in comedic roles earlier in your career, The Phantom of the Opera seemed to turn you into a very romantic figure. That romantic image is evident even on The Disney Album.
Well, they're all love songs. I didn't realize that until the album was done. Of course, someone could listen to the album and think, duh. But I didn't think of them as love songs when I was recording and selecting the songs. But yes, I think I am a romantic and it influences what you're drawn towards, but I also have a big sense of humor about myself. As you can tell with the unzipped fly story, I don't take myself very seriously. With fans, you can't tell. It's like food. Some are vegetarians, and others love a big steak. You're never going to please all of the people. There have to be people out there who just cannot stand you.
Sherie Rene Scott sounds great on the album in the duet "If I Never Knew You." What do you look for in women's voices?
Sherie's got such a warmth in her voice and a soul. I love that kind of voice. That kind of sound intrigues me. Billie Holliday, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland.these women all had an enormous influence on me. I could feel their soul. Althouh I didn't have the same life experience as Holliday or Garland.I haven't had that pain, but I could feel their pain and as a kid-I did have a bit of a tough childhood, so I could relate to that. When you feel love, it's a very warm feeling. I knew love from my grandmother and my mother, but in other areas of my life, it was hard. Tons of people go through confusing years and it stays with you, within our memories and it has an effect on your approach to life. When I sing a love song now, I feel the comfort from it and I can relate to it. If you bare your soul in a song, the audience will find something to relate to in it. When I sing an Irish song about my grandmother in concert, it's very hard not to cry. She was my pal in life and she died when she was 99. I miss her to this day, so I take her onto the stage with me every time I go.
You have made several concert appearances over the years and spent time in Vegas doing EFX, but now you're ready to come back to Broadway in Dance of the Vampires next season. Why this show? What do you look for?
You look for a challenge. The music in this show attracted me to it first and foremost. It was unusual and out of the norm. And all of the shows that had been offered to me over the years were either revivals or shows that seemed like too much work or the music wasn't memorable enough. Of course, you can always be wrong about projects. It's all about coming up with the right team. That's why Phantom worked so well when we did it. Vampires was originally performed in Germany. I saw it Austria when I was asked to record one of the songs by Jim Steinman. I went to see the show because they were talking about doing it on Broadway. I initially thought the character was very dark, which wasn't interesting for me-I wouldn't be doing anything that different from the Phantom. I mean, it's a different part, but I thought it could be swapped around a bit and you could bring in some humor from a different angle. The producers and writers were interested in exploring that, so David Ives joined the writing team and they went to work and come up with something that appealed to me more. So, fans of the German show, please keep going to Germany and give me a break! I just had to do what I thought was right. I think people would have said, "Why did he wait so many years to come back playing the same man with bigger teeth?" I'm excited about it, but I'm also very nervous. But you've got to be prepared-if you want to be brave and adventurous, you've got to go out there. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. But I will be trying my hardest with it, as will everyone else.
Is the show going to be camp? I've never seen the movie, but it sounds like it borders that line.
I've never seen the movie either. It's very hard to describe. The humor in it is intense. It's a fable. Let's start there. It's not real; it's pretend. If you go in truthfully and treat the characters honestly, you'll find the humor in it. If you're in a village and there are vampires nearby, it's a scary thing. A nightmare is a very scary thing for any of us. But when you describe the nightmare, it can be extremely funny. So that's sort of what we're going for with the show. But I wouldn't say it's camp. It's not a camp musical.
And you play the head vampire.
Yes, that's right. But they're still working on it, so it's slowly being revealed to me what I'm playing. I'm not sure. Each week I get a clearer picture of what I'm playing. It's still in development.
There's been a lot of talk about your contract, which a British newspaper reported would allow you to earn $180,000 a week.
It's a piece of fantasy journalism from my home country. It's ridiculous. I mean, anyone who knows how many people can fit in a theater knows that you don't do Broadway to make money. You do theater because you love it. You go to Vegas to earn money as well. That's where you earn money. But to come to Broadway.if it runs over a period of time and you have a massive success like Phantom, then everyone makes money. But for me to do a year on Broadway, I will be the same as every other Broadway performer. I'll be in there to fill up the house and feel very fortunate if we do. It offends other performers to read a story like that and to think, who does he think he is? I would be offended if I read that article. But at the same time I was very flattered that they thought that. But to earn a retirement pension from a show? That's not why you do it.
There's also talk that you will be signed to do the show in London and Los Angeles in addition to Broadway.
I would most certainly want to do it back home in London. And if I was good enough and the show was good enough, I'd like to do it in LA. I had the most wonderful time when I worked there with Phantom. But I'll be in a wheelchair by then, so maybe they'll get a younger guy.
Would you consider a return to The Phantom of the Opera?
I would never say no to anything. I'm very proud of that characterization and I'm very flattered that it's remembered so fondly. Under the right circumstances, I wouldn't say no to appearing in it again somewhere. It's like having a great relationship with someone that ended for some reason. You may say, let's have another go at it. I don't know if I could do it for a long period of time. But I don't want to treat it trivially by saying "been there, done that." It was much more than that. It was a fond experience.
What about the constant talk of the movie? You have a fan group that rallies for Hollywood to let you star in the Phantom movie. Is that hard to keep hearing people talk about it?
Obviously it's very flattering, but I try to keep a distance from it. The professional and fan element of it are very different things. I was signed to do the film 11 years ago and they postponed it because they thought it would interfere with productions all over the world. Since then, it's been on-again, off-again and slowly other actor's names have been mentioned and it has nothing to do with me. I did my best in the show and if I'm wanted, I'm wanted and if I'm not, then I'm not. But I don't sit around thinking, "Oh gosh, I'll die if I don't play it!" I'm very happy with what I achieved in the show and what it gave to me.
You have a loyal fan base, yet you are a very private person. Does it ever get scary?
They're a very caring group of people. Obviously, anyone with fans has some scary things happen to them and you just want to move on from those, but I have a really loyal and loving bunch so I appreciate them very much. When I go somewhere it's nice to know that there will be a crowd there to welcome me. As the years go by, the people in the audience who come to see you are there to listen to you, not to slam you. It's a very good energy for everybody.
You will be forever associated with the Phantom song "The Music of the Night."
Yes, it will be on the album of my greatest hits.
Do you still find pleasure in singing it after all of these years?
I adore it. I recently did a concert in Washington and as I was rehearsing, they were laying the floors in the arena. These great slabs of tile were being dropped as I was singing, but it didn't matter. When I sing that song, I just close my eyes and go off into another place.