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New Production of "Phantom of the Opera" Plays Memphis’ Orpheum Theatre; Andrew Lloyd Webber Reminisces on the London Premiere

Production photos by Matthew Murphy and Alastair Muir

Sixteen years ago, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart’s The Phantom of the Opera became the longest-running show in Broadway history, surpassing Webber’s “now and forever” Cats’ 7,485 performances. On January 26, POTO continues its reign into a fourth decade, seemingly “now and forever.” 

POTO, produced by Cameron Mackintosh (Mary Poppins, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Cats,) and Webber’s Really Useful Company, is not only one of the most successful Broadway road shows ever but also one of the largest. This new production, co-produced with NETworks Presentations, as dazzling and dramatic as the original, launched in November 2013. It returns to Memphis’ majestic and historic Orpheum Theatre November 29 through December 10. The musical first took Memphis by storm in November 1997, with thousands of theatergoers from throughout the region making it a sold-out smash. It returned to the Orpheum by popular demand in 2001 and 2014.

The Tony Award-winning Best Musical has additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, who co-wrote the book with Webber, based on Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de L’Opéra. The classic story tells of a masked madman, terribly disfigured from a fire at the Paris Opera, lurking beneath the catacombs of the building [which actually exist, along with – as depicted in the show, an underground  lake] and reigning terror over all. He falls madly in love with soprano Christine, and devotes himself to creating a new star –  employing all manner of the devious methods at his command. That includes murder and, when he doesn’t get his way, crashing a massive chandelier onto audiences.
It’s estimated this reimagining of the romantic thriller has been seen by over 2.5-Million across country. There’s reinvented staging by director Laurence Connor (Broadway’s School of Rock, and Miss Saigon revival); and scenic design by Paul Brown.                    

The tour, with choreography by Scott Ambler and lighting by Tony Award winner Paule Constable, has a cast of 30, an eight-member corps de ballet, and 14-piece orchestra under musical supervisor John Rigby, making it one of the largest productions on the road.  

Tenor Derrick Davis is the infamous masked Phantom. He appeared on Broadway and tour as Mufasa in The Lion King; and regionally as Curtis Taylor Jr. in Dreamgirls. His CD, Life Music, is available on Amazon. For a preview of his stunning voice, check out: Derrick Davis sings “The Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera."

Canada’s Eva Tavares, portraying Christine Daaé, the ingénue at the center of POTO’s love triangle, is a triple treat talent: singer, actress, and choreographer. In March, she was featured in the Toronto world premiere of Richard Maltby Jr., David Shire, and Lobo M’s musical Sousatzka, book by three-time Tony Award nominee Craig Lucas (especially known for The Light in the Piazza), based on the 1962 novel, Madame Sousatzka (filmed in 1988, starring Shirley Maclaine).
In the role of the debnoir, love smitten Vicomte de Chagny Raoul is Texan Jordan Craig, who received training and has performed many roles with Houston Grand Opera.

On Broadway, in January, it will surpass 12,500 performances before an estimated 18 million at Broadways’ Majestic Theatre – where it opened in 1988 with a then-record advance of $18-million. Two years earlier it premiered on London’s West End, where it’s still thriving.
A world-wide theatrical blockbuster, it’s estimated 140 million people in 35 countries (15 languages) have surrendered to what many feel is Webber’s best score. The  two-disk original cast album spent five years on trade charts; and a single-disc highlights recording spent over six years on Billboard’s Pop Album chart.

Back in 1984 as the show was premiering on London’s West End, advance sales and preview audience reaction suggested an unstoppable hit. Webber, on the other hand, even after blockbuster hits Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, and Evita, was far from certain.

“I wish I could say I had the best time of my life during those heady days,” he
states. “Phantom is the only show I’ve done that was entirely unchanged during previews. Our brilliant director Hal Prince was so certain we’d be a hit that he suggested we take a holiday and return for the opening.

“At openings,” he continues, “even when you feel you have the public with you, you’re at your most vulnerable. I couldn't bear to sit through the show.” Cameron Mackintosh, co-producer, with Webber’s Really Useful Company, found him and got him back for the curtain call. Amid the thunderous applause, Webber yearned to have loved ones around him.
But (then) wife, Sarah Brightman, playing Christine, was onstage basking in audience adulation with her Phantom, Michael Crawford. “While all were celebrating,” Webber says, “I felt alone and frightened.”
It didn’t help when the first review, by the London Sunday Times critic, read “Masked balls.” States Webber, with the memory still vividly ablaze, “Those were the only words. Most composers, let alone producers, would be suicidal to receive a notice such as that. Amazingly, it didn’t faze [co-producer] Cameron [Mackintosh] on bit.”

Ever the optimist, Mackintosh telephoned “while having a jolly good breakfast” and in a fortuitous prediction, stated to Webber, “Nothing any reviewer writes can after the fact that Phantom has chimed with audiences.”

Webber, was used to critical snipes. He points out POTO’s reviews “were wildly polarized between those who really did or really wouldn't surrender to the music of the night.” What was most upsetting was ruinous gossip that Brightman, an alumna of the West End Cats who’d been onstage since her teens, got the role because she was his wife.

 POTOAct2MaskedBallMemphisAMuir“The fine line between success and failure is perilously small,” says Webber. “I’m struck 30 years hence with the phenomenon Phantom has become. Much credit goes to the [Tony Award-winning] late Maria Björnson for her opulent design and costumes. And would another choreographer have understood the period as well as former prima ballerina Dame Gillian Lynne (Cats)? Many said the chandelier moment could never work. It turns out to be the most theatrical moment I ever conceived – a moment that can only be achieved in live theater.”

Legendary, multi Tony Award-winning director of the West End and Broadway productions Harold Prince says he was instantly hooked on the idea that Leroux’s classic was musical material. “To my surprise. Andrew's initial idea for the score was to use famous classical works and write only incidental music. Much to my delight, he later decided on an entirely original score - one of his   greatest.

“However,” he adds, “the superlative score wasn’t Andrew’s only contribution to Phantom’s success. It was his instinct to take the story one step further and make the emotional center of the show a love triangle.That struck a chord with audiences. It’s the crucial difference between our musical, the novel, and other versions of the story.”

The Phantom of the Opera has won more than 70 theater awards, including seven 1988 Tony Awards and three London Olivier Awards. Since 2010, it’s become one of the most accessible musicals of all time with hundreds of high school and university productions licensed through R&H [Rodgers & Hammerstein] Theatricals.

Tickets for the Memphis engagement of POTO are available at the Orpheum box office or by calling (901) 525-3000,, and via Ticketmaster, where service fees will apply.

Trivia: As anyone who’s toured the Paris Opera has seen, there’s a private box
reserved only for the Phantom at every performance – just as he demands in the musical.

Interested in how Memphis’ Orpheum first got The Phantom of the Opera and other big musicals, such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon? Check out their video:

Lion Pride: Disney’s Spectacular Lion King Celebrates 20 Years on Broadway

Photos by Brinkhoff-Mogenburg and Joan Marcus

The Tony-winning Best Musical which set a new definition for spectacle in its eye-popping production, Disney's The Lion King reaches a new plateau not only in the African Plains but also on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre on November 13th when it celebrates its 20th Anniversary. The story of lion cub Simba soon became a unprecedented worldwide phenomenon. Audiences of all ages were dazzled by its imagination, color, music, and joy.

Props must go to costume designer and mask co-designer Julie Taymor, who became the first woman in Broadway history to win the Tony for Best Director, Musical. Taymor stays in frequent touch with the show and has a team in place to keep it fresh and has supervised productions worldwide.

Before the official anniversary, however, there’ll be a gala performance with many original cast members and creatives on hand on November 5. Already there’s a caricature of the Rafiki character, originated by Tony-nominee Tsidii Le Loka, on Sardi’s walls of fame, Currently playing that prized role, long a favorite with audiences, is Tshidi Manye.
There’s also going to be an unheard of special gift to lucky Lion King lovers: a free — that’s right: FREE – performance on November 15.

LIONJelani Remy as SimbaJelani Remy (Simba), Adrienne Walker (Nala), L. Steven Taylor (Mufasa), Stephen Carlile (Scar), Fred Berman (Timon), Ben Jeffrey (Pumbaa), and Cameron Pow (Zazu) co-star in the cast of 52. To keep the musical faithful to its African origins, South African performers have been integral members of the company. There’re six indigenous African languages spoken in the show: Congolese, Sotho, Swahili, Tswana, Xhosa, and Zulu.

The Lion King is the third longest running musical in Broadway history – just behind Chicago and the champ The Phantom of the Opera. The production has been seen by over 90 million in 19 countries -- on every continent except Antarctica. 

The show’s award room is crammed with honors from around the world. Here, it garnered six Tonys, including Best Musical, and, among numerous other honors, the New York Drama Critics Award, Best Musical. The Grammy-winning cast CD is certified Platinum. In the U.K., TLK won the Evening Standard Award for Theatrical Event of the Year and Olivier Awards for choreography and costume design.

TLK’s music is a fusion of Western popular music and distinctive sounds and rhythms of Africa. The majority of the Tony-winning score is by Sirs Elton John and Tim Rice. Contributing additional music is Hans Zimmer, who wrote the movie score. Songs include: "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" [Oscar, Best Song], "Circle of Life," the vastly popular "Hakuna Matata," "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," "They Live in You," and the haunting ballad “Shadowland.” Clement Ishmael is music supervisor.
The book has been adapted by Roger Allers, who co-directed Disney’s animated feature, and Irene Mecchi, who co-wrote the screenplay. Choreography is by Jamaican modern dance master Garth Fagan, founder and artistic director of his own dance company.

Since the musical’s 1997 Broadway  premiere,  24 productions  have  been  mounted  around  the world. There’ve been several national tours. The 25th global production and first international tour premieres in Manila next March. Worldwide grosses exceed that of any film, Broadway show or other entertainment title in box office history. TLK is still a solid hit on London’s West End. Among cities with current productions on the boards are Hamburg, Madrid, Mexico City, Shanghai, and Tokyo.
Some interesting trivia: There’s a menagerie of more than 230 giant puppets, representing  antelope, baboons, birds, elephants, giraffe, hyenas, lions, meerkat, and warthogs. Tallest, of course, are the 18-foot giraffes; the biggest: the elephant, who stands only five feet shorter.

To make Lion King painstakingly accurate, hair and make-up designer Michael Ward drew inspiration for his colorful work by researching various African tribes. One of the behind-the-scenes craftspersons is make-up supervisor Elizabeth Cohen, who has her share of stories when things don't go as planned. "It's our job to get it right," says Cohen, "but there're always things you're not prepared for."

LIONTshidi Manye as Rafiki and Ensemble. Photo by Joan MarcusLike the time a former Nala, then played by Kissy Simmons, complained of illness. “We only had one cover for her and she was very pregnant." Backstage crews, like Boy Scouts, learn to be prepared. During intermission, Cohen and her make-up team pulled the cover from the ensemble to get her ready. But you can't keep a trouper down and Simmons bravely raised her head and said, "I'm okay. I can go on." And out she went, just in time for her big solo. However, even the applause was not a cure-all.

When Simmons exited, she informed the stage manager she couldn't continue. "Of course," says Cohen, "We had to discreetly pluck our cover off stage and quickly transform her into Nala." The hair and sound folks went to work. Wardrobe supervisor Kjeld Andersen scrambled to put together a costume. They had her in the wings within seconds of Nala's next entrance." reports Cohen. "When she appeared,” laughs Cohen, “the audience had to wonder how Nala had gone from tall and statuesque to short and pregnant."
With little make-up or touching up to do in Act Two, Cohen's friends often ask why she stays on site until the curtain. She laughs, "That story explains why!"

It would be an understatement to say it takes a village to put on each performance of The Lion King – for instance, there are 142 people directly involved. These include 51 cast members – eight of whom are South African, 24 musicians, wardrobe staff of 19, a three-person hair and make-up department – not to mention a physical therapist, the stage and puppet crew, and five stage managers to keep check on everything.

Taymor, with  designer Michael Curry, hand-sculpted and painted the masks appearing in the iconic “Circle of Life” opening, which, with the help of their department of mask makers, sculptors, puppeteers, and artisans, took 17,000 hours to build.

In celebration of TLK’s 20th, the show is giving away every ticket via a free lottery to the 8 P.M. performance Wednesday, November 15th.

LIONAnimals“Though it’s been seen around the world, The Lion King was born in New York City,” says Disney Theatrical president and producer Thomas Schumacher. “This free performance is our chance to thank New York City for 20 years of loving support. It’s our hope that audiences who could otherwise not experience Julie Taymor’s glorious vision will join us to toast the musical born here in our hometown.”

“The Lion King has been delighting Broadway audiences for 20 years,” states Julie Menin, NYC Commissioner of Media and Entertainment. “We are proud to be the home of this landmark show and congratulate the production on this milestone. The free ticket lottery to be held in Times Square and libraries throughout the five boroughs will give hundreds of New Yorkers a chance to see this wonderful show.”

On Sunday, November 12th, enter The Lion King lottery via a celebratory event in Times Square. Thanks to a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, you can also enter at New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, and Brooklyn Public Library.  No purchase of any kind is necessary, but only one entry per person. Participants must be at least 18 years old. Entrants must be 18 or over to enter. Visit for the official rules, library lottery locations, and more information. The lottery is powered by Broadway Direct, and entries will only be accepted in person.

On November 12, from 10 A.M. – 6 P.M. in the Times Square plaza between 45th and 46th Streets, attendees will be able to enter the lottery and enjoy Lion King-themed activities -- including a sharable photo opportunity inspired by the show’s iconic ‘Circle of Life’ moment on Pride Rock, autographs with cast members, and an up-close look at the show’s masks and puppets.

In addition, Snapchat users can unlock a custom Lion King lens (Broadway’s first ever) within the Snapchat app using a unique Snapcode. Once unlocked, users will be able to virtually “try on” Simba and Nala masks through Augmented Reality technology. For download information, visit the above site.


See the Singing Stars at BroadwayCon

Touted as the theatre’s answer to Comic Con, BroadwayCon (January 27 - 29) at the Jacob Javits Center (495 11th Ave, NY, NY) brings together fans, performers, and collectibles from the Great White Way. BroadwayCon 2017 will feature panels, performances, interviews, workshops, singalongs, and more, all packed into an epic three-day weekend as some of Broadway’s biggest fans, performers, and creators from classic and current shows to perform, discuss, debate, and celebrate theatre.

Special guests include Julie Taymor, Whoopi Goldberg, Javier Muñoz, Christopher Jackson, and Lexi Lawson among many, many more. There are workshops for first time performers and producers, performances from hit shows, and a great oportinity for fans to meet and greet and people behind the plays of today and yesterday.

To learn more, go to:

January 27 - 29, 2017

Jacob Javits Center
655 W 34th St.
New York, NY 10001

Edinburgh Fringe: The Struggle for Justice

Of the plays I saw during six days in August at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, these plays about justice stood out:  “A Common Main: The Bridge that Tom Built,” “The Red Shed,” “Playing Maggie,” and “Undermined.”

The first play is about Thomas Paine, who fought for liberty in colonial America, was forced out for his politics, and spent time in London and also as a member of the Convention in revolutionary France, before having to flee. His story is not well enough known in America. The other three, addressing issues in the Paine tradition, deal a few centuries later with British politics and particularly the miners’ strike of 1984-5, which still reverberates in Brits’ psyches.

  • A Common Main: The Bridge that Tom Built.”
    Written by Dominic Allen; directed by Joe Hufton.


Perhaps it takes a Brit like Dominic Allen to turn the life of Tom Paine into a moving drama that makes an American proud to salute him as one of the nation’s founders — even if he lost out to the slaveholders, including George Washington.  On the other hand, Paine was born in England in 1727, and more than just an American, was a truly international fighter for freedom, traveling (and often in flight) between Britain, the colonies and even revolutionary France.

Dominic Allen, who wrote and stars in this solo play, is a moving Tom Paine. In a three-cornered hat, green coat, brown vest, and beige britches, he stands before a flag with 13 red and white stripes and tells a story most Americans do not know. Director Joe Hufton makes you believe this is a docudrama, a vivid reenaction.

The extraordinary Paine was a corset-maker by trade. In England, he fought for better pay and conditions for excise (tax) officers. In the colonies, he became a radical journalist, the editor of the Philadelphia magazine, “The Watchman of Liberty,” and in 1776 wrote the pamphlet, “Common Sense,” condemning old world oppression and arguing for independence and the end of slavery. Allen repeats his famous “These are the times that try men’s souls” from “The American Crisis.” He tells how Paine campaigned against corruption, against poverty and for “the rights of man.” Allen portrays figures of the time, including, Benjamin Franklin, who befriended Paine, and Washington, who didn’t.

This heroic figure’s struggle wasn’t easy. He accused the colonial government of being a lapdog of rampant capitalists who had won the day, with slavery persisting, claiming “war is profit.” He asked, “What did we fight the revolution for?” He wrote how the military corrupts commerce. He excoriated “sunshine patriots.” He was beaten by thugs.

Allen tells how Paine went back to England to join workers fighting for their rights there. But Prime Minister William Pitt called for his death, and he fled to France. There his voice and vision were so important, that he was elected to the Convention. He voted to imprison Louis XVI, not kill him! He had to escape revolutionary Paris! (Allen plays Robespierre.) Back to America, where he argued for secularism.

Paine died 1809 at 72. This important staging brings him alive. It should be performed in schools throughout the United States.


  • The Red Shed
    Written and performed by Mark Thomas; directed by Joe Douglas.

There isn’t anyone quite like Mark Thomas in America. There were race comics like Dick Gregory. And there are liberals like Jon Stewart. But no one as politically radical and important as Thomas. No one who, mixing passion and humor, speaks for a working class Left culture.

Mark-Thomas-and-audience-participantsLast year in New York I saw “Cuckooed,” a solo play Thomas wrote and first performed in Edinburgh in 2014. It’s about how he ran stings that put some illegal arms traffickers out of business or in jail and how he was deceived and betrayed by a “comrade” who turned out to be a spy for BAE Systems, the UK’s largest aerospace and weapons company, a major supplier to Saudi Arabia. Thomas is good at mixing personal and political history.

The Red Shed,” a powerful, moving production which won The Scotsman Fringe First Award and The Stage Edinburgh Awards special award this year, is a look back at the miners’ strike of 1984-5. It’s done through the device of trying to trace the children who on the day of the miners’ defeat, were taken by their teacher to a school playground on a high street and sang “Solidarity Forever” as their dads and brothers marched by, back to work. “They seem to be singing into the face of defeat, singing into the future.” Later, he would say, “That is where I get my solidarity from.”

The Red Shed is a 47 foot-long wooden, red, Socialist shed in Wakefield, Yorkshire. It opened 50 years ago and, standing today opposite the brick Tory club, is “an improbable survivor in the gale of globalization,” Thomas says .

Now, the date is April 2013. Margaret Thatcher has just died. (Cheers from the audience.) Thomas is in the Red Shed, and he recalls how he started performing there, dealing with issues such as the miners’ strike which he supported as a college student, the CND (committee for nuclear disarmament) and the movement against apartheid. He explains, “…Miners I got to know arrested on trumped up charges, found guilty in kangaroo courts and convictions reversed on appeal but still lost their pensions….”

The story, infused with his political commitment and passion, moves through his attempt to find the playground where teacher had taken the children many years before and then to trace them. Audience volunteers on stage hold masks that turn them into figures of the story.

It’s mixed in with efforts to organize workers for higher wages, meetings at the Red Shed, and “inside” British politics. Sometimes, it seems like a serial with many characters. Or a movement meeting, especially when the audience is asked to stand and sing “The Red Shed” to the tune of “The Red Flag,” the Labor Party anthem.

“Our Labor Club is our Red Shed

It keeps the rain from off our head.

So stuff your brick built Tory club

We’d rather pay our Labor subs.

So raise your glasses to the sky

We’ll drink a drop until they’re dry.

Though Tories Scoff and Liberals Sneer

We’ll keep the Red Shed standing here.”

And at the end, Thomas leads the audience in the song the children sang, “Solidarity forever, for the union together is strong.” Like most of the people there, I knew the words and joined in.

Thomas points out that Wakefield, a strong labor town, voted 66 percent to leave the European Union.


  • Playing Maggie
    Written and performed by Pip Utton; directed by Marguerite Chaigne.

Pip Utton as Maggie Thatcher photo Andy-DoornheinPlaying Maggie” tells the miners’ story from another point of view. Pip Utton plays Margaret Thatcher in a drag you watch him apply. He does his makeup to the sounds of “Isn’t she lovely.” He pulls on a flip wig. Then in a soft breathy modulated voice, “she” recalls 11 and a half years in Downing Street. Not a triumph for the women’s liberation movement. “Maggie” comments. “The women libbers hated me, and the feeling was absolutely mutual.”

Most of Maggie’s “politics” turn out to be clichés. The feature of the performance is Utton’s interaction with the audience, and he is brilliant at channeling what Thatcher would have said. It’s as if she were there.

Would she indict Tony Blair for war crimes? The reply: “If you take country to war, as soon as you fire the first shot, you lose control. Tony Blair took the nation to war with no clear objective and plan to bring the troops back.”

But then we get to the theme that many Brits will never forget. An audience member asks, “Why did you declare war on the miners?”

“Maggie” takes umbrage at the question. She says it was a struggle against Arthur Scargill [the union leader], who she asserts took money from Gaddafi and the Russian government. That he wasn’t willing to compromise. That the closed mines weren’t economic.

Then, there’s a surprise. His, Utton’s, father was a coal miner. He worked in the Littleton collar. Utton posits to Maggie, “Have you forgotten what you did to dad?” He lost his job. Over 1500 people lost jobs. Utton says the whole area went down, because it was dependent on mining. His father called him a traitor to his class. He went to drama school, but his father refused to see him perform.

But then, in the kind of twisted logic Maggie might have been proud of, Utton argues that it was all for the best. His father died at 84. Miners died in their 40s. He is glad that his father and other former miners didn’t have to go down hell holes. How did they make a living? “They got the dole.” Maggie’s economic plan didn’t call for establishing new industries or training miners to staff them. (My comment, not his.)

Utton’s performance is strong, if not his personal rationale. He does best being Maggie. He won two awards for that performance at the 2015 Fringe.


  • Undermined
    Written and performed by Danny Mellor; directed by Ben Butcher.

Danny Mellor UnderminedThe memory of those days is poignantly revived by Danny Mellor, a young man in his 30s. There are political buttons on his jeans jacket. His voice is ardent; the piece is powerful. He is in a small mining village in Yorkshire. He remembers, “We all had a job.” But the pits were uneconomical. “We fight back with banners,” he recounts. People who weren’t miners went to picket in solidarity. He recalls, “There’s a confrontation with police who are mounted on horseback. The police attack the rally. The BBC shows miners throwing stones, then police charging. LIES!”

The town is under siege. Workers standing, police taunting. It’s winter, and the miners sing Christmas carols.

It was the last play I saw in Edinburgh this year. A fitting combination of the pride and sadness that suffuses many Brits’ memories of the time more than 30 years ago when some of the country took workers’ sides.

To learn more, go to:

Courtesy of The Komisar Scoop

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