October 4, 2010

Swing plays pivotal role in “Phantom of the Opera”

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Entertainment at 6:49 pm by dinaheng

Michael Scott Harris has had 11 debuts with the third national touring company of “Phantom of the Opera,” playing a different character each time in the Broadway musical that has generated the longest continuously-running tour in U.S. history.

You might call him one of the unsung heroes of the show, as Harris is a swing — responsible for covering any one of 11 roles in the musical whenever another cast member is unable to perform. The job requires not only versatility in voice and quick thinking, but also the ability to handle going to work every day, not knowing if or when you’ll be called to go on stage.

This month, his performances will be somewhat bittersweet, as the musical juggernaut that has grossed more than $1.5 billion in box office sales on the road is ending its historic run.

Three national tours have played in 77 U.S. cities since the First National Tour (Christine Company) opened in Los Angeles in May 1989. The Second National Tour (Raoul Company) had an eight-and-a-half year run, and now, the Third National Tour (Music Box Company) will play its final performance on Halloween, Oct. 31, at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, ending its nearly 18-year run.

“I had never done a swing job before,” says Harris, who worked in regional theater and opera productions before joining the “Phantom” Music Box Company three years ago. “If everyone’s healthy and in the show, the swings sit backstage and wait in case there’s a last minute cast change. It can happen mid-show when someone’s injured, or can’t finish the show because they’re ill.”

The challenges are many, but Harris says dealing with constant uncertainty has kept him on his toes and kept the show fresh for him, as a performer. Among the biggest challenges are the “combo shows,” when more than one cast member is out, due to sickness or vacation time.   Harris will swing into multiple parts, wearing one costume on top of another, peeling one off in the wings to run on stage for the next scene as someone else.

When several actors are out, the most essential parts of the roles are played. Harris has improvised as many as four characters in one show.

He has 75 different costumes and 12 wigs for the his various roles, which range from Joseph Buquet, the chief stagehand, to generic ensemble parts. Harris, a tenor who can sing a high C, is also the understudy for the principal part of Piangi, the opera singer.

“Most people who see the show don’t remember anyone except Christine, Raoul and the Phantom,” Harris notes, “but there are nine principal parts, 23 ensemble cast members and four swings who add the layers to create this world on stage. The goal is to ensure that the audience doesn’t notice the show is different in any way, so that the story can be told well every night.”

The story, based on the French classic, “Le Fantome de l’Opera” by Gaston Leroux, is the tale of a masked figure who hides in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, terrorizing its inhabitants. When the Phantom falls in love with Christine, an innocent young soprano, he becomes obsessed with making her a star, both nurturing her talent and threatening to bend her to his will.

Harris, who turned down a contract to join the New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus to sing in the “Phantom” tour, has no regrets.

“I like telling a story and connecting with people,” Harris says. “People love ‘Phantom’ because the melodies are sweeping and lovely. People love the dichotomy of what Christine feels — being attracted to what seems beautiful on the outside (in Raoul), and yet inspired by what’s beautiful on the inside (in the Phantom).

“In the end, when Christine kisses the grotesque Phantom, everybody who’s ever been made to feel less — because they’re short, they stutter, or they’re nerdy — is transformed by that kiss, and knows that they are worthy. We all look at the Phantom, and see ourselves.”

Harris says he’s enjoyed life on tour, which has taken him to 40 cities in the United States and Canada, stopping in each for a month-long run, enough time to get to know each city and its people. While this has required living out of suitcases, he sees the experience as a dream come true.

“When I moved to New York in 2000, I did all sorts of survival jobs,” Harris says. “I bar tended, waited tables, did catering. I substitute taught because I have a teacher’s degree. Being part of a show that’s touched millions of people has been amazing. I knew in seventh grade that music was what I wanted to do, so when you get to this point, you really have to savor it.”

When the tour ends, Harris plans to make Los Angeles home, and looks forward to having a steady routine and rhythm to life again.

“We all start getting itchy feet that fourth week in a city, but this month will be different,” Harris says. “All of us are feeling anxiety about the unknown. Many of us are anxious to start a new chapter of our lives. Many have been on the tour for a decade, and it’s home and our family that we’re leaving.

“The unknown is both exciting and scary. We’re thankful we get to end the show in Los Angeles, which is such a great city. The Broadway world is small, though, so we know we’ll see each other again. I love doing new things, and materializing what’s in my head. I’m looking forward to having a sense of home again, and whatever comes next.”

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