Only a dozen men have played the title role in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera, and now Phantom #10, fan favorite Hugh Panaro, is headed back for his third engagement as the man behind the mask. Actually, it’s Panaro’s fourth stint in Broadway’s longest-running show—he first took the stage at the Majestic Theatre 20 years ago as Christine’s true love, Raoul. Since his most recent run as master of the Music of the Night in 2005, Panaro has starred in the short-lived Broadway musical Lestat as well as in regional productions of Sunday in the Park with George, Company and more. A few days before rejoining Phantom opposite tour vet Sara Jean Ford as Christine, a cheerful Panaro chatted with Broadway.com about the show’s enduring appeal, what’s up with the Lestat cast album and why he can’t consider hitting the road in Next to Normal with his close friend and former Side Show co-star Alice Ripley.
You have an amazing 20-year history with The Phantom of the Opera.
It is amazing, and I’m so happy about going back into the show. I told the stage managers that I’m as excited as I was in 1990 when Hal Prince cast me as Raoul.
Really? What makes you so excited this time around?
I think I have a lot more to bring to the role now than five years ago. A fan sent me a pirated tape of my last performance, and I listened to myself pretty objectively. There were things I didn’t remember doing, and things I thought I could do better now, especially going in with a new Christine—we have the opportunity to create something fresh and exciting. Believe it or not, Sara Jean Ford and I had just done South Pacific together in concert with the Rochester Symphony. We were joking about the fact that we had both been in Phantom and saying, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do the show together someday?” A couple of months later, here we are. I think the universe was at work.
You were considered a young Phantom in 1999, but you’re now the age  that most of us picture the character to be.
I love that. There’s so much father-figure imagery in the role—the Phantom uses the fact that Christine’s father has recently passed away to manipulate her. When I was playing Raoul, Mark Jacoby was the Phantom. He was about 44, definitely a man and not a boy. [Original star] Michael Crawford was not a spring chicken when he did this. I recently re-watched him at the Lincoln Center library [video archive]. I love to go back to the creator of a role—not that you want to copy someone, but to see what the original show looked like so you can maintain the integrity of Hal Prince’s vision. People think that Michael Crawford did a lot of dramatic hand movements and spooky gestures, and I was really surprised when I watched him. He was very minimalist in his approach, and it was a great lesson.
Let’s get real for a second—isn’t Raoul a thankless part?
I never felt that way. I swear! I loved playing Raoul. In fact, back then, when people would say, “Don’t you want to play the Phantom?” I would say no. I need someone to make a list of roles for me, because a lot of the roles I’ve done are ones I never would have thought of for myself. I’ve got to give Hal Prince credit: After I played Ravenal in Show Boat for him in London, he asked me in ’99 if I would play the Phantom. Of course I said yes, but it wasn’t something I was campaigning for. The same thing happened with Bobby in [Sondheim's] Company at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle. I had never set my sights on that role, but once I got into rehearsal I realized it was a great fit.
Bobby in Company seems like an obvious part for you.
Well, it didn’t to me, but that’s what I’m saying—I need someone to make a list. It happened again with Sunday in the Park with George. Sam Buntrock, who directed the  revival on Broadway, went with it to Seattle, the only production he did other than New York and London. It was magnificent, and I loved playing George. We did all the green-screen work that the British actors did on Broadway; I got to act with myself on video, which was wild. But, again, that was not a role I was coveting.
You should go on tour with Alice Ripley in Next to Normal.
Oh my god, if only! I love that girl so much. That whole Side Show cast—we are bonded forever. Norm Lewis is one of my best friends. We’re all family, but Alice especially. I’m nuts for her.
Would you consider it?
They actually did contact me about coming in for it, but I’ve been very hesitant to take anything that wouldn’t allow me to control my schedule. I’ve been doing a lot of concerts recently partly because my dad has been battling leukemia for the past year. He just finished his second chemo, and he’s doing really well. The concerts are a blessing because they’re usually on weekends, so I can get back to Philadelphia in time for my dad’s chemo treatments, which have been on Tuesdays. Now that I’m in Phantom, I can go home on my day off to be with him. Sometimes real life takes over and you have to base your decisions on what’s going on in life.
You’ve had a lot of big roles since Lestat, but not in New York. Is it ever frustrating to be asked, “What have you been up to?” when you’ve been starring in Les Miserables or Oliver! in Philadelphia?
I don’t think of it in those terms. When I was doing Jean Valjean in Philadelphia, there were kids who flew in from Oklahoma to see the show. I teach master classes, and when young people ask what it’s like to be on Broadway, I say, “It’s wonderful, but don’t shortchange the regional theaters.” The most self-esteem-building experience of my life as an actor was doing the Joe Orton play Loot at the Dallas Theater Center: six actors, one costume, one set, no microphones and a brilliant piece of theater. That summer, I was like, “This is what it feels like to really be an actor.”
You have a unique perspective on Phantom and Les Miz because you’ve done two roles in both shows. [Panaro played Marius in the original Broadway production of Les Miz]. They’ve been imitated but never duplicated. Why?
You can’t compare the two, but ultimately, it comes down to the material. Les Miz, the Victor Hugo novel, is classic, and so is the Leroux [Phantom] novel. No disrespect, but I don’t think the storyline of Martin Guerre or Pirate Queen, let’s say, is nearly as compelling. The message in Les Miz, which, to me, has always been, “To love another person is to look into the face of God,” is something everyone can identify with. In Phantom, people identify with the notion that what’s on the outside is not necessarily what’s on the inside. I don’t think the Phantom was born bad, I think he was created by society. From birth, people have treated him horribly because of the way he looks.
And yet you are probably the most classically handsome man who has ever played the part.
Can I tell you something? A lot of people know this from my previous dissertations [laughs], but I was a chunky, pigeon-toed, tortured child. I was teased horribly for my weight. And I was a church organist, which is so not a cool drummer. So there’s a huge part of me that identifies with the Phantom and feels for him because I know what it is like, on a very small level, to have people make fun of you.
You’re not playing the organ onstage, are you?
No, it’s only a prop, but I do try to play the actual music so it looks right.
On an entirely different subject, did Lestat get recorded?
Not only did it get recorded, I heard some of the rough cuts and it was gorgeous. I think the recording transcended the music even onstage. Doing the duets with Carolee Carmello [as Lestat’s mother]? I was in hog heaven. [That recording] would probably be the best thing that came out of the show. To my knowledge, it’s sitting in a vault somewhere.
Elton John doesn’t control whether it would be released?
I heard that there’s some kind of, pardon me, pissing match between Elton and Warner Brothers over it. I don’t know what that means exactly. I still hope and pray for a lot of people’s sake that it does get released. But there’s no word.
Why are vampires the hottest commodity in movies and TV, but they can’t get a break on the stage?
That’s a great question, but at this point we’re never going to know, because I don’t think anybody is going to try a vampire musical again [laughs]. There were three stinkers in a row with Dracula and Lestat and Dance of the Vampires.
It would be hilarious if you could get a role on True Blood.
I would loooooove to be on that show. I think I could fit in!
You gave a very frank interview in a book called Making It On Broadway about the constant struggle theater actors face, saying, “I’ve had to talk myself off the ledge a lot of times.” And yet you seem so upbeat.
When I gave that interview, I didn’t want the young people who would be reading it to get a false sense of “Everything’s going to be rosy.” But on the other hand, I try to be an upbeat person. If I were to describe myself, I’d say I’m a realist with optimist rising.
See Hugh Panaro in The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre.