It’s Phantom Week at Broadway.com! In honor of the musical’s 25th Broadway birthday on January 26, we’re unveiling exclusive interviews, fun facts and surprises about The Phantom of the Opera all week long. We asked Broadway’s five longest-running Phantoms to share their craziest onstage moments, favorite phan gifts and more insights about the mysterious masked man. First up, Thomas James O’Leary, who clocked 774 Broadway performances beginning in 1996, reveals the hair-raising (and dangerous!) blooper that nearly sent him to the hospital, and why he calls the Phantom “one of the best acting roles in the musical theater canon.”
Choose three adjectives that best describe the Phantom.
Obsessed, tortured, magical.
How did you pass the time during the long makeup process of becoming the Phantom?
It varied. Sometimes I’d have long chats with Thelma, our makeup artist, usually filled with lots of laughs. Other times I’d use it for some quiet time before the show.
What is your favorite moment in the show, and why?
I had a few favorite moments, but one of them was the “All I Ask of You” reprise at the end of Act One. It’s one of most vulnerable moments in the show for the Phantom, and I liked the type of singing I got to do there, starting with a falsetto painful cry and building to that rageful wail. I’m also not afraid of heights, so that helped!
What is the craziest thing that ever happened during a performance?
When I was on tour just before I took over the role on Broadway, my head caught on fire. Yep…my head caught on fire. A spark from the trick candle I used to release Raoul from the noose in the final scene landed on my head, and the ointment used to grease up the bald cap and alopecia wig was evidently quite flammable. I was oblivious to it until I felt a tugging at the top of my head, which was the bald cap beginning to melt. I instinctually put my hand to my head, and as soon as I felt the flames, I pounded the fire out, as I continued singing and raging—amazingly, I was told later, without missing a beat. I was also told that by the time I put the fire out, I had a crown of flames four inches high covering my head. Stagehands were ready to come out with fire extinguishers, but luckily we didn’t have to go there. The capper to that night came after the show, when I heard two women in the parking lot say, “My favorite part was when his head caught on fire! I don’t remember that from the Broadway production.”
True or false: Raoul is a wimp. Discuss.
He’s not a wimp, he just can’t compete with someone who is as gifted as the Phantom, and who will kill anyone who gets in the way of what he wants.
When did you last sing "Music of the Night"?
Hmmm, the last time I sang it was probably a year ago, when I was working with a music teacher here in L.A. I also like to sing it a cappella while going for solo walks on the beach.
What's the best gift a Phantom phan gave you?
A letter written and signed by George M. Cohan that was beautifully framed, along with photos of Cohan and the first page of the music to “Give My Regards to Broadway” in a very handsome antique frame. It’s a gorgeous collectors’ piece that I found sitting in my dressing room on my opening night on Broadway. The man who sent it to me lived in Ohio, but I saw him backstage after the show whenever he came to New York. He has now passed away, and I’ll always be grateful to him. It’s now on the wall over my desk in my home.
What's the best thing about playing the Phantom—and why are actors willing to play such a demanding role for long periods of time?
Well, it’s one of the best acting roles in the musical theater canon, and as difficult as I found it to keep my stamina going for the long run, I loved having the opportunity to continue exploring the depths of the character and discovering new moments with the many talented actresses I got to work with in the role of Christine. It also helped to work with Hal Prince throughout the run, and to be part of such a class act both on stage and back stage.
What’s the most important reason Phantom is still a hit after 25 years on Broadway?
It’s the perfect storm of a well-known classic story with both romance and drama, a lush score and, perhaps above all else, brilliant direction. It amazes me that so many critics call it "the chandelier musical," although I think the raising of the chandelier during the overture is chilling. But Hal Prince’s staging is what blows me away. Most of the really magical scenes are basically done in a big black box with a few set pieces…and lots of candles.
Prediction: How long WILL Phantom run?
It will probably be the show that will run forever. It has now become a major destination for tourists—the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and The Phantom of the Opera.
Check back for more confessions from Broadway’s longest-running Phantoms!