ENTERTAINMENT

EXCLUSIVE: ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ star Jonathan Roxmouth on why he fell in love with Manila

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Jonathan Roxmouth, who plays the Phantom, and Meghan Picerno, who plays Christine, performing “The Music of the Night.” Roxmouth recently took us on a rehearsal tour of “The Phantom of the Opera” in Manila and revealed what he loves about Manila. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Some people believe that theater is really exciting in rehearsal because it's as incredible to watch the actors finding their way through the show as [it is to see] the finished product,” says Jonathan Roxmouth as he shows us around the Star Theater. “[‘The Phantom of the Opera’] is no different. It's a feast for what you see, for what you hear, for what you feel.”

Roxmouth plays the Phantom on the world tour of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s acclaimed musical. He’s also one of the youngest people to ever play the Phantom — he was 25 years old during the 2012 tour (which also made a stop in Manila, making this his second time here). Roxmouth considers himself a great fan of Lloyd Weber, and his connection to ‘Phantom’ runs deep — his grandfather taught him how to conduct to the cassette of the original London Cast Album. All of this made him the perfect man to show us around rehearsals before the show opens at The Theater at Solaire on Feb. 20.

Roxmouth first led us into the Star Tent, which the production has been using as a movement and choreography space. “Most people know that ‘Phantom’ has an incredible score with music and singing, but there’s also quite a bit of movement in it that the late great Gillian Lynne choreographed,” he says.

Inside, choreographer Denny Berry, whom Roxmouth referred to as their very own Madame Giry, leads the cast through “Masquerade” — a pivotal scene in the play that showcases a coming together of the musical’s best elements: the singing, the dancing, the costumes, and the set design. Though here at the Star Tent, it’s a “Masquerade” sans costume and design, just how fabulously the cast’s voices come together with the movement is enough to pique our curiosity.

Inside the Star Tent, where the cast rehearse dance and movement, we spot the ingenue Christine (Meghan Picerno, left) and her childhood friend-turned-lover Raoul (Matt Leisy, center). Photo by JL JAVIER

The cast onstage the Star Theater to rehearse “Masquerade” — a pivotal scene in the play that showcases a coming together of the musical’s best elements: the singing, the dancing, the costumes, and the set design. Photo by JL JAVIER

This is also where we first spot the two leads that make up the iconic “Phantom” trio — the ingenue Christine, played by Meghan Picerno, and Christine’s childhood friend and later lover, Raoul, played by Matt Leisy. Moments later, the cast moves to the main stage where they do a more fleshed out version of Masquerade, and as they touch that final line — “Masquerade! Take your fill, let the spectacle astound you” — we are indeed astounded.

When the stage clears to leave us with just Picerno and Leisy performing a segment of “All I Ask of You,” it is here where we catch a glimpse of their undeniable chemistry as Raoul tenderly embraces Christine, singing “Forget these wide-eyed fears/ I'm here, nothing can harm you.” This is also where Picerno reveals to us why she makes an incredible Christine. As she sings “Say you love me every waking moment/ Turn my head with talk of summertime,” her sweet yet powerful soprano sends chills down my spine.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the tour — and of course, the show — is seeing Christine and the Phantom come together. Our last stop leads us to the music room where Picerno is rehearsing with “Phantom’s” musical supervisor, Kristen Blodgette, at the piano.

Picerno and Leisy perform “All I Ask of You,” where we catch a glimpse of their undeniable chemistry and Picerno's sweet and powerful soprano. Photo by JL JAVIER

“I've been doing it for a long time and I never tire of it,” says Blodgette as she and Roxmouth have a quick chat over the years they’ve spent on the show. “I think that's sort of the brilliance of Andrew [Lloyd Weber] and the fact that it's accessible to everyone. Audiences of any language, in any language, can love the score, can love the show.”

As a grand finale to our tour, Roxmouth dons his mask and ceases to be Jonathan, Picerno falls into place in his arms, and you could almost see the modest music room transforming into the Phantom’s candlelit lair as the two perform a bit of “The Music of the Night.”

It’s evident throughout this whole tour just how much heart and soul each member of the production is putting into the show. “People in the show are so attached to it,” says Roxmouth. “Everybody has a story about how their grandparents took them to ‘Phantom’ for the first time, or they had the cast album. Everybody's attached to it in some way, and I think when a cast adores the show that they're doing, the audiences get something really special.”

“I think what makes this really really exciting is it is a really mixed group in terms of the cast,” says Roxmouth. “We have people from all over the world, from Brazil, from South Africa, from the States, Britain.” Photo by JL JAVIER

After the tour, we sat down with Roxmouth to talk more about what audiences can look forward to in the show, why he keeps coming back to the role, and what he loves about Manila. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

What do you think Manila audiences in particular can look forward to in this staging?

This staging is what they had the last time, but I think what makes this really exciting is it is a really mixed group in terms of the cast. We have people from all over the world, from Brazil, from South Africa, from the States, Britain. It's quite something. And because we have different backgrounds, we're learning so much more from each other.

You played the Phantom when the show was in Manila in 2012, and now you’re back seven years later. What is it about Manila that you like?

I fell in love with Manila the first time I was here for a few reasons. I wasn't quite prepared for how much the people of Manila adore music. There's music in every aspect of the culture, there's music everywhere you go, everybody in the Philippines apparently can sing, and not just sing, sing really well. I'm obviously a big fan of Lea Salonga, so it's lovely to see how the culture here just adores and respects theater in a way that I haven't seen in many places in the world. I've had the opportunity to travel with a number of productions. That first tour we did with ‘Phantom’ in 2012, I fell hopelessly in love with this place.

How long have you been playing the Phantom?

2012 was the last time I played it. It's interesting to come back to the role seven years later because I have seven years more of living life, of developing as an actor, as a singer. My voice has changed completely since the last time I was here. So it's nice to come with a lot of that experience now and revisit certain things.

Many actors in the past have had the opportunity to do that. One that sticks in my mind is Anthony Warlow from Australia. He was barely 30 when he first did it. I also was considered quite young the first time I did it. And then he did it again years later, and even he, the great Warlow, said it was fascinating coming back to it. And I have to agree. It's that good a show that there's always something more that you can discover.

“It's lovely to see how the culture here just adores and respects theater in a way that I haven't seen in many places in the world,” says Jonathan Roxmouth on what he likes about performing in Manila. Photo by JL JAVIER

How does that time away enrich the role for you this time?

Number one, you miss it. When I got here for the first day of rehearsal, I was quite emotional. I didn't expect it because I only realized how much I missed it and kind of pined after it. When I stopped playing the Phantom in 2012, I went into a state of mourning almost, because it's a role very dear to my heart. And I thought missing it so much and wishing it was somehow here again helped coming back to it now. And I can't wait to do it again.

What is it about the musical that keeps you coming back?

It's such a difficult question because yes, it's a given that it's one of Andrew Lloyd Weber's best scores. It's my favorite score of his. I've done quite a few Andrew Lloyd Weber shows —- six of them — so I'm a great fan of his writing. But the thing with ‘Phantom’ is, it's not at all what you expect. Everybody knows the music. But you put that music in the show and it starts telling a completely different story. And it makes you feel things in context that you never ever feel in other musicals.

There is nothing like ‘Phantom.’ Lots of shows kind of remind you of ‘Phantom,’ but ‘Phantom’ reminds you of nothing else. It's completely standalone. There's a reason why it's the longest-running musical on Broadway. Everywhere it goes, it affects people. And that has to say something about the show.

It's the alchemy of how it came together originally. You have Hal Prince directing, you have Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart doing the lyrics, you have Marie Bjornson designing, Andrew Bridge on lighting. It just gets better and better and better. And you cannot believe the way it just came together under the helm of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Cameron Mackintosh. We're talking about juggernauts of the theater, of course this is going to be a prestigious event.

How do you think the show stays fresh 30 or so years later?

I think the fact that it is about love, acceptance, loss, being human — that's the secret to it. ‘Phantom’ is about being human and how we interact with each other.

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“The Phantom of the Opera” runs from Feb. 20 to Mar. 17 at The Theatre at Solaire. Tickets are available through Ticketworld.