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Behind the Mask: Thirty Years of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |

Unmasking a few of the actors who have played the singing specter

The Phantom of the Opera is arguably Broadway’s greatest phenomenon, outrunning every Broadway musical that has come before it. From the minute it opened in London in 1986, it became one of the most eagerly anticipated transfers from the West End. The show opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre on January 26, 1988, under the direction of the great Harold Prince, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and quickly securing its place as a must-see for tourists coming from all over the world. As we prepare to celebrate thirty-years of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera on the Great White Way, we take a look back at some of the notable performers that have donned the iconic half-mask and haunted North America in the role.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is currently celebrating 30 years on Broadway (Photo: ‘The Phantom of the Opera’)

‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is currently celebrating 30 years on Broadway (Photo: ‘The Phantom of the Opera’)

Michael Crawford
London’s original Phantom was Michael Crawford, and he would go with the show when it traversed the pond to Broadway. Crawford won a Tony Award for his efforts, bringing a palpable aching to the role of the disfigured specter. Crawford was no stranger to musical theater when he originated this iconic role. He had played Hero in the film adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Cornelius Hackl in the Barbra Streisand film version of Hello, Dolly! On the London stage, he starred in the musical Billy, and played P.T. Barnum in the London production of the musical Barnum.

Colm Wilkinson
Once the Broadway production was heralded as breathtaking as the London original, a sit-down production of The Phantom of the Opera was announced for Toronto’s Pantages Theatre, which opened in 1989. That production ran just over ten-years. Colm Wilkinson, who had originated the role of Jean Valjean in both the London and US productions of Les Miserables, lent his haunting voice to the title character. Wilkinson offered a ghostly, chilling sound to the Phantom, and an acting gravitas of great intensity.

Cris Groenendaal
Cris Groenendaal originated the role of Monsieur Andre in the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, served as an understudy for the character of Raoul, and eventually graduated to the title character in 1989 as the production’s third Phantom. Groenendaal has been a longtime mainstay of the Broadway musical stage, making his Broadway debut in Sweeney Todd in 1979 as a member of the company, and ultimately serving as a replacement for the title character or Anthony. He originated the roles of Louis the baker in Sunday in the Park with George and Major Rizzoli in Passion.

Steve Barton
Not only did Michael Crawford reprise his London role in the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, but so did Steve Barton, who played Raoul. Barton, with dashing good looks and a soaring voice, was the perfect choice to play the show’s romantic Vicomte de Chagny. Eventually, however, Barton would step into the show’s lead in 1990. Barton only appeared on Broadway one other time, in the short-lived 1993 musical The Red Shoes. He died in 2001 at the age of 47.

Robert Guillaume
When The Phantom of the Opera opened in Los Angeles, Michael Crawford reprised is role as the title specter. When he departed the production in 1990, Emmy-winning TV star Robert Guillaume stepped into the role, the first African-American actor to play the part. Guillaume was hardly a stranger to the musical stage, having appeared on Broadway in such musicals as Guys & Dolls and Purlie. Of course, most people knew him for playing the role of Benson, the wisecracking butler on the television sitcom Soap. Guillaume’s portrayal stole the show, and he was given a spin-off based around his talents. Harold Prince, who directed The Phantom of the Opera, remembered Guillaume’s audition, stating that, among the Phantom hopefuls, he “by far, displayed the most authority and elegance.“

Mark Jacoby
Mark Jacoby is probably best-known to Broadway audiences for originating the role of “Father” in the Broadway production of Ragtime and Gaylord Ravenal in the 1994 Harold Prince revival of Show Boat. But Jacoby has appeared in several other Broadway shows, including as the Padre in Man of La Mancha (2002), Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd (2005), Walter Hobbs in Elf: The Musical (2012), and The Wizard in Wicked (2011). Possessing a commanding voice and a regal bearing, Jacoby played the Phantom on Broadway from 1991 to 1993.

Davis Gaines
Davis Gaines was no slouch during his time playing The Phantom of the Opera, having performed the role on Broadway, in Los Angeles and San Francisco for a total of well over 2000 performances. In July of 1994, Gaines took over the role of the Angel of Music, having played the role of Raoul prior. Gaines also holds the distinction of originating a role in another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the mysterious “Man” who is mistaken for Jesus Christ in the short-lived Whistle Down the Wind.

Hugh Panaro
By the time Hugh Panaro arrived on Broadway in 1990 to play Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera as a replacement, he had already toured the country as Marius is Les Miserables, a role he would eventually repeat on Broadway. Like so many Raouls before him, Panaro eventually advanced to the role of The Phantom in 1999. Panaro has also originated a handful of roles on Broadway, including Julian Craster in The Red Shoes (1993), Buddy Foster in Side Show (1997) and the title character in the vampire musical Lestat.

Howard McGillin
In the 1980s, Howard McGillin emerged on the Broadway scene as one of musical theater’s most dashing and sought-after young men. He originated the role of John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985), and played Billy Crocker in the 1987 Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes. From there, McGillin moved toward more mature roles, including Archibald Craven (replacing Mandy Patinkin) in the 1991 musical The Secret Garden, the lothario Steven Kodaly in the 1993 revival of She Loves Me, and as a replacement for Molina the gay window dresser in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1994). However, from 1999 to 2009, McGillin played the famous opera ghost, boasting the longest tenure of any Broadway Phantom at 2,544 performances!

Norm Lewis
One of Broadway’s favorite leading men of the last decade is Norm Lewis. He played the Phantom from 2014 to 2015. Lewis is a mainstay of the Broadway scene, having portrayed Javert in the 2006 revival of Les Miserables, King Triton in the 2007 production of The Little Mermaid, and the first half of the title duo in the 2012 revival of Porgy & Bess (Tony nomination). Most-recently, Norm Lewis played Agwe in the Broadway revival of Once On This Island. Other Broadway credits include The Who’s Tommy, Miss Saigon, Side Show, The Wild Party and Chicago.

Gerard Butler
The film version of The Phantom of the Opera was greeted with mixed reviews, but most audiences found Gerard Butler to be an intoxicating (and sexy) choice for the title character. Though starting out as a stage actor, Butler ultimately made his way to Hollywood, where he concentrated on a film career. Besides The Phantom of the Opera, he has made a multitude of films including Mrs. Brown, One More Kiss, Reign of Fire, 300, Olympus Has Fallen, A Family Man and Den of Thieves.

Ramin Karimloo
Even though he didn’t play The Phantom of the Opera in the Broadway production, North American audiences are familiar with Ramin Karimloo’s work as the opera ghost. In 2011, Karimloo played The Phantom for the Royal Albert Hall 25th Anniversary celebration of the musical that was taped and broadcast the world over. He had played the role of The Phantom in London’s West End (He’d also played Raoul) and he’d originated the role of The Phantom in the musical’s sequel Love Never Dies. Broadway audiences became more intimately acquainted with his work when he starred as Jean Valjean in the 2014 revival of Les Miserables and Gleb Vaganov in Anastasia.

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at


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