Andrew Lloyd Webber has a knack for writing hit musicals that have a way of hitting the road for stunningly long stretches of time -- among them Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, and Evita (along with Tim Rice). But while many of these shows are known by millions as spectacle ensemble pieces, the one true superstar that Webber has created is undeniably The Phantom of the Opera. Sure, Paris’s lovelorn musical genius madman has been lurking about book, stage, and screen since being created by Gaston Leroux in 1909. But it took Webber to make him a matinee idol -- a lethally passionate impresario who’s been embodied by every actor from Michael Crawford in the Phantom’s stage debut to Gerard Butler in Joel Schumacher’s spectacular film adaptation.
Even as theaters across the world established permanent homes for The Phantom, it’s the roadshow version that’s truly brought him in the flesh to legions of fans. Now his run in America is allegedly coming to an end in the place it started, as The Phantom makes his “last” appearance to cut the chandelier over Los Angelites' heads.
Lurking in the rafters and grottos of the Pantages Theater will be Tim Martin Gleason. Swinging from the business sector to live the dream of singing on the stage, Gleason’s journey with the Phantom began in 2001 in the show’s ensemble before he rose to the role of the musical’s dashing hero Raoul. Between Vegas, New York, and all roads and stages in between, Gleason would set a record as The Phantom’s loathed rival for the hand of his protégé Christine, appearing as Raoul 2,600 times. But, as they say, it’s often better to be bad. And now Gleason has assumed the role of The Phantom himself, bringing in his own menacing panache to the deformed, lovestruck genius who, like the best “monsters,” is fated never to get the girl.
In opera, the saying goes that it isn’t over until the fat lady sings. And similarly, the actor who’s personifying musical theater’s most dashing anti-hero won’t finally rest on his laurels as the traveling Phantom until the facts are unmasked with the revelations of how Tim Martin Gleason has become so well-attuned to the music of the night.
Daniel Schweiger: As someone who got started in a completely different field, what convinced you that you had the "goods" to make such a daring leap into musical theater? And how difficult was it for you to succeed at it?
Tim Martin Gleason: My first job out of college was working for Pioneer electronics in their Karaoke division. Yup. I sold Karaoke, people. I wasn't very good at it, primarily because selling Karaoke sucks. The idea of Karaoke is usually one that comes up when you are drunk and bored. Try selling it when all parties are sober and the sun is shining! So I quit that (shocking, I know) and started working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car in their "Management Trainee Program," which is another way of saying "Prison." And I quit that after 6 months (do you sense a pattern?) and took a job as a 6th, 7th, and 8th grade math and science teacher in a local grammar school. I was a heck of a math teacher, and the worst science teacher you could ever have been. I had 6th graders doing 8th grade math and 8th graders asking me science questions that made me queasy. So I quit that after about three months and found my "calling" as an actuary/accountant type guy in a 401(K) benefit-consulting firm (try to control your excitement, people). I did that for almost three years and was relatively happy. But it was during those three years that I also started doing theater again, which I hadn't performed since college. The good pay and the creative outlet at night was all I needed at the time. Soon enough, people whispered in my ear that I should give New York City a "try." Well, after a while, you start to believe the hype, so I started going into town on the weekends, singing at piano bars to see if it was true. Sure enough, an agent was there one night and introduced himself. The conversation went something like this: "You're good, kid. What do you do?" And I said, "Actuarial accounting work in West Jersey." After a long pause, I was handed a card and told to call that number if I was ever interested in getting serious. I ended up calling the agency a few months later, reminding them of whom I was, and then going in and auditioning for them. The rest, as they say, is history. That was 14 years ago.
DS: Could you tell us about the first time you saw the Phantom as an audience member, and what its immediate impression was on you? Was this the kind of role you somehow knew you'd be playing?
TMG: I was eighteen when I first saw Phantom. I know I’m supposed to say that I loved the show immediately, but actually I didn’t, because at that age, I had the attention span of a flea (I still do), and was more into sports, girls, and video games than I was into "culture.” Yet, what I did love at the time was the idea of live theater, especially since Phantom of the Opera was one of the first Broadway shows I had ever seen. When I saw the show the second time, I was twenty-four. And that was when I truly fell in love with it. I remember being so taken with how powerful the simple idea of "not getting the girl" was, and how bad being rejected and being made to feel "unworthy" could be. The story of Phantom is so universal because it’s about feelings that we’ve all experienced. And if you are reading this and are saying, "Rejection? What the heck is he talking about?" then I would like to meet you, because you are cooler than I am.
DS: Having played Raoul for so long, were you secretly yearning to play the Phantom?
TMG: That's a great question. Actually, the entire time I played Raoul, I was a Phantom understudy. When I got the job as Raoul in 2002, it came with the Phantom understudy position, which I was more excited about than anything else. During my seven-year stint as Raoul, I would guesstimate that I performed the role of the Phantom about 150 times. And after each time I played the role, I would say to myself, "Damn, I need to do this full-time some day!" It’s so much more of an intoxicating rush to play such an iconic role.
TMG: To be honest, if you are going mention the word "hero" in regards to the Phantom, you have to throw in the word "tragic" with it. I do believe he is a tragic hero in the vein of a Macbeth or a Hamlet, because The Phantom is filled with integrity, hope, brilliance and passion, and wants nothing but beauty in the world. That’s hero-esque, right? But his inability to accept himself and his fate as a deformed man creates and informs the tragedy that ensues. It's kind of a bum rap, if you ask me. As far as looking differently at the character of Raoul, playing the Phantom just makes me hate him. You really see how confident and "successful" Raoul is, which is everything that the Phantom cannot be. Having understudied the role of Phantom during my Raoul years allowed me to see it from "the other side," which really informed my character as Raoul when I returned to it. That’s one of the many benefits of being a Phantom understudy when you’re playing Raoul the whole time.
DS: What do you think sets your Phantom apart from other actors' interpretations of him?
TMG: My height? I kid. It might sound like the cliché comment of the interview, but my interpretation of The Phantom is unique because I draw on my own personal experiences to inform my emotions. That is what sets my show and all Phantom performances apart from one another. The role is so emotional and so character-driven that the only way to play it, and play it honestly, is to draw on your own crap and then funnel it through the performance. It’s just funneling the right stuff at the right time. I usually just go back to high school, because there are plenty of memories for me to choose from, most of which include the emotions of inadequacy, angst, misunderstanding, and memories of the pretty girls that were always with the "Raoul" types! God, I hate Raoul!
DS: When you have a film version come out of any musical you're in, how do you think it raises the bar for the stage show and your performance?
TMG: I don't think that ever really comes into play for the stage actors. Especially when we were there first! The two mediums are so different that it is impossible to compare them. Making a gesture on stage that 2,800 people can interpret is very different than making a gesture that a camera, six feet away, can pick up. If anything, the movie reaches the masses more, which in turn brings out more people to the theater. So your responsibility has nothing to do with what is on the screen and only to do with what the original stage director intended.
DS: What do you think it says about the show and its music that you can keep performing in it after thousands of times and still keep it fresh?
TMG: First and foremost, The Phantom of the Opera is a singer's musical. It’s not difficult to effuse energy when you’re singing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. That is why he is one of the best. I find Jason Robert Brown's music to be the same -- just written for the singer. Also, Hal Prince has created a masterpiece on the stage with this show, and I would be lying if I said it was difficult to excel in the midst of his creation. So do we have great music? Yes. Honest, compelling staging? Yes. Keeping it real and fresh with that? Piece of cake!
DS: What kind of weight and importance do you think it gives to this road tour to have it be the "last" one?
TMG: I don't know that it gives it any more weight or importance that we are the last. If anything, we just get to celebrate the success of all the prior companies and tours that have come through. Phantom will be back...someday. But this tour, which has run 18 years non-stop across the country, is coming to an end. And that is quite an accomplishment!
DS: Do you think this is truly the end for the Phantom, given its sequel Love Never Dies? And do you hope to continue playing him if that show arrives on our shores?
TMG: The end? It's The Phantom. It is never the end when The Phantom is involved. He is always there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for his moment to shine and strike again! Could I be any creepier to end an interview?
See Tim Martin Gleason don the Phantom’s final traveling mask at the Pantages Theater now until October 31, 2010. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.broadwayla.org. Special thanks to Nancy Bishop of Venice Magazine.