Desert Song: Phantom of the Opera’s Anthony Crivello
Finds ‘The Music of the Night’ on the Las Vegas Strip
Beyond an intensely amplified sound stratagem highlighted by hydraulically controlled special effects, the one thing that has made the groundbreaking musical version of The Phantom of the Opera such an enduring success over the last 22 years of its celebrated existence is composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sweeping and emotion-tugging score, guaranteed to remain the star of the show for generations to come.
Featuring grandly operatic flourishes paying obvious homage to Verdi, augmented by a pounding organ and almost heavy-metal-bred accompaniment, Lord Andrew’s music is more than a contribution to the production: it’s like another character, one appreciated equally by the stuffiest of classical music aficionados and stoners of all ages. From the hauntingly gossamer ballads “Angel of Music” and “All I Ask of You,” to the Phantom’s powerfully ominous and raucously rock “Point of No Return,” there’s more musical splendor and dashing romance here than on the pages of a novel by Jacqueline Susann.
In June of 2006, Phantom made a startling leap in its evolution when it took on permanent occupancy in its own cozy little 1,800-seat theatre at the Venetian Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. As Lord Andrew himself commented about Phantom—the Las Vegas Spectacular finding an everlasting home in the heart of Sin City: “It’s a rare opportunity we have to utilize all of the theatrical advancements of the last 20 years and create an environment that is singularly unique to Phantom, but in the end, it is always the universal theme of love and love lost that stays with the audience.”
Former Angeleno Anthony Crivello has been playing the title role in Phantom since the show debuted at the Venetian over two years ago, an assignment he until recently shared with another actor. Now having assumed the grueling performance schedule all on his own, Tony’s job must truly be a monumental task these days, but one he’s downright eager to endure. Originally doing his share of commuting between LA and the Nevada desert, the veteran musical theatre icon, who won a Tony Award as Valentin in the original Broadway production of The Kiss of the Spider Woman, has become so ensconced in the production and his epic role—as well as his newly adopted city—that last year he bought a home in Vegas, permanently moving his wife Dori and two-year-old son Enzo there to be with him fulltime.
“My intention is to stay in Las Vegas as long as possible,” Tony admits. “I’ve had four or five offers and inquiries from New York. I’m flattered by the additional attention and I do at some point want to get back to the east coast, but I’m working on other projects on my own. Even though technically I’m ‘on the road,’ I have my family with me. That’s first and foremost. Going back to New York means we’re talking about another move.” And aside from surviving eight shows a week at the Venetian, this crazy workaholic also recently began his own daily radio show called The Sicilians, which airs weekdays in Vegas from noon to 2pm on 920 AM. “It was serendipitous,” Tony explains. “I had gone on Fox Sports Radio as a guest because of Phantom and I really loved it.”
As much as he has now taken on for himself, Tony Crivello still bristles about one aspect of the original terms of his unique employment in Phantom: “When it was first announced there would be two Phantoms for a 10-show performance week, a few journalists commented I must have great representation to have negotiated such an easy playing schedule. I would ask them to sing this role back-to-back just once. We do a 7pm performance and then Ron Wild, who designed the make-up for this production, cleans it up and reapplies the existing make-up and you do it again a half hour later at 9:30pm. For those who think it is easy, give it a try.”
The sweeping romance of Phantom’s score also has to affect how anyone cast in the title role crafts his performance—the violin-rich, heartstring-plucking musical flourishes both enhancing and surely sometimes detracting from what one is able to accomplish as an actor and as an interpreter of the show’s intricate vocal complexities. Tony confesses that Lord Andrew’s most passionate composition does melodically carry him along, but also insists “as lush as it is in its undertones, the demands of this score are great, requiring extreme vocal dexterity. You don’t just perform a role like this, it forces you to live it, meaning you train to perform it and then you must keep in shape to do it repeatedly. It’s exhausting—and exhilarating.”
Tony admits he subscribes to the “Maria Callas school of singing and acting,” throwing himself into the role with everything he has. This is something particularly difficult to maintain in Vegas, where the climate and desert foliage sends many performers working there into periodic treatment for what is actually referred to as Vegas Throat. “The desert does not make doing this role here an easy task,” Tony concedes, but the opportunity is also one for which he’s not complaining. “I’m at home here,” he says gratefully. “I have to say, Lord Andrew has written two roles that have defined a big part of my career: Che in Evita [the actor’s first Broadway appearance] and now the Phantom. It doesn’t get any better when it comes to roles filled with testosterone. Hard work is involved playing each character, but both have been a wonderful challenge.”
Still, Tony admits the challenge goes beyond vocal calisthenics. Facially deformed since birth, the character of the Phantom is a severely troubled mid-19th century genius composer who lives in the bowels of the Opera Populaire long before psychotropic medications were invented. Hiding behind an eerie white mask to cover his misshapen countenance, he terrorizes the management and members of the company with ominous written demands—sometimes accompanied by a hapless corpse or two—signed “The Opera Ghost.”
Luckily possessed of a fine voice able to trill from baritone to high tenor at the whim of Lord Andrew’s score, the Phantom has major hots for Christine Daae, a comely Swedish soprano chorusgirl who, although talented, lacks focus to get ahead in the company until “O.G.” secretly takes her under his sweeping cape after hours and coaches her to sing like a Webber ex-wife.
“The romantic aspects of playing the Phantom allow me to explore his sensitivity as well as his distress,” Tony believes. What emerges through all the hard work and spectacle in the pared down intermissionless 95-minute Phantom is that well-worn theme of unrequited love, something which clearly energizes its star in the title role. With encouragement from director Hal Prince, associate director Artie Masella, and choreographer Gillian Lynne, Tony “ventured into his psychological background and explored that aspect, as well as his animalistic versus human sides.”
He continues: “I find him to be quite predatory, but his violent behavior comes from rejection and psychological pain harkening back to his childhood. His lack of emotional maturity fuels his obsession for Christine. Though twisted in its execution, it becomes an unrequited boyhood romance for him and the audience is allowed to watch as voyeuristic observers. See, love isn’t always grand. It’s often unexpected, it’s vengeful, it’s heartbreaking, it’s glorious. It’s an obsession, it’s a conundrum. And above all, it’s wonderfully indefinable.”
Lovestruck groupies have been known to haunt stage doors all over the world wherever Phantom has played and, even though the location of stage entrances in most Vegas hotels have long been a closely guarded secret, the groupies manage to find their way anyway. “I was at a Starbuck’s recently when the girl behind the counter asked if I was in Phantom,” Tony relates. Asking how she recognized him without his infamous mask, she told him, “Oh, I know who you are. I’m a fan of yours and I’ve seen the show over 100 times,” leaving the actor sufficiently incredulous. “I asked if she ushered at the theatre but she said no, she just works at Starbuck’s making lattes. That means she’s paid over $1000 dollars to see Phantom—all on a Starbuck’s salary.
“I also know one couple, both doctors, who’ve seen Phantom worldwide over 900 times,” he adds. “Our production proved to be a new favorite for them.” This is hardly surprising considering that mounting Phantom as a permanent attraction at the Venetian has proven to be an inspired decision. The $35-million production bursts into glorious new life in its custom built $40-million theatre, which was designed to resemble Paris’ real Opera Garnier and features a sputtering one-ton chandelier engineered to break apart in five separate pieces, providing the fastest, scariest, themepark-iest, most spectacular crash in Phantom history.
One would guess playing such a dashing romantic role has to differ when working in front of sensory-zapped Vegas audiences clasping foot-long margaritas in hand, but this is something of which Tony seems blissfully unaware. He only recalls one incident of a disruptive fan since the show opened—and “the Phantom shut him up with a look.” I guess working in front of the glaring footlights in the Vegas production’s expansive playing space, he’s missed experiences such as my first time there, when a young man escorted a teetering blonde to their seats in my row, only to have her literally crawl out across the laps of the rest of us about 10 minutes into the performance, thus giving a whole new spin to Tony’s comment that Phantom “can be a great date night adventure.”
Last time I saw the show, I sat behind two couples sporting identical grumbling husbands who couldn’t wait to get back to the tables or sports betting or wherever, which is exactly what they did the minute the show’s annoying character Carlotta, the Opera’s zaftig star diva who resembles Brunhilda dripping in feathers and pearls, began to warble her mezzo-soprano “Think of Me” aria during one of Phantom’s earliest scenes. Although this initially left the wives to stew about their spouses’ departure, however, they soon became so enraptured by Lord Andrew’s sweeping “Music of the Night” that it didn’t seem to matter.
“This production grabs the audience by the throat and carries them through the story,” Phantom—the Las Vegas Spectacular’s hardworking star Anthony Crivello explains of this anomaly. “It keeps them on the edge of their seats, and they, in turn, create an energy you can feel onstage. Once that chandelier starts to move and the audience hears that organ on-track, it’s palpable.”
Phantom—the Las Vegas Spectacular plays indefinitely at the Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas. For tickets, call 866.641.7469 or log on at www.phantomlasvegas.com