Crawford, Michael (Contemporary Musicians)
Theatrical singer and actor
For years an accomplished British actor in films, television, and stage musicals, Michael Crawford blossomed into full theater legend in the late 1980s with his impassioned performance as the Phantom in composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of The Phantom of the Opera. Though still enjoying a steady string of sold-out performances, The Phantom of the Opera is already one of the most popular musicals in stage history and would surely have done quite well even without Crawford. But audiences and critics alike seem to agree that Crawford is tailor-made for the role, as though he were born and trained to someday play the Phantom.
In the words of the Chicago Tribune's Michael Kilian, Crawford "seems as married to his part as was Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight or Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady," or, one might add, as Yul Brenner in The King and I or Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. And after more than 600 performances in the exhausting role and a triumphant Broadway opening that brought promises of sold-out performances far into the future, Crawford couldn't even begin to think about winding down his career as the Phantom. To the contrary, he felt he was just warming to the part. "I don't want to leave it yet," the actor told Kilian. "I'm still in love with doing it. I'm eating it up. I've done it now for a year and three-quarters and I'm not a bit tired of it."
A recluse as a child, Crawford grew up as Michael Dumbell-Smith in difficult circumstances in the areas around London and Kent. His father was an RAF pilot who was killed in World War II before Michael was born, and his mother, remarried to a grocery-store owner, died when Crawford was twenty-one. The boy nonetheless had a happy home life that sustained him until he was swept away with a passion for singing and performing. He was just a twelve-year-old choir boy when he won a role with a touring company in a performance of Benjamin Britten's Let's Make an Opera, and by age fifteen he had changed his surname to Crawford and dropped out of school altogether to perform radio plays for the BBC.
In 1962 Crawford made his West End stage debut in a production of Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn, but in the following years he made his mark primarily in films and television. He appeared in such films as The Knack and John Lennon's black comedy How I Won the War, as well as the popular British television series Some Mothers Do 'ave 'em. His 1967 Broadway debut in Black Comedy brought Crawford to the attention of Gene Kelly, who was casting the film version of Hello, Dolly. To impress Kelly, one of the greatest dancers in film and stage history, Crawford began practicing his soft-shoe with his customary obsessivenessnd it paid off. He won the role of a goofy shop assistant opposite Barbara Streisand. He also had parts in the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the British farce No Sex Pleasee're British.
But the intensity with which Crawford approached his burgeoning acting career were also placing a strain on his personal life. Crawford and his wife, Gabrielle, were married in 1965 and had two children, daughters Lucy and Emma. But a series of financial setbacks, brought on mostly by Crawford's overly ambitious business manager, placed a strain on their marriage. Crawford found solace in his work, to the neglect of his family. "I went into the theater at 12:30 in the afternoon," he told People's Andrea Chambers. "I needed the feeling of being there, but Gabrielle wanted me home . . . The breakup was so painful I'm not sure I'd marry again." The Crawfords were divorced in 1975, but they remain close friends, and both daughters are following their father into show business.
While Crawford was enjoying a four-year run with the English production of Barnum in the early 1980s, he was unwittingly auditioning for the choice role in The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the London theater mogul who has penned the scores of some of the stage's most elaborate and successful productions, such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Cats, had heard Crawford and was impressed with his vocal range, a quality that made him a candidate for the Phantom role, which calls for oscillations from baritone to falsetto. Lloyd Webber invited Crawford over to hear some of the Phantom score, and the composer immediately liked the actor as much as the actor liked the part.
It took a little convincing to get producer Cameron Mackintosh to accept Crawford in the lead, but once he did, Crawford began intensive training for the role. He took vocal lessons to give more breadth to his range, and he began an examination of the character to find out how best to convey the tormented inner soul beneath the mask of the Phantom. In the story, which is based on Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel of the same name, the Phantom is an incredibly gifted composer and conducter who, because of his grotesquely disfigured face and body, is forced to live a lonely and sullen life in the shadows of the Paris Opera. His rage against the injustice of his fife is taken out on the members of the opera company who perform there, but the Phantom eventually falls in love with the beautiful young ingenue Christine Daae, who helps bring the story to its chilling conclusion.
The role of the mysterious and horrifying Phantom presented Crawford with a unique acting challenge. Normally, an actor's most expressive instrument is his face, but since the Phantom's face is covered with a mask Crawford must find other ways to express the character. As the Chicago Tribune's Kilian writes, Crawford "must express the most panful emotions with his face hidden beneath a partial mask and three layers of latex, his eyes clouded with eerily colored contact lenses. To accomplish this, he makes artful use of his body, employing the arch of his back, the strong set of his stance and dramatic gestures of hands and fingers to express the tormented character within." To make this imposing figure visually authentic, Crawford undergoes a rigorous daily regimen in the makeup room, where, for two hours, a team of handlers applies the ghastly facial textures and cloaks him in the Phantom costume. Then, practically blinded by the contact lenses, he must make his way around the elaborate set, which includes trapdoors, narrow ramps, falling chandeliers, and smoky caverns. Though the Phantom is only onstage for about thirty minutes of the production, by the end of the show Crawford is drained to exhaustion.
The dream role of the Phantom has brought Crawford unexpected dividends in addition to the obvious. He recorded an album with Columbia, entitled Michael Crawford: Songs from the Stage and Screen, which has been a platinum seller, and he appears to be the likely candidate to play the Phantom in the film version of the play. He also has been considered to take over the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, another immensely successful 1980s stage musical. But whatever he moves onto next, Crawford seems to realize that in the Phantom he has found the fulfillment of his career, something he can always hang his hat on. "Someday someone else will do it," he told Kilian, "someone else will go on in your clothes and your positions and do the things that you do. But we did it from the beginning. And I know where it came from, in my soul and in my heart. That's a lovely feeling."
Stage musical soundtracks
Billy, CBS, 1974.
The Phantom of the Opera, 1987.
Michael Crawford: Songs from the Stage and Screen, Columbia, 1988.
Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1988.
New York, April 18, 1988.
People, March 14, 1988.