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  • Hannah Prewett

Of Phantoms, Obsessions, and Color Blindness

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

I’m known to most of my family members and friends as someone who has slight obsessive tendencies.

Okay, maybe “slight” is a bit of an understatement. From the latest Disney movies to my various collections, I tend to get excited about things. And one of my biggest obsessions when I was in high school and college was The Phantom of the Opera.

My first exposure to Phantom was listening to the “highlights” soundtrack at a friend’s house when I was in junior high. While the music intrigued me, it scared me a little, too. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on without any visuals, and I actually ended up having nightmares about the Phantom for a couple of years.

By the time I hit high school, I’d moved beyond that, and my family and I saw it live in Sacramento when I was about fifteen. I loved it! Thus the obsession began. I read Gaston Leroux’s novel. I memorized the full original cast soundtrack (aside from “Past the Point of No Return,” which I skipped because of its sensual lyrics). I fell in love with Michael Crawford’s beautiful, haunting voice in his portrayal of Erik. I’d listen to my CD set over and over again and often sing along to it in my room. One of my most embarrassing moments from high school was the time I was dressed in my bathrobe and faux pearl necklace, singing “Angel of Music” dramatically to my full-length mirror, my arms outstretched in pleading supplication … and then my mom walked in.

It’s quite difficult to casually explain away such a scenario to your mother.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music moved me in a way that my previous musical obsessions never had before. I wanted to be Christine. I was Christine when I sang along to the soundtrack, a beautiful singer torn between her love for her childhood friend and her pity for her disfigured teacher. Even when I took part in my school’s drama club, I often imagined myself continuing my acting career and eventually playing Christine.

One of my favorite memories from high school, which far outweighs my embarrassing one, happened on my seventeenth birthday. My friends asked my mom what I wanted for my birthday that year, and she told them what I wanted most was to see The Phantom of the Opera. That was all it took. A group of about seven of them pooled their money together, enough money to buy me an orchestra seat ticket to see Phantom where it was currently playing in San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. I couldn’t believe my friends would do something so sweet for me.

Nathan, my boyfriend at the time (and now husband), got to go with me. Nathan’s parents, one of my best friends, and some other close family friends went with us as well. It was an unforgettable experience, made even more special by the love of my friends and their incredible gift.

Nathan and I at Phantom in 1998.

Phantom-themed artwork from my scrapbook, drawn in 1999. 

In the years that followed, as I went to college and took voice lessons, I became even more infatuated with the story. I sang “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and “Think of Me” for one of my college recitals. It wasn’t up to par with professional Christines by any means, but it was a huge thrill to actually hit that high B flat at the end of “Think of Me” without my voice cracking.

Then came a time where I felt I was getting a little too obsessed with the story, so I did a sort of purging and packed away all of my Phantom stuff for a while. It was becoming the most important thing in my life, and I recognized the need to step back a bit.

Now that I’ve matured a little, at least, I’ve allowed Phantom back, but have tried not to be quite so obsessive about it … though I’m not above listening to comparisons of different Phantoms, Christines, and Raouls and ranking my favorites (Michael Crawford, Ramin Karimloo, and Hugh Panaro; Sarah Brightman, Lisa Vroman, and Sierra Boggess; Christopher Carl, Steve Barton, and Patrick Wilson, just in case you’re curious), or geeking out over certain performances, or ranting about my irritation with “Love Never Dies.” Okay, so maybe this obsession thing is harder to outgrow than I thought. At least I don’t sing to my mirror anymore. 😉

I’ve also faced the reality that playing Christine will not happen for me. I can’t hit the high note in “The Phantom of the Opera,” I can’t dance to save my life, and I wouldn’t be comfortable singing “Past the Point of No Return.” Plus, I’m too old (I think) and too heavy (I know) to be cast. Sigh. Another dream bites the dust. But that’s okay. I can still sing the songs for fun, and the story still resonates with me, though in a different way now that I’m older. As a writer, I love exploring what makes the characters from this play so enduring and relatable to so many people. I want to create characters that resonate with people the way Erik, Christine, Raoul, and the others do.

That trip to San Francisco to see Phantom was eighteen years ago. (Heavens, am I really that old already?) So when I saw that it was coming to Sacramento this May, I approached Hubby with the idea of an early anniversary trip to see it again. My husband is the best. He said yes. 😀

A couple of months ago, we purchased our tickets, and once I’d looked up the cast, I immediately scoured the internet for clips of them singing. Particularly the Phantom. Because let’s face it, everyone has to be good, but the Phantom has to have a PHENOMENAL voice for the story to work. That’s why I didn’t care for the 2004 film version of Phantom all that much. (Sorry, Gerard Butler. You’re a great actor, but your singing voice is not the Phantom’s singing voice. Not for me, anyway.)

At the time I looked things up, the Phantom was to be played by Chris Mann. I happened upon this video of him on YouTube and was thrilled by his beautiful voice. I couldn’t wait for May to get here!

Then, somewhere between the time we purchased tickets and the time of the performance, the principle casting changed. The Phantom was now being played by an actor I’d never heard of named Derrick Davis. I was disappointed, mostly because I’d gotten excited about hearing Chris Mann’s incredible voice in person. But I’m embarrassed and ashamed to admit that a small part of me was hesitant about having a black man star in a role I had always pictured as white.

I’ve always liked to think of myself as a non-racist person. As a mom, this has been one of my highest priorities. I want my girls to grow up believing that a person’s skin color doesn’t matter, but that what’s inside of them is most important. In a fairly small Northern California town that is primarily white, that can be a difficult thing to emphasize. Because of this, I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to expose the girls to multiple ethnicities in our dolls, collectibles, movies, and books.

It was also important to me as an author to choose a diverse cast of characters to inhabit my fairy tale world. I didn’t want just blonde-haired, blue-eyed heroes and heroines, but a variety of hair and skin colors to be relatable to a wider audience.

Yet here I was, unsure about an actor's performance in a role largely because of his skin tone, before I’d found out anything about his acting ability.

Once I was aware of the casting changes, I plunged into another online research session and found an interview of Derrick’s. I was impressed by his take on the role, and was instantly struck by his charm and his warm demeanor. In the course of the interview, he mentioned that as he was only the third person of color to play the Phantom, he hoped that the audience would come away from his performance “color blind.” I felt ashamed of myself, and from that moment on was determined to see him for his performance, not for the color of his skin.

Nathan and I at Phantom last Friday.

The day finally came. With eager anticipation, I took my seat in the balcony beside my husband. By the first act, I was utterly transfixed. Derrick’s portrayal of the Phantom was the most incredible performance I’d ever seen, live or online. He brought this beautiful, vulnerable humanity to the role that gave the character even more depth and complexity. In fact, I came close to switching to Team Phantom, even though I know from a practical standpoint he wouldn’t be the healthiest relationship choice for Christine. Derrick gave us an incredibly multifaceted character. I saw the ugliness of his revenge and bitterness, and the way he lashed out when he didn’t get his way, but I also saw the deep pain and sorrow of his heart. I saw someone who had never learned compassion, or kindness, or forgiveness, because it had never been shown to him. This made Christine’s kiss and hug in the final scene all the more moving. Derrick’s voice was flawless, just as the Phantom’s voice should be. The richness of his tone, his clarity, his breath control, and the emotion he brought out through his songs nearly made me weep.

Normally, I try to take binoculars to a performance with me. As someone who was once involved in acting, I’m always fascinated by the facial expressions professional actors use to convey their emotions. Unfortunately, I forgot my binoculars this time. I would have loved to see the facial details in several of the scenes. That being said, I was so impressed by the body language the whole cast brought to the performance. I’ve heard before that as a professional stage actor, you must find ways to engage even those in the back of the theater. They truly did this, Derrick especially. His anguish, his anger, his sorrow, and his obsession with Christine were all beautifully portrayed with the subtlety of hand movements or posture.

And then, to top it all off, I had the enormous privilege of getting to meet him at the stage door afterwards. We didn’t talk for long, but he was so gracious and kind. I can only imagine how demanding the role of the Phantom is, both physically and emotionally, yet Derrick took the time to take pictures and sign autographs with a smile for those of us waiting. I told him he was the best Phantom I’d ever seen, and I meant it 100%.

There are times in life where you are blessed to meet people who are truly beautiful, inside and out. I’ve seen this beauty in my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, in my favorite author, Robin Jones Gunn, and one of my favorite singers, Fernando Ortega. On Friday, I met another beautiful person in Derrick. I am so excited to see where his career goes in the future, and I’m so thankful I got the chance to meet him, however briefly.

For all of these years, I’ve pictured the Phantom as a Michael Crawford or a Ramin Karimloo, but I think that from now on, the Phantom will forevermore be ingrained in my mind as Derrick’s portrayal, a tall man with rich, dark skin, an angelic voice, and a vulnerable spirit.

My attempt at capturing Derrick in the role.

As a side note, I’ve since seen clips of Chris Mann in the role of the Phantom. His voice is still beautiful, but I personally feel his acting doesn’t come close to Derrick’s depth and emotion. I’m so glad the casting change happened before I saw the play!

Something I remember distinctly as a child is how special the animated version of Beauty and the Beast was for me. Up until that time, most of the princess characters had blonde hair. I remember wishing quite particularly for Sleeping Beauty’s long, golden curls. But when Belle came on the scene, with her brown hair like mine and her love for reading, I realized that maybe someone like me could be beautiful, too. It made me okay with who I was and how I looked. That may seem like a silly thing, but as a child it made such a difference. Even now, when I see fuller figured actresses in films or in plays, cast as something other than the plus-sized sidekick comic relief, I find it encouraging.

I know my experience pales in comparison to Derrick’s amazing accomplishment of being the third person of color to ever play such an iconic role. And I can’t help but feel that as he performs around the United States, there will be young men and boys of color in the audience who watch him and think, “I could be the Phantom, too.”

I hope and pray that we continue to become more color blind as a nation, to see people for their merits and abilities with no thought for their appearance. I want to thank Derrick for reminding me of the importance of that. I will always treasure his performance as one of the most moving I’ve ever seen.

~From a Phangirl. 🙂

Artistic attempt number two.

Still working on this one. 😉

You can read a great interview of Derrick’s on playing the Phantom HERE.

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