"I think I'm the fourth Swedish person to do Broadway," says Peter Jöback over coffee at the Intercontinental Hotel, just up the road from the Majestic Theatre where he is currently making his debut on the Great White Way in the title role of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. American audiences might not recognize Jöback's name, but in his native Sweden he's a renowned pop star, selling over one million albums and receiving gold and platinum records as well as Swedish Grammy nominations and two Swedish Tony Awards.
No stranger to this stage, Jöback is a musical theater nerd, selling out arenas in 2012 with a tour called I Love Musicals. Phantom producer Cameron Mackintosh brought him to London's West End to star as Chris in Miss Saigon and Michael in The Witches of Eastwick. In 2011 he appeared alongside legends like Colm Wilkinson as part of the Phantom 25th Anniversary production at the Royal Albert Hall, and took on the title role in the West End production last year. Now, he's playing the role on Broadway.
We sat down with Jöback just days after taking his first curtain call as Broadway's latest masked man to discuss his inspiration for the role. Excerpts from the conversation follow.
How's Broadway treating you so far?
It's an exciting thing for me to be here. Like I said to a friend of mine, it's a boyhood dream, and it's funny that dreams can come true after forty.
Replacements notoriously get very little rehearsal time. What was your rehearsal process like?
I got here three weeks ago, and have been working with [production supervisor] Seth Sklar-Heyn and [musical director] David Caddick. There are small differences from the London production [in which he starred in 2012], so in the beginning, the first few days were like someone pulling out the mat. But everything went really smoothly, and I got a chance to talk with Hal Prince. He directed me for a whole day and corrected things and gave me notes, which was amazing. I've been very cool about the whole thing, very focused. [On my first night] When I went down in the boat, it kind of hit me. I saw the big audience and I was like, "I'm here! I made it!"
You made your Phantom debut as part of the post-show festivities during the London production's 25th Anniversary show at the Royal Albert Hall before taking on the role full time. How did that come about for you?
Cameron [Mackintosh] called me two years ago and said "We want to try you as the Phantom." It was a big challenge for me, but I love challenges. [The Royal Albert Hall show] was the first time I ever sung the songs. The honor to come in with Colm Wilkinson and Anthony Warlow and John Owen Jones…Not many knew who I was, because I was the new guy, but it was an honor. It went really well in London and people were raving about it and [saying] that I brought something new into it, and that gives you confidence. When Cameron and I were talking about what to do next, we talked about Broadway, and I said "That would be a dream," and he called me and said "Do you want to go next year?" Of course.
The first thing that went through your mind is…?
I think the child in me wanted to do a cartwheel or something. [Laughs] I'm proud of what I achieved and that I made it here.
What was it like to work with Hal Prince? The fact that he's still involved with the day-to-day running of the show is inspiring.
I know! You get — not scared, I don't know the word — but I got excited when he sat there. We were doing "Music of the Night" and he stopped me after two lines and I thought "Oh my God, he doesn't like it," but he gets so engaged. He wanted me to do more. Being his age and having done this for so many years and is still so passionate about it? It's amazing. He stayed for the whole rehearsal and shook my hand and said "You're gonna be a marvelous Phantom."
How did you get into theater?
I was ten years old when I started to work, so I've been in the business for thirty-one years. I was a child actor, so I did The Sound of Music, one of those annoying kids who sang and danced all the time. I came from quite a dysfunctional family. My dad didn't have time for me — he had other issues he had to take care of — so the theater raised me. This is my family. It means a lot to me, even though I divorced myself from musicals to do pop. Music is a way for me to figure out who I am, so I needed to do different things. I couldn't keep playing a role all the time. But my heart is in musical theater. And of course, you want to come to Broadway or the West End, because that's where the best people are. It's all about learning. I will learn till I die.
Can you talk about how you view the Phantom?
It's all about the abused child, and that we all carry masks. It's about daring to take the mask off. It touched me in another way, and the love story is beautiful. The end scene is so amazing. For me, it's like he's realized, when she kisses him, he will never be able to give her what she wants because he doesn't like himself. It's so sad. It touched me, because I've had experiences like that. I want to play him as the vulnerable child. To be abused can make you a monster, because in some way it has to come out. It's the [people] at the Paris Opera House [who make] him the monster.
I sense that you relate to the character.
It took a very long time for me to accept myself and who I am and the things that happened to me as a child. This was a mask, before I grew into my body and [began to] celebrate who I am. I wanted to make him vulnerable so that could shine through. That's the challenge. If you dare to take risks, it doesn't have to be perfect. But as a performer, you have to be perfect, so you have to work against yourself. But you can be more alive if you dare to [take risks].
So you don't view the Phantom as a monster, then.
He's not a monster, he's trying to survive. He's been in the dungeon for such a long time. Like he says, he wants heaven, and he finds this girl, he hears her pray, and there's a connection. He can help her, he can teach her. Also, I think he's in love with her beauty. There's something sexual happening. Because, you know, he's been down there for so many years, and suddenly there's this contact. [laughs] But still, he wants to be the teacher, so don't come too close. He doesn't connect it that way until she says it in the end; the problem isn't here, it's in your soul, and that hits him. When she finally reaches out and kisses him, he can't embrace her because he doesn't like himself. For me, that's the key thing. My goal is that people will go in there and say "Why didn't she pick the Phantom?"