THEATERMANIA: Hugh, can you talk a little about your journey in Phantom?
HUGH PANARO: It's pretty neat. When Phantom first came out, I was doing Les Misérables. I hadn't seen it and got the audition for Raoul. When I was playing Raoul, I had no desire to play The Phantom; Michael Crawford and Mark Jacoby were men, and I was only 25 years old. Eight years later, I got my first taste at being The Phantom, but only for six months. I feel that I am the right age now -- at 47 -- to be The Phantom. I am a more seasoned human being.
TM: Are there people still at the Majestic from your first go-round?
HP: I knew some of the guys and girls in the crew as kids, since their fathers were the stagehands when I was playing Raoul. Over the last 23 years, we've had people retire and, unfortunately, people pass away. This last time coming back, I really didn't know too many cast members, but I knew the doorman.
TM: How do you keep the role fresh after all these years?
The role is pretty complex and layered, and the audience is different every night. So the energy exchange between the actor and audience is different each night. On a business level, I know how much money people are paying to see the show, so will not let them leave without giving them 100 percent.
TM: What are the challenges of playing the role for so many years?
HP: One of the biggest challenges is reeducating your body. When you sing the same role over and over, it's important to sing other material. You need to constantly change your muscle memory. Sometimes, you will find me putting on a Billy Joel record and singing along. When I warm up, I sing anything but Phantom songs.
TM: So, what are the benefits for staying in the same part for so long?
HP: You really get to work on a character in-depth. You can dissect a piece over time. Some nights, things come out a little different and you learn from it. It fascinates me that you can still learn something after all of these years later. There is always something to work on. It's also nice knowing that you will have a steady paycheck in New York City!