Q&A: The Phantom of The Opera’s Star Derrick Davis
Chicago has become one of leading cities for the theatre world with Broadway in Chicago at the helm. The transformation of revitalizing the city’s beautiful vintage theatre houses back to their grandeur of hosting musical productions is a wonderful gift to thousands of visitors from around the world.
The production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is the longest running musical in Broadway history. For nearly 30 years, it has captured thousands of audiences from around the world, in addition to its traveling ensemble making it an international phenomenon.
Two weeks ago, the new production by Cameron Mackintosh made its highly anticipated return at the Cadillac Palace Theatre with the largest production cast and orchestra on tour in North America. Taking on the lead starring role as The Phantom is Derrick Davis—the first African-American star to tour in the blockbuster Broadway hit.
Based on a French novel, the story revolves around the beautiful soprano, Christine Daás who become the center of The Phantom’s infatuation—a disfigured musical genius.
The Chicago Defender had a chance to speak one-on-one with Davis on his debut in the Chicago production run of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and his passion for the theatre.
You have an array of theatrical shows under your belt including the Lion King, Show Boat, You’re It! Opera: Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Die Fledermaus. How did you start in the business?
Davis: I grew up in Long Island, New York. First generation American, my parents are both from Panama—born and raised there. I did normal high school plays. I had an incredible chorus teacher in high school—Larry Worzel. He encouraged me to pursue the arts—music and singing and everything like that. He connected me with a great classical teacher—John Aire. I studied with him for a quite some time and from there I went to college at Long Island University—studying opera.
I fell in love with opera there but still had the desire to do music theatre. When I graduated college, I started to try to do the opera avenue but it wasn’t a perfect fit. I thought, let me go back to my first love—musical theatre with this wealth knowledge that I gained from my collegiate experience.
From there, I began to get small regional gigs that led to off-Broadway productions. I eventually landed an ensemble role in the Lion King in Las Vegas. I did King Mufasa with the touring company and I went on to do Broadway as an understudy for Mufasa and Scar.
Let’s rewind to the beginning, so your love was for opera?
Davis: I started in church—like most young Black kids do. (he softly laughs). Singing in the church choir and doing praise and worship. So that was kind of a lane that carried me through all of my training.
Was there anyone in your family that had this kind of talent for singing?
Davis: Not a soul. You probably wouldn’t pay a penny to hear the majority of my family lift their voice in song. But, they were very supportive of my skills.
What are some of the hardest challenges that you face coming up in the business especially breaking into an industry that don’t have a lot of faces that look like you?
Davis: The major challenge was staying motivated and staying committed to the goal that I had set for myself. It’s very easy to watch the people who live in pursuit for a career like this. Being a man of color only compounds the complexities of it all because there are far fewer opportunities presented to us. Just getting out of college when I started the auditioning process, that’s when I realized that I had a decision that I had to make.
Either I was going to do like many of my friends had done and just audition for roles for people of color or I was going to break the stereotype and just become as excellent as I could at my craft. Have people recognize that—take a chance and put me in non-traditional Black roles or a new role that is created. I want people to recognize and say, ‘Hey, he has the skill set and the talent.’
The Phantom of The Opera is not a new production, it is a classic and has been on Broadway for nearly 29 years. You are reprising the lead role of ‘The Phantom’. You are not the first African-American male lead so what does this mean for you to continue this legacy of great actors?
Davis: It’s humbling and it’s also very indicative of the responsibility that I carry. To be named after Robert Guillaume and Norm Lewis to me, only the third man of color to step into this role—it’s a heritage that now, rests on my shoulder—to make sure that I do the role justice.
To continue to educate those that are behind me, in terms that they can do anything if they put their mind to it. The world is changing—all be it slowly but it is changing as far as allowing people to do things in history we haven’t been expected to be able to do.
During your run in Chicago, will you be visiting any of the youth or community programs that encourage students and those that are pursuing theater and the arts?
Davis: Absolutely! When I was in ministry, I was a youth leader and a youth pastor. There were several things that will never leave my heart and one of those things is young people. In giving back and take my level of excellence and my role to use that to influence the next generation positively. I will definitely reach out to a few of the performing arts schools to speak to the young people. A few of them have already reached out to me, asking me to connect with them. So, I’m very excited to do just that.
What can we expect from this particular production that we haven’t seen from the previous The Phantom of the Opera productions?
Davis: The original, brilliant production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is just that—it’s brilliant. This one is the spectacular new production. You will get the same score, the same script—all of that will remain the same. If you seen or heard the music and don’t want that to be changed—it’s the same. We’re almost 30 years later, so technology has progressed. The sound is going to be far greater. The lighting design has been enhanced.
The pyrotechnics and the spectacle of it all—that’s also been upgraded as well. On the directorial side, there’s a great emphasis on the humanity of each of the characters so it gives each character a little more depth. It allows the audience to recognize things such as the love triangle between Raoul, Christine and The Phantom in a more festive way. It’s not as fantastic—it’s more realistic.
While you’re in Chicago, what are your plans to experience our beautiful city?
Davis: I’m going to link up with a bunch of wonderful Chicagoans and just explore. I love to explore—it’s a little cold. But, I’m definitely going to have deep dish pizza and I’m going to check out the museums. I love museums and art. I’m glad we’re here for a month. Hopefully, bring in the New Year in some fantastic way that can only be done here in Chicago.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA will run for a limited engagement through January 8, 2017 at the Cadillac Theatre. If you happen to be in Chicago during this time, this is a wonderful musical to check out. For more information, please visit Broadway In Chicago.