Phantom of the Opera: We tour Her Majesty’s Theatre to meet Ben Forster as he finishes his time in the iconic role

Since it opened in the West End in 1986, The Phantom of the Opera has been a staple of London musicals and is now the second longest-running West End musical ever. Since 1st February 2016, the man at the helm of the titular role has been Ben Forster. Here, as he prepares to exit the show, we caught up with Ben to get candid about the experience of playing such an iconic role.

Let’s start at the start: tell us about how you got involved with Phantom, and how you came to even be considered for the role…

So obviously I did Superstar, the TV show, so I met Andrew [Lloyd Webber] throughout that whole process and I think working with him and having a relationship over that period was something that was beneficial. When I then did Evita for Bill Kenwright, it was a completely different scene; it was only a cameo, but performing ‘On This Night of a Thousand Stars’, it was very operatic and I don’t think anyone had really heard me do that sort of style. I knew I could do it because I’d trained in those sort of styles, but I was mostly known at that point for singing pop/rock. Andrew saw me do that on the opening night, and he came up to me afterwards and said ‘I think you’d be an amazing Phantom.’ I was like ‘really?’ – I thought I’d been pigeon-holed. When he said it to me, I said ‘just tell me when’. The next day I was at his house to sing through the soundtrack.

 

Were you already familiar with the soundtrack at that point?

I knew them all because they’re so famous, and I’d studied them at college, so I felt OK. I went to his house which was just ridiculous, and we were just sitting there singing through the songs. It was an amazing experience, and he was just immediately like, ‘I really think you’d be able to bring something new to Phantom.’ Next I came in to sing for Cameron [MacKintosh, the producer] and they offered me the part. I had to wait a year before it was announced.

 

What is it about Phantom you feel keeps it pulling in audiences after 31 years?

I think it’s completely a mix. The music is amazing, but it’s when you mix the music with the set, the visuals, the costumes, the actors and singers, the lighting, the sound – everything just comes together and creates magic. Not many people have seen Phantom just the once – they’ve seen it two, three, 10 times, and it’s because it keeps evolving. My interpretation would have changed it for a whole new group of people, and the next Phantom and Christine will do the same. You’re coming back and you’re seeing a different layer and a different perspective on a role which you already love because you’ve invested in it before.

What’s been a highlight of playing the Phantom for you?

There’s been so many! Winning an Olivier award – it was amazing. Going into the 30th Year we did an amazing night; Michael Crawford was here, the original cast, and there was just such an electric atmosphere… a night I’ll never really forget. The stage door is always a highlight for me – though I know some don’t like doing it. But [Phantom] is one of those parts that’s been done by so many people, and you can question yourself constantly about whether or not you’re living up to someone’s expectations, or whether you’re doing it right, and when you go outside and there’s 50-60 people outside saying, ‘Oh my god, I was in tears, I really felt your performance.’ Even if it’s just those 50 people who liked it, and nobody else did, at least I’ve left an impression on someone. All actors are really insecure, so it really helps.

How about your favourite scene or song from the show?

The final lair: it’s where everything starts to make sense. It’s when I can really turn the audience to feel something for me. I’m such a monster at the end – I think you could almost think I could kill Christine there. It’s the most challenging part, both in terms of vocals and in acting. It’s a brilliant scene, one of the reason I still love the show, and why it continues to challenge me. That’s what makes [being the Phantom] the best part in the West End.

I saw a review praising your performance as ‘creepy yet vulnerable’ – it’s true, despite all his shortcomings, we do feel empathy for the Phantom. How do you find the balance between portraying the two?

It’s hard. This not a criticism of any past Phantom or performance, but I really felt he should be a monster – he does kill people, 30-50 people throughout the show – he should be scary. He has no social or human skill, he should be quite terrorizing – there’s so many lyrics that give that away. He’s quite mentally ill, he’s been put in a freakshow, he’s escaped and lived underground. Even though he’s a genius, he’s still not right. I wanted to scare people, and make people scared of him. The problem is that if you push that line, you have to make people feel for him in the end. You should almost want Christine to stay with him, even though it’s completely wrong. He’s crazy! And a murderer. But there’s a side in everyone that’s felt abandoned and lonely, and your human heartstrings as an audience member should see him as a human being. If someone was born with a distorted face these days, they wouldn’t be [cast aside], it’s a different time and world. If you look at the real truth of it – that he was just a disfigured, disabled man – now, that prejudice wouldn’t stand. When people say I’m crazy or scary or creepy, I take it as a win!

Tell us about the daily makeup and costume process…

It takes about an hour and a quarter, which has been whittled down loads. When we started it was closer to a three-hour process. Michael [Crawford] used to get the prosthetic pieces put on his face, but now they’re all hand-painted. There’s a bald cap that goes on my head, and then there’s prosthetics that get put on my face, and they’re hand-made and hand-painted every show – nothing’s kept. It changes every day and is so fresh and organic; everything is done to an impeccable level. There’s 6 or 7 makeup artists available, but its usually lead by my main makeup artist, Tanya. There’s also 2 wigs, and then a full face of makeup.

The fans are such an integral part of Phantom’s success – they love you on Instagram – how much do you let their feedback, be that positive or negative, shape your portrayal of such an iconic character?

I’ve had someone at the stage door giving me notes before; ‘When you sing this line, I think you should do it a bit more intense’, and I was like, alright, there’s like 5 directors who are all paid to tell me what to do. But it’s fine, everyone has a favourite Phantom and a first Phantom, and people are always gonna compare me. I know that I’m doing a really different Phantom to what most people do. Sometimes when I watch others I think, they could have done that more, or this less. Actually, I just have to trust my own interpretation, I know in my mind who the Phantom is, and I wouldn’t have sang that line any more intensely, or softer. I’ve thought about every single line I sing in the show. It’s been worked through the entire team here, and I trust them completely. As soon as you question your integrity and body language, you don’t look or feel comfortable doing something, it’s suddenly not believable. Same with Buddy [Elf the Musical]– you’ve got to commit. If I’m gonna come in and go ‘SAAAANTA!’, you’ve got to do it from the innermost parts of your body and not feel like an idiot! There’s performances I’ve seen that I’ve loved that get a bad review, and much the same, seen comments on Twitter praising performances I didn’t care for. As long as some people like me, I don’t mind!

You’ve been spending time with new Phantom Ben Lewis – what advice have you passed on ahead of him taking over the role?

I’ve been telling him all the little tricks that no one will tell him! The things that you’d probably never notice. There’s a part where I’m hiding in a cross [in the Graveyard scene] and no one told me there’s a fan in there – for like 2 months! It’s so hot, it’s like being in a coffin, for 7-10minutes. One day I accidentally pressed something and a fan came on! No one told me there was a fan. It’s little things, there’s a fan in the cross, there’s tissues in the Angel [when The Phantom waits in the Angel ornament, hovering above the audience]. Even how to put Christine down, I worked out if I put my leg a bit higher up on the boat, I don’t have to bend down as much to put her down.

 

This Christmas you’re returning to the titular role of Elf in the musical- what was it about Elf that made you want to come back?

Elf is one of those absolute treats of a job. It was terrifying before I first did it [he previously played the role in 2014 and 2015] as I’d never done comedy, nor thought I was funny. I didn’t know whether I’d be able to make people laugh. It’s a massive crowd, and if a joke doesn’t land and no one laughs it’s really terrifying. But when it goes right, making 2,200 people laugh is a great feeling. It’s beautiful, and that story has such a nice heart. It’s perfect for Christmas. When I was asked to go back, I did debate whether I should be going back and forth in my career, but it’s one of those things, I’d miss it at Christmas if someone else was doing it in my place. I’m really looking forward to it!

How does Phantom compare to Elf?

I love that my career is being seen as that versatile. I feel finally I’m not being pigeon-holed. The similarities between the two characters though is that they’re both hidden children. The Phantom hasn’t ever really grown up, he’s not experienced life… and Buddy hasn’t either. One’s crazy and a bit weird, and one’s an elf!

What can we expect in the coming years? You have original music coming out…

Hopefully more of a ‘me’ year! I’d really love to get back to my music next year. I’d love to get out performing my own stuff. Maybe a different slant, as well as whatever else may come. I’m really looking forward to next year. I’ve worked solidly with just Sundays off since I did Rocky Horror. It’s been really intense and I’ve got six weeks off now. I want to take a nice holiday, see some places and come back and record and tour.

 

What is your FAULT?

Saturated fat. I just love eating! I love food. And I just can’t eat that much… I constantly battle, picking the healthy option, trying my best, but then every weekend I just eat, eat, eat, and feel awful all weekend.

You must burn some calories during the show?!

Yeah, but I’m stopping that soon! But I’ll carry on eating. My FAULT is dieting and food because I’ve gotta stay fit for my job. I love a sandwich… and cake… and coffee!

Do you work out for the show as well?

My voice doctor, when I started Phantom, asked if I was working out and when I told her yeah, she said, ‘you need to stop whilst you’re doing the show.’ She told me not to lift any weights, and not to do cardio. My neck was going really tense!

 

See more of Ben at his official website, or catch up with him on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Words Julie Bradley

Photography Jack Alexander

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