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The Jewish Performer Behind Phantom's Mask
No one would blame Cooper Grodin if he felt the slightest bit nervous at taking on the title role in the 25th anniversary tour of The Phantom of the Opera.
The 36-year-old native of New York City, whose career was launched in Israel, is performing at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia until April 12. Grodin jumped from the play’s ensemble cast to take over for Mark Campbell — the original actor portraying the facially disfigured psychopathic musical genius living below a Paris opera house in the 19th century — mere weeks after the tour began.
Just like the play’s female lead, Christine, played by Voorhees native Julia Udine, steps into her leading role without missing a note, Grodin did the same. His singing and acting have garnered unanimously positive reviews from critics and audience members alike. (Indeed, during intermission of the show’s opening night in Philadelphia, some of the lobby conversations revolved around his portrayal.)
This is not the first time Grodin has worked on an iconic musical celebrating a milestone: He also performed in the 25th anniversary tour of Les Miserables as Combeferre, the second-in-command of Les Amis de l’ABC, the revolutionary student group depicted in the show.
Grodin’s theatrical career was actually launched by an Israeli production of Les Miserables. In 1999, during a one-year program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he was discovered by an Israeli producer while blowing off steam by tinkling the ivories. “I had always played piano — it was my hobby,” Grodin recalls. “So I would play in Jerusalem in the jazz clubs. Someone approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing Les Miz. I said I never heard of it.”
Although it is hard to believe that someone who grew up in New York City in the latter part of the 20th century was unfamiliar with the play (coincidentally produced by Cameron Mackintosh, who is also the producer of Phantom), Grodin swears he was too busy playing basketball and chasing girls — “the typical Upper West Side Jewish experience” he says with a laugh — to pay attention to musical theater.
So he put his studies in finance on hold to perform in his first professional production, although he did continue to go to an ulpan course in Jerusalem long enough to become fluent in Hebrew. “Javert was my first role. I did a few other shows over there, including the first production of Parade” — the Alfred Uhry musical about the real-life 1913 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta.
Grodin never went back to his original career path, and he has continued to return to Israel on a regular basis, most recently to record his first album in Tel Aviv, It’s the Little Things, with a roster of Israeli jazz musicians. “Israeli musicians are world class,” he enthuses. “In Israel, if you are really good at something, you get to do it in the army, so I work with a lot of people who are in the jazz band in the army.”
The Phantom of the Opera is a musical the way that Lennon and McCartney were songwriters. Since its Broadway debut
in 1988, the play about deformities both visible and invisible, love requited and spurned, and the power of music, has become a fixture on the American cultural landscape. It is the long-est-running play in Broadway history — its 10,800-plus performances place it more than 3,000 ahead of its nearest competitor, Cats.
The show is so well-known now that when someone is talking about seeing Phantom, there is little chance that they are referring to the 1996 Billy Zane movie and not the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that spawned such crossover hits as “The Music of the Night” and “All I Ask of You.”
When asked what it has been like to assay one of the most recognizable roles in the history of American theater, Grodin responds that it has been a completely new experience.
“The feedback has been phenomenal,” he says. “I’ve been overwhelmed by how affected people seem to be by this production and my interpretation. People seem to be really touched — I sing like a beast and that’s great, but people are really feeling for the Phantom, rooting for him. He’s a murderer and he’s crazy, and they are surrendering to the story.”
He says that in addition to numerous additions and enhancements — including new orchestrations, a larger cast
and orchestra, and plenty of pyrotechnics to go along with a redesigned chandelier — a stronger focus on the characters has made a difference on this tour.
“We are just trying to tell the story of a man who doesn’t understand how anyone could love him. That is a universal story. The audience is rooting for him to get the girl because that guy never does.”
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