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INTERVIEW: Derrick Davis on Becoming the Phantom of the Opera

Derrick Davis (right) returns to the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis as The Phantom in the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Playing the Phantom of the Opera is a famously demanding role, and playing the Phantom amidst the rigors and winter winds of a national tour is even more so than normal. To close out the current national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical, the creative team turned to Derrick Davis.

Davis, standing six-feet tall plus another four inches, is not someone you’d miss a crowd. His commanding physique is paired with a melodious and powerful speaking voice, and a singing voice that sends shivers up and down your spine. He’s also a trailblazer in the role – when Davis first joined the national touring cast, he was the third African American man to play the role (period) and the first African American man to play The Phantom in the national tour. That’s an impressive start, but browse his actor’s resume, and you might be surprised what else he’s done.

Derrick Davis spoke with Basil Considine about playing The Phantom, playing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a few other tricks up his sleeve.

Derrick Davis plays The Phantom of the Opera.

Your actor’s resume lists painting, preaching, sewing, and knitting (among others) under “Special Skills”. Have you had the chance to use any of those on-camera or on-stage?

Just off-stage, the knitting often comes out.

There was a very intricate sweater than I was working on. If you know anything about knitting, you have to finish a row or remember exactly where you are, or make a horrible mistake and have to undo a few rows, and I’ve had to bolt to my position onstage a few times.

You starred in Opera Carolina’s production of I Dream (about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last 36 hours) last year. The production was critically acclaimed and reviewers praised your performance, and I see that you’re listed for the company’s revival production in April 2020. Will you be done with your Phantom contract at that point, or taking some time off?

We’ll be done by then – the tour closes the 2nd of February, so we’re on the last few stops of this production for the foreseeable future.

Have you dipped your toe into opera very often?

Not very often. That was my training in college, but my work has been musical theatre, for the most part, in my career. This is not as operatic as you might see at the Met – something more along the lines of Rodgers & Hammerstein, with a legit voice.

And an R&B twist?

Yes, to infuse it with a bit of the story being told.

What was your arc like?

Directly after graduating college, I thought very highly of myself and tried doing the New York scene directly, and the scene – as it does for many people – said “Not yet”. So I had to make money and took jobs with banks and in real estate, and then came to my senses and did some regional productions in Long Island. Then I came back to New York to do some auditions, and got a gig for Lion King in Vegas. Then they asked me to play Mufasa on tour, and then to cover Mufasa and Scar on Broadway, then I played Billy Bigelow in Carousel on Broadway, and then Curtis Taylor, Jr in Dreamgirls in Dallas. And now the sky’s the limit – I’d love to originate a role and create a character from its inception, and also to get into television and film. It was obviously a great honor to do Phantom and close it out.

What was the work schedule like in Vegas?

It was very similar to Broadway. We were doing the full-length show, rather than the truncated 90 minutes that a lot of others do. This meant a lot of “weekends” – Sunday nights and Mondays for us in the cast – we’d get invited to red carpet events, special events, and clubs…the sort of glam that you dream of, which doesn’t really exist in “real life”. In Vegas, the Strip is so unique – it turns over every couple days in terms of its occupancy. You can go to the same place every 4 days and see a completely different scene.

It was very lovely, especially living off the strip (which is normal life, with people living day-to-day and raising families).

The Phantom (Derrick Davis) tries to win a horrified Christine (Emma Grimsley). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

How long was that?

Three years. By the end of it, I’d built a house. You’re making a reasonable amount of money, and if you don’t gamble it away at the casino, you can save it away. A few of us took the opportunity to buy or build homes.

You built a house? 

Yes! It was the right moment in the housing market.

This may have given you unrealistic expectations for living space sizes when you moved back to New York City.

Incredibly unrealistic! I’m paying three times as much for my 1-bedroom apartment as my 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath house with garage. However, the opportunity is much greater in New York and have a more stable circle of friends. I would never have gotten the opportunity to do Phantom if I hadn’t come back to New York.

Although, as I recall, there have been several Phantom of the Opera productions in Vegas, including one where Michael Crawford (who originated the role) infamously broke his ankle.

That show was a 90-minute version of the original production, but incredibly opulent. It was also an incredibly neckbreak pace, so I see how injury could have occurred in it. I saw it in Vegas three times – it’s one of my favorite shows, and my parents took me to see it as a little kid. Even before being considered for Phantom of the Opera, I had probably seen it 14 times. And I still have all the Playbills.

Where do you store all those in New York?

I have a very kind brother in Long Island who has a massive basement, of which a good corner houses my clothes and other memorabilia, particularly when I’m out of New York. When I moved back, I sold all the furniture in my house and started smaller.

You’re represented by Gregg Baker Management. This agency works only on recommendations – so how did you first start working with this agency?

I actually am really great friends with someone who is also with Angela Birchett, who is a supernova of a vocalist and performer – coming out in the Clark Sisters movie for Lifetime, as one of the stars.

I used to co-produce the #1 curated open mic in Times Square with my friend Chondra Profit from The Lion King, an open mic for the Broadway/entertainment community. She was our lead vocalist and invited Gregg, and he was impressed. At the time, I’d grown as far as I could with my previous representation, and he heard everything I said and understood where I wanted to go, and it’s been gangbusters ever since. It’s been three and half to four years now.

Did You Know…

…that seeing The Phantom of the Opera at age 11 was Derrick Davis’ first Broadway show?

…that his mother used to say, “You’re going to be the Phantom, you’re going to play Mufasa” – and he has?

Do you speak with your agent regularly?

We are always looking to move onwards and upwards. Gregg is a very hands-on agent, but when I’m on a gig (like Phantom), I don’t need to be in constant contact – but we still check in at least every other week with a quick phone call, text, or email. But when it’s a hotter season and when I’m in auditions, our communication is determined by what I’m doing for.

Do you ever disagree about what things that you should go audition for?

There have definitely been times where casting has said, “We would love to see him for this,” and it doesn’t resonate with my soul. If they’re asking me to spend the time to get to know and present a character that I don’t feel I can be successful with, or who I don’t resonate with, it would be a waste of everyone’s time. I think that casting respects that – if you’re not going to be right, they understand.

Gregg and I always have conversations about this, and sometimes he’ll say, “No, you should do this, you don’t understand what you can do”, and every time that he’s pushed me to do that, it’s turned out to be good.

A scene from The Phantom of the Opera. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

One of the notable changes in the current productions of The Phantom of the Opera versus the original production is that there’s a little less of the romance part of the original Gothic romance and more of a visible thread of Christine’s discomfort and resistance. Does this factor into how you approach the character? 

I’m not a method actor – I find the emotional core. Even the villains, if we break them down to the emotions they’re experiencing, we find that we all experience this…but sometimes the volume knob gets turned up so much that it gets snapped off. It’s about allowing the emotion that you capture in the moment be the same as the way the character is thrown. I find that much more useful than method acting, especially when it comes to the murderous ways that some of these characters are thrown.

With regards to where I draw from as an actor, I really have sensed to not make the Phantom anything less or more than human. I feel like that’s so important, in order for the audience to connect – either subconsciously or consciously, and maybe overlook the crazy things he does on stage.

Our director, Lawrence Conner, really wants us to delve into the humanity and realism of the character and their connections with other characters. I’ve discovered that the Phantom is really a broken soul. You have to conider that he’s gone through a childhood of being unwanted by his mother, sold to a traveling circus or carnival of sorts, being hawked at, pointed at, called names, probably manhandled in certain ways, and then finding the strength in himself to escape and recognize the genius in himself.

You can understand that for a person to have to fight against the odds his whole life, only to be met with rejection because of his deformity…it builds a lack of love for humanity. But then to find a sound in someone that almost suits him, which he can connect with in Christine, I’m sure to some extent he fantasizes about being closer with her. It’s kind of like Beauty and the Beast – he’s this distorted individual, and Belle is gorgeous, and how can they be together? His anger comes from his frustration, his passion comes from desire, his behavior comes from a lifetime of pain. That’s who I feel he is to me.

The Phantom (Derrick Davis) leads Christine (Emma Grimsley) into his lair. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

When I’ve spoken to other cast members of touring shows, they often have a recording project or two going on with other people on the tour. Do you?

I actually just heard a song that I want to cover, and one of our Carlotta covers is a world-class guitarist, and I’m hoping to work on that piece with her. I also have a lot of people that I collaborate with back in New York. It’s so much easier these days to do that from all across the world, but as far as deeper collaborations, it’s a little difficult for me, only because my character keeps me separate from the majority of the cast. Although we’ve forged friendships, I don’t get to go out and tax myself as much as some others may because I need to preserve my voice.

I started this tour in May – I’d done it for a year and a half and took a break to go back to Broadway and do I Dream, then they asked me in February to come back and do it until the tour wraps up at the end of the year.

What was the longest break in the current tour run?

3 weeks – when they needed to move the set from California to Hawaii.

What did you do during that time?

I went to a family reunion in the Dominican Republic for a week, went back to visit for a week, then went to LA for a week, and then after 3 weeks of Hawaii in August…believe it or not, I was actually eager to get back to the mainland.

In Hawaii, we call that island fever.

Yes! I got island fever, and so, two days after the show closed, I flew back to the mainland.

What did you do for housing during the stay?

They gave us two options for hotels, which we could take or not take; I like to do AirBNB so I have a kitchen to make my breakfast, so I took the per diem and did that.

They’re not letting you take any souvenirs when the tour wraps up, are they?

I’m sure I can sneak away with a candlestick or two, but they keep a very close eye on things, and everything gets catalogued after the show closes. I know because I’ve asked.

The famous chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera – not a souvenir you can walk off with.

Derrick Davis stars The Phantom in the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera, which runs at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN from November 22-December 1.

Basil Considine