Hugh Panaro knows that many theater patrons view Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” as a love story. He does, too.
But after performing the role of Phantom on Broadway more than 2,000 times and reading the mail from thousands of “Phans,” he knows the show also resonates for many people on another level – as it does for him.
In the musical, the Phantom’s mother looked at her child and covered his face because she could not bear to look at him. He was reared amid repulsion. Panaro, who will be at the Garner Performing Arts Center on Saturday for a solo concert, based his portrayal of the Phantom on his own experience of feeling he was not good enough and not worthy of love.
Panaro was obese as a child. As an adult, Panaro has been called one of America’s top leading men, but he remembers being called “Fatso,” “Fat Albert” and other names.
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He had a solid support system in his mother and father, but he still remembers the pain of the bullying. To this day, he can recall the names of the children who teased him. He recalls the hurt when a high school teacher asked him if he had “visited a fat farm” after he lost weight.
“Some theatergoers see ‘Phantom’ as a spectacle, and it is spectacular,” he said. “But most of the things we do on stage have been around since Shakespeare. Trap doors. Flash paper. Computers do a lot of it now, but when it opened 27 years ago, it was some guys with headsets pulling levers and pushing buttons.
“The real message of ‘Phantom’ is that we are all people of worth.”
Panaro has received letter after letter, many from teenagers, who said his portrayal of the Phantom helped them.
“They were letters from people who felt they were different and unworthy. People who had been bullied and who were disconnected,” he said.
“I remember one letter I received from a young girl that said my portrayal of Eric (the Phantom) helped her feel for the first time that she was worthy of being loved.”
As much as Panaro loves “Phantom,” he said he can’t pick between it and “Les Misérables,” another show in which he performed the lead.
“To me, ‘Phantom’ and ‘Les Mis’ are the mother and father of the ’80s musicals,” he said. “Trying to pick between ‘Phantom’ and ‘Les Mis’ is like trying to pick among your own children. You can’t. You just love them.”
Panaro was 23 when he debuted as Marius in “Les Mis.” Craig Schulman was his Valjean. Panaro jokes that Schulman carried him throughout the run because Valjean literally carries Marius through the sewers.
“Hugh is an amazing singer,” Schulman said. “He has this tremendous gift. He can sing high. He can sing low. Plus he is a wonderful actor and he is matinee-idol good-looking. He is one of the top leading men in the theater.”
Panaro has been the lead in “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables,” “Show Boat,” “Side Show” and other Broadway shows; has toured with Barbra Streisand; has sung with symphonies and in concerts around the world; and worked with Elton John on the development of a Broadway show. But never before has he performed a full solo concert.
“This is my very first one. I am as excited about being there as they are to have me there,” he said. “Every song in this show has a special connection to me. It is a very personal show. I want people to leave feeling like they dropped by, I told a few stories and sang a few songs and we all had a great time.”
Who: Hugh Panaro
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Garner Performing Arts Center, 742 W. Garner Road, Garner
Cost: $35 ($50 for a combo ticket including “Wicked” star David Burnham on April 30)
Info: 919-661-4602 or garnerperformingartscenter.com