Derrick Davis will never forget the first time he saw The Phantom of the Opera. “I remember sitting in the front row with my family and feeling completely captivated by the magic and the mystery of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work,” he says. “It was, without a doubt, a turning point for me.” The second he got home he penned a letter to then Phantom Davis Gaines, who returned a letter to Davis with a signed headshot—the same one Davis travels with today while performing as the Phantom for the show’s 25th Anniversary Tour, which is passing through 16 more North American cities through August. “After seeing the show 14 more times after that, I’m now a part of the company,” says Davis. “It’s definitely a dream come true.”
Here, we catch up with the Long Island native about what it means to be the first African American actor ever to play the Phantom on tour, the staying power of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, and why we all may have much more in common with the masked maestro than we might believe.
You’ve played both Mufasa and Scar in Disney’s The Lion King—meaning you have experience in becoming the good guy and the bad guy. The Phantom represents both of these characteristics—how do you step into a role that is so dichotomous in nature?
Davis: When an actor approaches a role, there’s the actor’s wealth of life experiences that instantaneously defines certain things for that role. In researching a bit about the Phantom, I found so much of myself in the character. There’s the aspect of unrequited love; there’s something about himself he’d rather hide from society in order to get ahead; he’s brilliant at what he does but before society sees or hears his brilliance, they first see his disfigurement.
I think that one of the major reasons the show has been such a worldwide success is because the Phantom has very relatable characteristics, whether the audience realizes this or not. Viewers walk away from the production with a cathartic experience—they feel light or free, or at least not alone.
What is it about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music that works as well today as it did more than two decades ago?
Davis: These melodies are the most incredibly complex melodies, and he married them with complex orchestration that undergirds the melodies. The music alone is so excellent at telling the story without words in the emotion that each line carries. If you made it a silent film and just played the music, you would get the same emotion because it’s so well-penned. It’s a timeless masterwork.
Which song were you most excited to prepare for when you began your work in the role?
Davis: “Music of the Night” is one of the more famous ones the Phantom sings, and it’s one of the most daunting songs I’ve had to sing in my entire career. It’s very naked and very exposed, and the orchestration leaves so much room for the audience to really hear and absorb the text. It really leads the singer out there—it’s do or die. Christine is not responding to what I’m singing, so I have to get through the entire piece and convey this emotion not just with words, but with the way I use my voice. It’s become one of my favorites because, when I can do it correctly, the the audience is captivated by it.
You mentioned seeing this production 15 times before stepping into its leading role. What’s something that’s really been revealed to you about the Phantom now that you’re on this side of the curtain?
Davis: As a fan, the Phantom was supernatural. He was fantastic, he was a magician, he was magical, he had superpowers. Now in playing the Phantom, I realize he’s a human being. That’s something I, coming into this, didn’t expect to feel so deeply.
What scene in the production resonates with you the strongest?
Davis: The final layer, which are the last three scenes of the show. It’s when the Phantom’s rage and persona becomes completely unbridled and unhinged. Every emotion—the anger, frustration, sadness, love, longing—all of it comes screaming out of his being. I thank God they put it at the end because at that point I’m not calculating how much energy I need to conserve. At this point the emotion is so raw that I don’t need to hold anything back — if it’s pretty it’s pretty and if it’s not pretty it doesn’t matter—it just needs to be honest. To be given the liberty to be that nakedly honest on stage is wonderful because I’m hoping the audience can feel like they’ve just lived that out for themselves, as well.
What’s been the biggest challenge in getting into this character?
Davis: It’s challenging to perform with my head completely covered in prosthetics and a mask and a wig—there’s a demanding nature of the physicality of the role. But it’s kind of like anything else—if you go to the gym today and then don’t go again for a month, you’ll feel that pain all over again. But if you do it everyday, your body acclimates to what it needs to do to get through. My body is almost there.
You are the first African American to play the Phantom on tour, and the third Phantom in the history of the show. What does that mean for you?
Davis: It’s an incredible honor and a weighty responsibility. I feel like I need to be very diligent in making sure I do the absolute best job I can do at all times. I’m grateful that the two men who have gone before me—Robert Guillaume and Norm Lewis. They opened the door for me, and I feel like it’s my responsibility in this season to hold the door open for others behind me.
What do you hope your background brings to the role—and perception—of the Phantom?
Davis: I hope that for entertainment and art at large that people will start to see that if the person is talented, qualified, and passionate, that their heritage, genealogy, ethnicity, and color of their skin may not play as large a role as we may have thought in years gone by. Shows like Hamilton have changed the game completely, and there’s been a surge of sorts in colorblind casting in theatre in more recent history. But there’s still a long way to go before it’s not even a thought what somebody looks like before they’re considered for a position. I hope that in holding this role and being able to travel the country, especially at a time like this when the country is so divided, that it can bring some light to the positivity found in the unity of colorblind existence. I hope it can make us blind to everything that makes us different, and make us awake to everything that unifies us.
How do you bring your own version of the Phantom to the stage, while also honoring the history of the character and of the story?
Davis: My job is to be as honest as I can on stage—to honestly react to what’s being given to me and to honestly emote what’s inside of me. I will continue to do just that and to push the limits and to find new moments and to learn more about the character every time I’m up there, while also remembering that I need to be pliable in the hands of the directors. They’re the ones seeing it as a whole work and as a work that needs to continue in order to pay homage and stand up to the original work created. I do my job as an actor to be honest, and they do their job as a directorial team to keep me in line and ensure I don’t get too crazy.
What moment of the show are you most amped for, night after night?
Davis: When I sing “Masquerade.” “Masquerade, paper faces on parade. Masquerade, hide your face so the world will never find you.” I feel like that’s the Phantom’s most honest and vulnerable moment of the show — other than, of course, when he sings, “Christine, I love you.”