Feature: Film version OK by 'Phantom' vet

PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- As the long-awaited movie version of "The Phantom of the Opera" comes to theaters, the man who holds the record for singing the role in more performances than any other actor has put his stamp of approval on the film.

Franc D'Ambrosio, who starred for more than six years as the musical genius who hid his disfigured face behind a mask, was not involved in director Joel Schumacher's film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tony Award-winning musical. He did, however, walk down the red carpet at the film's New York premiere -- just before taking his place on the other side of the rope line, to report on the event as a correspondent for "Access Hollywood."


In an interview with United Press International, D'Ambrosio said the movie is beautifully shot and designed, and he called the Opera Populaire chandelier -- a piece of scenery that plays an important role in the story -- "one of the most beautiful ones that anybody's ever seen." The movie frames the story by adding new scenes -- set some 40 years after the phantom's disastrous love affair with chorus-girl-turned-diva Christine -- then cuts back to the 1870s with a stunning visual effect that restores the ruined opera house to its former splendor.


"I'm getting chills just as I'm talking about it," said D'Ambrosio. "(Schumacher) got it so like a wind blew through ... it's as if the wind is blowing the dust off of (the opera house) and changing it from black-and-white to color one tier at a time."

D'Ambrosio said he was impressed with the performances of Gerard Butler ("Timeline") as the phantom and Emmy Rossum ("Mystic River") as Christine, and with the work of Patrick Wilson ("The Alamo") as Raoul, the young man who buys the opera company and unwittingly becomes the phantom's rival for Christine's love.

The casting of the phantom had been a favorite topic of speculation among fans of the show ever since the subject first came up of adapting the show for the screen. At various times, the names of Antonio Banderas, John Travolta and Michael Crawford -- one of the better known stars of the show's many stage productions -- were tossed around.

D'Ambrosio said he might have gone for it himself, but his concert schedule did not allow it.

"I was in Europe when that whole process came about," he said. "I never auditioned for it."


It is not uncommon for fans of the show to associate Crawford with "Phantom," but -- with more than 2,600 performances behind him -- D'Ambrosio's longevity in the role easily outdoes Crawford's.

"I did it more than double the number of times that Michael did it," he said.

Although the phantom, Christine and Raoul are among the most coveted roles in musical theater, it is interesting to note that performers in two of those roles were not among the show's 10 Tony nominations in 1988. The show won seven Tonys, including best musical, and Crawford won for best actor in a musical.

Judy Kaye won for best featured actress in a musical for her performance as the ridiculously vainglorious diva Carlotta -- a role that Minnie Driver ("Good Will Hunting") has great fun with in Schumacher's movie.

The phantom is, of course, fascinating because of the inherent contradiction in a character who passionately creates beauty to compensate for the physical scars he hides from the world. It is easy to think of him as a monster -- as Lon Chaney played him in the 1925 silent classic -- but D'Ambrosio said he does not think of the phantom that way.


"I view him as childish sometimes and childlike sometimes," he said. "I view him as a full-grown man with all the needs and drives of any other man."

D'Ambrosio said he has heard often from people who have found the character inspiring in their own lives -- including women going through different forms of cancer and one man who had been contemplating suicide and decided to see the show before doing the deed.

"After seeing the phantom," recalled D'Ambrosio, "he said he realized that if the phantom had the strength to move on then so could he."

Currently, D'Ambrosio is in the midst of a 76-city U.S. concert tour, with a show that is essentially built around his own career experience -- which includes his casting by Francis Ford Coppola as Michael Corleone's opera-singing son Anthony Corleone in "The Godfather Part III," as well as his star turn in "Copacabana," the Barry Manilow musical.

D'Ambrosio described the show as the journey of an Italian kid from the Bronx to Broadway and beyond.

"It has that Italian thing," he said, "but it's not so 'gumba' that it's a musical of 'The Sopranos.'"


The 42-year-old singer is featured in the upcoming TV special, "Brian Boitano's Skating Spectacular," scheduled to air on NBC on New Year's Day. The show features skating performances by Boitano and fellow Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi -- as well as a musical performance by "American Idol" finalist Diana DeGarmo.

D'Ambrosio is also scheduled to appear on "The Today Show" later this month, singing "What Kind of Fool Am I?" The Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley composition -- from the Broadway musical "Stop the World I Want to Get Off" -- is featured on D'Ambrosio's new CD "Franc D'Ambrosio's Broadway."

With "The Phantom of the Opera" finally in movie theaters, the question arises: What effect, if any, might the movie have on the future of Webber's stage show as a viable commercial attraction? D'Ambrosio said there are two schools of thought on that.

"I think there was some thought to doing a movie in 1990, but they were concerned that if the movie came out it would tend to diminish theater audiences," he said. "But now, with the movie being so immensely beautiful, I think it will reinvigorate people to go back and see it on stage."



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