Read part one of our interview with London’s longest-serving onstage cast member, Philip Griffiths, by clicking here – and see our exclusive video clip of Philip here.
Can you tell us how you got into musical theatre?
I was a farmer’s son from mid-Wales and although the whole family liked music – I was brought up on what we call Eisteddfod, festivals, in other words, competitions and stuff like that – there was nobody in the family that was a professional singer, actor or anything else. I just had this inkling about music, and I wanted to go and study. So I went to the Royal Manchester College of Music because one of the adjudicators I had as a child was a singing teacher at Manchester, so I went to study with him. Glyndebourne, the festival which is in Sussex near where I live, used to come to Manchester to audition. I auditioned for Glyndebourne and I got shortlisted to be a chorus member which meant that somebody would have to drop out before I got in. Eventually in 1972 somebody did drop out and I got in, and that was when I first started in this business, so I had a really good training in Manchester. People like Maria Bjornson designed sets and costumes for Glyndebourne, so I had a fantastic introduction into this business with the orchestra playing, amazing conductors, directors, opera singers. So my background is a very good training and a very good start in the profession.
Then, six years into it I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to make it as an opera singer,’ and somebody suggested that I went into commercial theatre but I didn’t know anybody so they put me in touch with an agent and I went into musicals, which is obviously what I love and what I’m still doing – 37 years later.
Do you get nervous?
A little bit, yes. I think rather than calling it nerves, it’s adrenaline. I always used to get worried about that because I could never quite make a difference between the two but again, Sheila Barlow used to say to us – ‘without the adrenaline, without the nerves, you haven’t got a performance. What you’ve got to do is learn to concentrate and channel it and you soon get used to doing that. Yeah, it’s nice to have a buzz. And audiences’ reactions are so different every night really, there’s a different crowd of people out there tonight than we had last night. They’re all going to be seeing it for the first time again. And sometimes an audience is really, really quiet – and we come off stage thinking, ‘they hated us.’ But then you realise they might not be hating it, they might actually be listening! And another night you might get a much “louder” audience who find everything hysterical – the least little move, little gesture, little exit of somebody, a line… You think, ‘but it’s exactly the same as it was last night and they didn’t find it at all funny!’ but that’s how you play it. Of course, to us, onstage you react to the different audiences – it’s never the same, and that’s the great fun of live theatre.
What are your memories from your first performances of Phantom?
For my very first performances I came in as a swing – where you learn all the male ensemble parts, so if anybody’s off sick or off on holiday, you take over that role. There were two swings on the show when I joined. The thing that is complicated is the combination of people who might be off – and you then have to work out, what’s the important parts you have to do? So on my very first night here we were having a warm up with Anthony Inglis only to discover whoever was playing Andre was off – which meant that his cover had to go on, which meant that the role I was replacing had to go on – so I had to go on and do the show. And I hadn’t even rehearsed this bit because although we have understudy rehearsals we hadn’t really started those, we’d only really been rehearsing all the blocking of the chorus bits. So this was to do ‘Il Muto’ and in ‘Il Muto’ there are three fops – the jeweller, the hairdresser and the confidante, and I was one of those. It’s quite tricky because there’s a lot of business and they’re amazing costumes with powdered wigs and everything. There’s a jewellery box that I had to deal with and it was Rosie Ashe that was playing Carlotta at the time – she’s a great friend but oh my God, she can be trouble if she wants to be! And you’ve got to get a necklace around her neck, a ring on her finger… and the costume! It was the brightest electric blue you have ever seen. Lycra. Over a huge body suit – I was like Mr Bumble, a big blob, and with a bright blue curly wig and it had got grapevine things all through the hair and around the waist, which kept getting caught in everything, blue gloves, blue shoes… it was a nightmare!
You must have worked with a number of different Phantoms in your time, do you have any stand-out memories?
Well, you always remember the first one don’t you? Dave Willets was mine – he had taken over from Michael Crawford originally, then there had been I think two after that, and then he was back in the company in the fourth year when I joined. So I’ll always remember Dave because he was my first Phantom, and he was fantastic, really very good. In those days the role of the Phantom tended to be directed along the lines that Michael had created and that was quite a job to take on. You had to be extremely dedicated to it, and Dave I think saw it down to the letter. Another fantastic one in my memory was Peter Karrie. Peter had done it here and went away to Canada to do it, to do Les Mis, and came back. He was fantastic, so charismatic onstage, that wonderful voice… he was brilliant. We had a fantastic chap called Grant Norman who was brought over form American by Hal – terrific. Peter Cousins from Australia – lovely. They’ve all been good! All in their own way. They’re not the same, it can’t possibly be the same, but that’s not how it’s supposed to be, they’re supposed to bring their own thing to it. Some of them take to it – the Phantom is quite an extraordinary part.
So they all stand out – because it’s just a fantastic part to play. And we have a great actor coming in to play the part shortly – David Shannon, he’s going to be very good. And we’ve had Ramin of course, he has been wonderful… he was also Raoul, and he’s extraordinary. Of course he’s going on to Love Never Dies, so that’s a great connection for him, having done this one and then going on to continue the role in another show.
What’s your favourite part of the show?
Leaving! (laughs.) My favourite part of the show – well, there’s so many of them. I don’t come up to listen to things anymore, I have stayed in the wings and listened to ‘Music of the Night’ a couple of times recently because we’ve had new covers going on and I’m always interested in what new people do to things – because I was resident director on the show for two years, from 1998 – 2000, so I have another interest in it, I’m interested in the working of the show, because I was one of those people who put understudies on, I put casts in, I auditioned with a team and all the rest of it. So I’m always interested to see when there’s a new Phantom so for a few nights in the last couple of weeks I’ve been coming up to listen to that.
For ticket information for the original London production, click here.