James Barbour: Phantom’s Man Behind the MaskJune 14, 2016 - by Matt Smith
Though you wouldn’t know it if you saw him out of character, actor James Barbour (currently on Broadway as the Phantom of the Opera) has a knack for playing tortured souls. “I used to joke that I was going to call my company DBG, for Dark Brooding Guy, because every role I play on Broadway is a dark, brooding guy, who’s damaged in some way from his past,” he says, laughing.
Photo: Matthew Murphy
The proof is in his résumé: the Beast (Beauty & the Beast), Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre), Leon Czolgosz (Assassins), and Sydney Carlton (A Tale of Two Cities).
Now Barbour’s back on Broadway as musical theatre’s most iconic DBG, the Phantom of the Opera, the lovesick antihero who haunts the Paris Opera House in order to foster the career of his protégée/obsession, soprano Christine Daaé (Ali Ewoldt).
Despite his love for the role, Barbour acknowledges it has its challenges. “It’s one of the most physically demanding roles I’ve ever done, and it’s interesting because watching it, you wouldn’t necessarily think that,” he says, going on to quote musical supervisor David Caddick on the subject: “When he’s on stage… there is no downtime. There is no time when he is on the stage where it’s just relaxed. It’s 100% all the time.”
Physical demands aside, Barbour—who joined the company in February, 2015—recognizes the importance of keeping his performance fresh. “It’s a constant process,” he says. “I’m always, always looking for a way to bring new life to it.”
One approach he’s found helpful is to revisit past notes from the creative team in the hopes of touching upon something he may have forgotten, or improving on an already established moment.
In addition, he’s found that playing opposite different leading ladies has helped the effort: “There are things the matinee Christine [Rachel Eskenazi-Gold] does that are very different than the six-show Christine, so I have to adapt.” He also appreciates the fact that new people are constantly joining the cast. This allows him to “keep it true” to what audiences love about the show and story, while putting his own stamp on the Phantom.
Clearly he’s got both elements nailed from the moment he hits his first bold, booming note and appears lurking behind Christine’s dressing room mirror.
As the musical’s tension and passion mount, Barbour adds a distinctive emotional layer to his performance that comes across vocally as seething jealousy, brought to a climax when he realizes he’s lost Christine to his rival, the handsome Raoul (Jordan Donica). The scream he emits atop a towering angel statue—the first hint of his anger and eventual descent into madness—is both chilling and heartbreaking.
If Barbour’s performance is formidable, so is the time he spends with his fellow cast members whom he proudly calls “a giant family.” “We know each other’s spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, children,” he says, “and that in itself is a basis for understanding and knowledge”—invaluable assets to actors connecting onstage.
“The uniqueness of this show is unprecedented,” says Barbour, referring not only to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seminal music and the production’s record-breaking longevity (28½ years and counting!), but to the spellbound audiences—including many diehard “Phans” that pack the Majestic Theatre night after night. “I meet people from every walk of life,” he says. “Brazil, Germany, Spain, Austria, Mexico, Canada, Japan, China, Korea…it’s become an experience like none other.”
Photo: Matthew Murphy
The Phantom of the Opera is playing at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre, 247 W. 44th St.
For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit thephantomoftheopera.com.