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Long-running Broadway Shows Keep It Fresh

Dancers from "The Lion King" perform during the opening number at the 62nd Annual Tony Awards in New York, June 15, 2008.
Dancers from "The Lion King" perform during the opening number at the 62nd Annual Tony Awards in New York, June 15, 2008.
The Phantom of the Opera recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, making it the longest-running Broadway musical ever.  

Hugh Panaro, who plays the phantom, has a unique perspective. His first stint with the show was 22 years ago, when he played the young lover Raoul. Over the years, Panaro left the show to do other roles, but has returned several times, portraying the phantom in more than 1,700 performances.  

Part of what keeps things fresh for him is playing opposite different actresses in the lead role of Christine.

"You know, 15, easily," Panaro said. "And that’s not counting understudies. That’s counting girls that have held this contract from the time I was Raoul until now. I get two Christines a week and no two Christines are alike, which is the beauty of it."

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At the Gershwin Theatre nearby, production stage manager Marybeth Abel is putting a new actor into the role of Boq at Wicked. That's the prequel to The Wizard of Oz. The show celebrates its tenth anniversary in October.

"I always say my primary job is to make sure the show goes on every night as scheduled, and that we do it successfully, and we get a standing ovation at the end of the night," she said.

Abel works with the actors and backstage crew, about 120 people, to make sure the show runs smoothly eight times a week. She also runs afternoon and evening rehearsals, and teaches understudies and new performers where to move onstage and when.

"When you’re in a long-run show, the best thing that happens is there’s turnover in cast," Abel said. "That’s the best thing that happens, because all those influxes of difference make everybody, like, step up."  

One of the new actors is Willemjin Verkaik, who plays Elphaba, the green girl who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Verkaik is from the Netherlands and has played Elphaba in Europe in both Dutch and German. Now she’s doing it on Broadway in English.

Although she's following in the footsteps of Tony Award winner Idina Menzel, she’s found ways to make the part her own.

"You are an actor so you have to play it yourself, and you have to make it believable," Verkaik said. "You have to believe it yourself, so you have to go on that journey yourself."

Every show has a resident director who acts as liaison between the original creators and the cast. That’s John Stefaniuk’s job at The Lion King, which recently celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. He travels the globe overseeing as many as eight productions of the show.

"It’s not a factory job," Stefaniuk said. "You want to allow these actors to feel like actors and treat them as such, not feel like replicas of somebody else’s show."

Ron Kunene has been a bass in The Lion King chorus for all fifteen years. Born in South Africa, he has a second job on the show, helping actors in New York and in other companies, with some of the African dialects.

But what keeps the show fresh for Kunene is seeing the expression on the faces of audience members.  

And even though he’s seen The Lion King hundreds of times, resident director Stefaniuk never finds it boring.

"I think, after all these years, if it doesn’t still send a shiver up my back, then I’m not doing my job," he said.

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