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After 18 months playing the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, Ben Forster is passing on the famous mask to an Aussie, Ben Lewis. He's no stranger to the Phantom’s lairs – he was the original lead in the Australian production of Lloyd Webber’s sequel Love Never Dies. Now, he’s preparing to take over the lead role in the West End’s second longest-running musical. We spoke to the actor about rehearsals at Her Majesty's Theatre, the last time he saw the production, and his family ties to the show.
You pretty much had the ultimate audition for this part – you played the Phantom in Love Never Dies in Australia?
Definitely. We had an amazing time down in Oz. Anna who was my Christine in Australia ended up playing Christine over here as well. We put in a lot of work and Andrew [Lloyd Webber] showed a lot of faith and trust in us in what he allowed us to do. I had an amazing time.
Were you a fan of Phantom of the Opera before you were offered that role?
To be honest it isn’t a role I ever thought I’d play. In Australia, most young guys who want to get into MT grow up idolising a singer called Anthony Warlow, he was the original Phantom in Australia.
My younger brother actually played Raoul – one of his first jobs after drama school – and went on to cover the Phantom. The first time he went on as the Phantom was actually the last time I saw the show, and that must have been about 10 years ago. I don’t remember much about the show because I watched the whole thing in a sweat with my fingers crossed hoping it all went well for him.
Have you and your brother been talking about the role at all? When’s he coming to see it?
He’s an opera singer these days now, working all over the world. So I’m not sure, we’ve had a couple of nice conversations. When we’re on the phone and not talking about the footie we’ve been sharing notes about the role. That’s been unique.
Have you seen the show during rehearsals?
I haven't, I made the decision early on that I would try and see the show with fresh eyes. We’ve got an amazing creative team so I’ve placed my trust in them and focussed on them during the rehearsals.
Is it difficult to see the role with fresh eyes considering you have already payed the character? What’s different this time round?
The show's are completely different. What’s helped me is that I’d done a lot of the background on his story up to the point of Love Never Dies, which obviously includes learning the background of the Phantom. I built up quite an emotional connection with the part. There are differences: I think he’s emotionally adolescent in Phantom. By Love Never Dies, he’s a much older soul. There’s been a lot of trial and error trying to find that kind of adolescent quality to his reactions and his emotional understanding to relationships.
It's a very complex show, how much of the rehearsals do you spend working on things backstage?
What hits you in the face when you start trying to get your head around the part is how technical it is. There are a lot of intricacies that the audience don’t see. You’re climbing all different parts of the stage and dropping down holes... I don’t think I’ve had so many elements to get my head around for one role before.
I’m actually going to go round with Ben [Forster] to learn his backstage traffic. It gets quite chaotic backstage so that afternoon is going to consist of clinging onto Ben like a barnacle and learning the tricks.
The good thing about stepping into this company is that because it’s been going on for so long, you’re introduced to these elements very early on. Much earlier than you would get in a new show, where the tech would come in an avalanche during the last week of rehearsals. I’d freak out if that happened to me in this show. Instead, you’re on stage in rehearsals from day one. The set is there, the crew come in and move it for you, you’re using the real props. I think that’s been the biggest surprise.
One of the by-products of this being such a long-runner is that you’re coming into a lot of people’s favourite show. What’s that like for you?
I don’t worry about that stuff, I just work hard and pour myself into it. I hope people can come along on the journey that I’m doing. It’s an amazing role and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I don’t really feel that pressure, I enjoy it and hope people will enjoy my version.
Is there anything about coming into the show that has surprised you?
You hear different stories about lots of different shows that run for a long time. With some shows, it feels like you’re walking into a machine, but with Phantom, some of the crew have been there for 25, maybe even the full 30 years. My instinct was that maybe they’d be a bit worn out, but it’s gone the other way - it feels like a family. It’s a feeling I’m hugely grateful for and it’s waylaid some of those fears I might have had initially.
How are you doing with the other newcomers?
Great, we’re all a mixture of anxiety and excitement. Kelly [Mathieson] has been fantastic, she’s going to be a great Christine. Amy [Manford], who is the alternate Christine, is another Aussie and is actually one of my mum's former students. My mum runs the opera programme at Western Australian Academy [of Performing Arts] where I studied and so did Amy. We met on day one and it was like, “oh, you studied with my mum”. We’re all getting on really well, it feels very natural and very safe which is important.
The new cast of Phantom of the Opera take over on 4th September.
Phantom of the Opera Tickets are available now.