When I got the call that Derrick Davis was returning to Chicago as the star of Phantom of the Opera and I couldn’t wait to have a conversation with him. When he was here earlier, I was so impressed with his performance and couldn’t help but wonder what it was like play the iconic figure. Not that it is returning to the Cadillac Palace Theater to run from December 18th to January 5,2020, I jumped at the chance to speak with him.
It’s phenomenal that you are a man of color doing the part of the Phantom. How did you get started in theater, and musical theater, and this sort of thing?
Derrick Davis: You know, it’s a funny bit of a full circle story, in that my parents, the first musical that they took me to see, because I begged them, and begged them, and begged them, was the Phantom of the Opera. So, this musical actually birthed in me a love for musical theater.
When I was a kid we would, every Sunday, we would go to church. Before church, we would only listen to Gospel music. Then, we’d pile into the car as a family and go to church. Then, when we came home, in the beginning portion of the rest of the day, my mother would play classical music. Sometimes, on the classical station, the Phantom of the Opera music would come on. That, I just fell in love with the music. That started with whole journey, right there.
Are you a New Yorker?
Derrick Davis: Yes, I am a New Yorker. But, I’m also Panamanian. I’m first generation American. My parents were both born and raised in Panama.
What was the first Broadway show that you performed in?
Derrick Davis: It was the Lion King. I was with the company for eight years, and with three different companies. At one point, I was Mufasa. Then, on Broadway, I covered Mufasa and Scar. Depending on the day, you could get me doing all sorts of different things.
You were the first I have seen, has there been other men of color who have been the Phantom –
Derrick Davis: Right. I’m the first on the touring company, the first to ever tour the country. But Robert Guillaume played it for a short stint in its inception back in LA, for a couple of months. Then, Norm Lewis played it for a short stint on Broadway. Then, I was the first one to play it on the touring company. We were the first three men of color to play the role in the 30 plus year history of the show. We’re doing great things.
Well, how did that feel? How was the reception? When you stepped on the stage with the mask and everything had to be something phenomenal?
Derrick Davis: It was. It was so many things wrapped into one. We live in a very interesting day and age in this country. There’s a lot that’s going on, with different administrations, and the changing of hands, and people really starting to pay attention to politics now. So, I didn’t know how well it would be received, but I was so incredibly, pleasantly surprised in going to so many different cities across the country, that what we see and what we’re told is the case is such a small, small segment of society. And a segment of society that I very rarely … I could count on one hand, the interactions with people who were displeased with me being able to play the role. I’ve been playing it for several … I did it for a year and a half, and now I’m back to close it out for nine months. By and large, the response has been so incredibly positive. Not just positive, as in graciously positive, but positive as in, supportively, and on board with it, and excited about it positive.
You have the voice of life. You not just sing, you can “sang.” What was the most challenging thing about this role?
Derrick Davis: The first thing, I would say, would be I had to get over, in my mind, thinking that I had to do as well, or compare, with other great men who have done the role. There have been several incredible Phantoms out there. You know, once I got past that, then I could settle into the idea that I would put my own stamp on it, and kind of[inaudible 00:06:31] the character for myself, as an actor, without comparing myself to other people. That was number one.
Number two is the stamina of the role. It just requires absolutely everything, if you do it correctly on the stage. I’m a firm believer that if people are going to spend their money and their time to come and watch you perform, then you must give them 110% of everything that you have that day. So, while I’m on the road, my life is really dedicated to playing the role. But, the stamina of the role, because it’s very emotionally charged, and physically charged in this version of the production, it just takes a lot out of you. I did not anticipate it taking quite so much.
I don’t want to give anything away, but your wig is cool, too.
Derrick Davis: Yes. Well, I mean, I have more than one. That’s a little secret that I’ll let your listeners and people into, is that the Phantom is always lurking. You must keep your eyes peeled to find him, but he’s always there. Even when he’s not in the tuxedo, and not in the mask, he’s always there. So, keep your eyes open for that.
So, as you said that you were going to be doing Phantom for the next nine months. What do you do when you’re not doing Phantom?
Derrick Davis: I do a lot of things. I love the younger generations, and I’m really big on trying to give back. I do a lot of Master classes and things like that at colleges, and Q&As and talk backs at high schools, and work with different organizations and schools that are putting up productions. I come in, and I do some coaching and things like that, I love to do that. I love to work with my church back at home, Upper Room Christian World Center, back in Long Island. They have a lot of community outreaches that I can get involved with there.
Derrick, what would you say to that young Derrick, that was sitting in the audience, or who may be sitting in the audience, looking up at that stage saying, “I want to do that?”
Derrick Davis: My God, I don’t know why, anytime somebody asks me a question like that, I get a lump in my throat. I would say, you, exactly as you are, are more than enough to accomplish the dreams that you have in your heart. Nothing is impossible, because you must put in the work, and put one step in front of the other, and every day try to do a little bit better. Eventually, you’ll get to your destination.
Bonnie: That is a good place to pause our conversation. We will continue when you come on to the Cadillac Palace Theater on the December 18th.
Until next time, keep you EYE to the Sky!