Earl Carpenter, one of the newest stars of the West End stage, is currently beguiling audiences with the music of the night as the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s legendary romantic thriller, The Phantom Of The Opera at Her Majesty's theatre. Tom Bowtell caught up with him to discuss life on the open stage, latex and his uncanny likeness to a certain Mr Crawford.
For a man who is playing one of the most brooding characters in musical theatre, Earl Carpenter doesn’t half smile a lot. The latest imposing lead to don the half-mask and stalk the stalls, he is positively bubbling with excitement: “it’s just amazing to be playing the part. I still can’t get over seeing my name on the posters. It’s nice to play this role for myself after I was a walking cover for Phantom last year.” This sounds a little odd to me, so I ask Earl to clarify: “it basically means that you’re employed to cover the Phantom, and that’s it. When you’re not needed you’re at home, and when you are needed, you’re on. It’s a great gig from the point of view that it gives you the opportunity to go off and do other things, but long gaps between playing such a challenging singing role made it difficult.”
Earl Carpenter’s rise to the peak of his profession hasn’t been entirely conventional, and his richly varied 15-year career has encompassed regional, local and touring productions and has seen him dabbling in producing and directing roles as well as performing. One feels that this weaving path to the top has made the experience of arriving there all the sweeter for Carpenter: “it’s fantastic to be here and for the part to be mine: it’s times like this that you realise how much you take for granted. If I were at college now, my aspiration would be to be playing a part like the Phantom… I absolutely love it.”
"If I were at college now, my aspiration would be to be playing the Phantom!"
Now that he is playing his dream role and luxuriating in an expansive dressing room which really is fit for an Earl (sorry), Carpenter also has to put up with the more laborious side of playing The Phantom: namely spending hours in make-up everyday. He is fairly sanguine about his daily latexing: “it’s supposed to be about two hours, but they’re all so wonderful at it now that it doesn’t usually take that long. I was talking to Rosie Ash, who was the original Carlotta here, who used to say that it would take about four hours to get Michael Crawford’s done when the show first opened, so they’ve certainly speeded up.”
Earl is no stranger to performing with great big lumps of plastic hanging from his chops, having previously starred as The Beast in Beauty And The Beast at the Dominion theatre, but does he find that wearing such unwieldy make-up impact upon his performance? “You have to be conscientious that the audience can see no facial expressions. I suppose your body takes on the persona of a puppeteer. There are no expressions with this stuff on, so you have to over accentuate what you think certain gestures are, you know sadness, happiness or whatever. It is strange to work with all this stuff glued to your face, but you do get used to it.”
I am relieved to discover that Earl doesn’t have to wear a hand-me-down mask encrusted with debris from 19 years of use… “No! Everything has been specially fitted for me. All the prosthetics are tailored. You go to see Chris Tucker, who designed the originals [and also did the make-up for The Elephant Man] and have a big head cast done and then the pieces and the mask are all individually moulded to your face.”
As will be mentioned later, Earl looks like the type of actor who should play the Phantom, so has he spent his whole life watching the various incarnations of the show, preparing for his big moment? “Do you know, I’ve never actually seen it!” I’m rather taken aback by this (especially as it renders my next seven questions irrelevant), but Earl goes on to explain how his ignorance of the piece actually made his task of re-imagining The Phantom a little easier: “it was great that I had no preconceived ideas. I mean I had the odd image in my head, but I was literally dependent on text and director: so anything we did was a reinvention. I think it was refreshing for the crew as well, as they decided that we were going to do it all from scratch.” Earl does admit that there was the odd confusing moment: “there were one or two occasions when the stage management were using the familiar Phantom lingo and I’d be like, ‘What? What’s that? What do you mean?’”
Earl has been informed by people who have seen the show before that he has certainly managed to create a Phantom who is unique from its numerous previous incarnations over the last 19 years. “It is very, very different, and Laurence [director] has built on the fact that I have no preconceived idea, so everything about it has been different from the previous Phantoms.”
As well as differing from the interpretations of actors, Earl’s Phantom also tends to differ from itself: “I’m not someone who remembers what I did the night before – every night seems to be a little bit fresh and organic. Which is nice for me, although I’m sure it annoys some people!”
While he may now have hit the limelight as the Phantom, acting isn’t the sole string to Earl Carpenter’s bow, and he is clearly fascinated with the entire theatrical process, rather than merely the end product which he speaks or sings. “This is something which was embryonic from my college days, I went to a place that had nothing to do with musical theatre but had a lot to do with the apprenticeship: that was very much its intention; to teach someone about the whole environment, exactly what everyone does and why they’re doing it.”
"I'm known as the self-sufficient Phantom."
Earl believes that this knowledge of aspects of production, as well as performance, has been of advantage to him: “this is going to sound a bit egotistical, but I think I understand how it works, I know what everyone does so I try not to put any extra pressure on other people and other departments – I can make my own decision about something and help out or do it myself – I’m known as the self-sufficient Phantom! It’s like Rep: you roll your sleeves up and get stuck in. I’ve always been like that.”
While he is quite clearly chuffed to bits with securing the lead role in one of London’s major musicals, the trappings of stardom don’t rest easily on the shoulders of this self-sufficient Phantom: “not by choice, I have a flotilla of people to help me stick my wigs on and stuff – and they’re brilliant, but I think I’d rather do it myself.”
Criticism is another thing which doesn’t come easily to Earl, but he does think that modern-day drama schools could take inspiration from the broad theatrical education offered him by Jellicoe Theatre (part of the Bournemouth and Poole College of Further Education): “I’m going to be brave and say that I think that a knowledge of the entire theatrical environment is one thing that is missing from how many people are taught today: I think it’s important to know what the guy who sits on a chair in sub-stage does, and what his name is. In many of the drama schools it’s all ‘you you you – you’re the best thing’ – and not ‘you’re not the only thing, you’re a piece in this great big jigsaw around you, and you’ve got to be aware of it: because it can bite you!’”
"I sort of idolised Michael Crawford for the next few years"
With the intriguing image of a vicious jigsaw with sharpened teeth gallivanting around an auditorium still in my mind, I move on, asking Earl where he was on October 9 1986, when the Phantom Of The Opera first revealed its scarier arias: “I was at Jellicoe Theatre in Poole, Dorset, on my second month at college; just starting out. It was very ironic, actually, as my Dad had bought me, as a present for starting college, my first hi-fi system and with it, the double cassette of Phantom, so it was sort of the first musical I really got engrossed it: I loved I, and I sort of idolised Michael Crawford for the next few years.”
Seeing as Earl has brought it up, I choose this moment to suggest that Earl has a certain passing resemblance to the esteemed Mr Crawford. Earl looks a mite bashful “well, people have said that before, and Andrew (Lloyd Webber) and Cameron (Mackintosh) both came and saw me do the show and Andrew apparently said that my interpretation reminded him of elements of Michael’s original storytelling – and that’s a huge compliment!”
Earl very strongly believes that this storytelling lies at the heart of Phantom’s 19-and-a-half-year success: “it focuses on the story – and it’s a fantastic story. There aren’t too many technical complications or special effects, so the story is allowed to come through, and it is a magical evening, you know? I don’t think there’s any harm in me saying that. It’s an evening where you can lose yourself in a magical story.”
It’s clear that Earl really loves this show, and that playing the Phantom genuinely is, for Earl, one of those childhood dream-come-true scenarios which people often talk about but don’t always mean. Now that he has fulfilled one particular childhood dream, are there any other parts he’d like to play? “Now anyone who knows me will know about this, but I’d love to play Jekyll [in Jekyll and Hyde]. It suits where my voice is, and is similar to other stuff I’ve done such as The Beast and The Phantom – it’d just be very exciting.”
The Beast, The Phantom Of The Opera, and now Jekyll and Hyde: what is it with Earl’s obsession with disfigured, enigmatic romantic heroes? He clearly hasn’t considered this before, and giggles quite a lot: “you know, I don’t know why they appeal to me! I suppose the fascination is having all those different elements to play with. I guess I like the ability to be able to enhance an established figure or character and bring something new to it. People have also told me that I’m a very physical actor, so that may have something to do with it – as you can’t always see their faces!” Earl seems to be an engagingly open individual, and I wonder if the contrast of playing these dark and mysterious roles appeals to him: “quite possibly, yes, there may be something in that.”
What with all this dramatic face make-up and the Paul Daniels-designed magical effects, The Phantom Of The Opera offers many opportunities for things to go spectacularly awry. We’ve all heard horror stories involving tumbling chandeliers, prosthetic noses falling off and special effects which fail to be either special or effective, so has anything disastrous every happened to Earl? “Nothing terrible has happened to me, just yet, touch wood. [He touches wood]. Obviously there has been the odd glitch, and the radio-controlled boat does sometimes get a mind of its own, but by and large, thankfully, we’ve been OK.”
There is a brief pause.
“That’ll be it now, won’t it? Tonight everything’s going to collapse…”
(I am happy to report that, as far as I know, it didn’t.)