We’ve all done it. We’ve taken our seats in a Broadway theater, opened our Playbills in anticipation of the rising curtain, and groaned when that little slip of paper has fallen out and floated to our feet. The disappointment sets in: one of the lead actors is being understudied. It’s a common occurrence, yet rarely are the stories of these underdogs of Broadway told. We’ve all seen incredible understudies, as well as mediocre ones. But the truth is that without them, the show couldn’t go on. And don’t kid yourself for a second—they know exactly what the audience is thinking of them. Understudy Hall is a series spotlighting some of Broadway’s greatest pinch hitters. Now let’s kick off the series with an actor who is always on call to play one of the most coveted roles in Broadway history.
Jeremy Stolle has gone months at a time without playing the Phantom or Raoul, the two leads he has understudied in The Phantom of the Opera since he joined the company in October 2007. Most nights, he plays the operatic Passarino in the musical’s haunted Opera Populaire. But during the week of February 15, while the regular Phantom, John Cudia, was on vacation, the 33-year-old California native went on as the tortured genius during the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evening performances. Given that the 22-year-old Broadway mainstay sold over 90 percent of its tickets that week, the excitement of the packed, cheering house should sustain Stolle for the next few months, in case it’s that long till he next dons the mask.
You’re making your Broadway debut understudying the Phantom and Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera. How does that make you feel?
That feels amazing. I started acting at 15. I wasn’t into musicals whatsoever, and everybody has their one show that they find and they really like, and Phantom was mine. At 15, I really wanted to play the Phantom of the Opera. Ninety-five years later, I’m here as the Phantom of the Opera. I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t even speak for a good half hour when I got the hiring call. Every day I come to work loving to be here. When it comes to playing the Phantom, I walk down the street with just a little bit of pride about that.
What does it feel like when you’re in your moment as the Phantom, whether it’s in your favorite scene or taking your final bow?
It feels amazing for me, because I’ve worked really hard at this part. It’s not an easy part. People have ideas about the role, like, “Oh, you’re only on stage for 30 minutes.” It is 30 minutes of full-out sprints. It’s one of the hardest things ever.
Give me a brief history of your background.
I am from the San Francisco Bay Area. I taught high school for two years; I was a substitute. I taught math, English, and choir. Then I decided that with two bags and a plane ticket, I’d move to New York.
What is the longest period you’ve gone without performing the role of the Phantom or Raoul?
I’ve never counted, but months at a time. It really depends on the leads. Our leads aren’t flakey at all. We go on occasionally, on their vacations and their sick days. I do get to go on as the Phantom every so often, but I also rehearse the role at the theater during the day a lot. So I’ll have run Phantom six times within a three-month period during rehearsals and then I’ll have done it once at an actual performance. That is to make sure it’s fresh.
***VIDEO AFTER THE JUMP: Jeremy Stolle unlocks the mystery of the Phantom’s never-seen full mask***
What’s the shortest notice you’ve been given before performing?
For the Phantom, the shortest notice happened just last month. I came up to my dressing room to change for Act II and I hear on the intercom, “Jeremy, can you please call the office?” I call and they tell me, “We need you to do Act II.” I literally took my clothes off and ran to the other side of the stage.
What goes through your head when you hear that? I’d crap my pants.
No, I go, “WOO-HOO!” I’m fully prepared to do it.
How did they get the makeup on you so quickly?
When you’re the Phantom, you don’t do anything. You don’t even tie your shoes. Two girls do it. They’ve got a blow drier and the glue, and the stage manager’s standing there asking, “Are you guys ready? Are you guys ready?” Once Act II starts, they’ve got about a 15-minute window between the orchestra and “Masquerade” before I actually need to be out there. So we just kind of chance it. It was quick, but they’ve been doing it for a longtime.
People are usually disappointed when understudy cards fall out of a Playbill. How do you feel about that?
I would feel the same way as a kid. I’d go to see Phantom and think, “He better be on.” I kind of have to ignore it. You have to laugh and say, “This is my job.” If they see the picture of the actor playing the Phantom outside, then that’s what they expect, and then they see my name and I’m already two steps in the mud. But I know when I do the show that it’s going to be done to the best of my ability; it’s going to be done well. If they don’t like it, then I can’t help that. But you’re going to see what you’re supposed to. I’m going to tell a story and I’m going to kick ass. I’m thinking of the point in my last story, how I went on in Act II. While I’m sitting in the chair getting my makeup done, over the intercom in the theater they announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, due to illness, Act II’s Phantom will be played by Jeremy Stolle.” Sixteen hundred people went, “AUUGGGHH!” You can’t take it serious. We were back stage going, “HAHAHAHAHA!” I try not to think about it. I hope that I can do well enough to shine through the understudy class, so that the audience doesn’t weigh, “John Cudia… Jeremy Stolle.” I hope I can shine through that and they will enjoy the show.
What does your family think of your understudy status?
My parents didn’t get the understudy deal until I told them how it actually works. Everybody thinks there’s this one guy that is the next in line, but it’s not true; there’s several people. It depends on the process, the work, who needs it, who does what—there’s a whole strategy to it. I have to explain the world I live in of not being this guy. They want to know what the potential is to move up. I have to explain that there are people who have done it in the past, but it doesn’t mean that I’m the next in line to get the job, because I’m the understudy. But they think it’s great. They think it’s so exciting every time I get to go on. They start telling their friends, “He’s going to be on this day!” For me, it’s like, OK, I get to do something else today. For them, it’s like, “He gets to be the Phantom today!”
Do you have nights where you’re not scheduled to go on, but you’re feeling really good, and you think “I am so in the mood to KILL IT as the Phantom tonight!”?
Yeah, some days I come in and I’m like, “Man, I’m in good voice! I would kick butt today!” Absolutely.
“John, just take a sick day!”
Yeah, I get paid more every time he does. I tease him a lot. I say, “Hey man, you sick? What’s going on?”
Do you find you have a special connection with the person you understudy, John Cudia?
We’re thick as thieves. John was an understudy at one time. He’s been in this company a long time. He obviously knows he has a lot of my respect. I think he’s amazing. He always checks in with me, asks me how it’s going, if I need tips or ideas, or encouragement. When he’s out, he’ll say, “Kick butt!” His wife will, as well. He couldn’t be a greater guy.
What’s it like to know three vocally challenging roles, particularly one that is considered to be one of the most challenging male roles, vocally and emotionally, on Broadway?
It is a lot, and it took a long time to learn. I learned one role at a time. I learned Passarino first for a month, then we moved on to Raoul, and then we did that for two months, and then we picked up the Phantom, and they told me I wouldn’t go on until I was ready. It was a lot of work. I’d have to run the show in my head and aloud in the room before we went on in that particular track. There’s a lot of motives in this show—lyrics that overlap with different characters in the same music—and that can kick your butt.
Since you’ve inhabited both these characters, how is it different playing the Phantom and Raoul?
(Hearty laugh) Playing the Phantom is like getting into your BMW and when you’re playing Raoul, it’s like borrowing the Toyota. They’re both exciting, but the Phantom is just such a pinnacle role. You’re the Phantom, you’re the mask, you’re the third most recognized icon in the world. Raoul, it’s fun. He just doesn’t have the journey. He’s got, “Hey, I’m rich. Hey, there’s a girl. We got together. We’ll get rid of the other guy. We’re done.” The Phantom—the emotion is just pouring out when you sing. You know when you sing in the shower and you sing as loud as you can and you’re just kicking butt and you’re pouring it all out and you’re a little exhausted afterward because nobody’s around? That’s what you get to do in this role. You just get to go to the limit, sing in the red zone, and do it the whole time. And it’s so fun. You’re doing something that not many people can do. They think they can, but you know they can’t.
Today’s understudies are tomorrow’s Broadway stars. What are your thoughts and hopes regarding that notion?
I think being an understudy is a great part of the journey. I certainly hope that in some form, in some show, I’ll get my crack at having it for myself. I’ll certainly have a place in my heart for the understudies. If I get there. There are no promises for anybody in this world. I’m hoping this is a step.