As A Child, Panaro Could Sing All The Parts

When Hugh Panaro was in grade school and living in Philadelphia, his parents took him to New York for a weekend. They saw Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan on Friday night and Sweeney Todd on Saturday afternoon.

“I remember wanting to see Peter Pan, but I asked them why we were seeing this other show,” Panaro recalled. “My mother said it was part of my education to see Angela Lansbury live on stage.

So we sat in the orchestra, and I was on the aisle, and I swear that when Len Cariou started to sing ‘Epiphany,’ I thought he was going to get me. He scared the bejesus out of me.”

Years later, Panaro, who had been starring as Gaylord Revenal in Show Boat on Broadway, was assigned to go to Denver for a brief stint with the touring company. There was Cariou, playing Capt'n Andy.

“I was standing on the deck, and all I could think about was him with the knife.”

Despite the emotional challenges of that first production, Panaro fell in love with Sweeney Todd. “I wore out the record. I could sing all the parts.”

He has to sing only one for now. Panaro is playing Anthony Hope in the Sondheim Celebration production at the Kennedy Center. For his audition with the director, Christopher Ashely, Panaro sang “Johanna.”

“It was sort of a last minute thing,” Panaro said, “I had been living in Los Angeles and went to New York for a week over Christmas. I found they hadn’t cast some roles for Sweeney, so the day before I flew back to L.A., I went in and sang. I didn’t even have the music with me.”

Panaro has been acting since he was 12, his only other jobs were as a church organist and a dog walker. He has played both Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera (1991) and the Phantom himself (1999). He was Marius in Les Miserables, Ravenal in New York and Toronto, Buddy in Side Show and Julian Craster in the short-lived Jule Styne musical, The Red Shoes. In 2000, he toured in the fourth version of Schoenberg and Boubil’s Martin Guerre, which, like previous versions, failed to click.

After that, he moved to Los Angeles to see what would happen there. He participated in the Reprise concert versions of Call Me Madam and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and S.T.A.G.E. tributes to Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern and Jerry Herman.

Off-Broadway, Panaro worked with the Kennedy Center’s Sweeney, Brian Stokes Mitchell, in a Playwrights Horizons production of a jazz opera, Noa Noa.

“We’re calling this celebration a Sondheim Summer Camp,” he said. “All my friends are going to be there.”

Panaro is a member of the singing group, The Broadway Tenors, which performs with symphony orchestras. However, at the time of the interview, he was doing a concert with the Dayton Philharmonic with Lisa Vroman, who, in another piece of serendipity, was Johanna in the San Francisco concert version of Sweeney Todd.

Panaro said he hadn't thought much about Anthony until then.

“I toyed with the idea of calling Victor Garber (the original Anthony) or Hal Prince (who directed), but then I thought I needed Christopher Ashely’s vision. I wanted to go as a blank slate.”

About the only thing he did beforehand was try some different accents, “from high-class London to Liverpool.”

He described his voice as technically a tenor with a baritone extension. “Christopher Ashley said one of the neat things about me is that I can sing the high notes but also get into the baritone range. My money notes are the high notes.”

Anthony, he said, is an ideal role for him.

“For some roles I have to go to left field and back again to make them feel good, but this is one of these really good fits. I’ve always wanted to play Anthony. But then I’ve always wanted to play Toby, too. ‘Not While I’m Around’ is probably my favorite song. But I love ‘Johanna,’ and all those little interjections --- ‘look at me, look at…’

“I’m so excited about Sweeney. I was in L.A. almost a year and a half, and there’s nothing like the theatre on the East Coast. I feel like Dolly coming back to the Harmonia Gardens. What a great way to come back, in a classy production of a classy show.”

SIDE BAR: No interview with Hugh Panaro by The Sondheim Review would be complete without this bit of trivia: Panaro’s only movie role to date has been the 1997 Broadway Damage, a film that is also memorable for a tiny sequence in which another character walks up to a New York newsstand and, picks up the Summer 1995 issue of The Sondheim Review (the one with Sondheim, Bernadette Peters, and Madeleine Kahn on the cover) and reads in while walking down the street. Something that happens all the time, of course. Panaro confessed that he didn’t know about TSR when the film was made. He does now.

(from The Sondheim Review, Summer 2002)

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