from The Leading Men - Vamp Til Ready
By: Wayman Wong - April 5, 2006

Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Lestat might’ve been left for dead by some critics during its San Francisco tryout earlier this year, but its creative team and cast hope to revive it with a major “revamp” before its Broadway bow on April 25 at the Palace. With a book by Linda Woolverton based on Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles,” this Gothic musical aims to succeed where Dance of the Vampires and Dracula failed in vein. Hugh Panaro, who stars as Lestat, says, “We’ve got a whole different show than the one in San Francisco. Now the story is crystal-clear, and the relationships have been enhanced. We have a new opening and a new ending, and [creative consultant] Jonathan [Butterell] has brought in so many fresh ideas.”

Keeping up with Panaro, neck and neck, is Carolee Carmello, who plays Lestat’s immortalized mother, Gabrielle. “I love Carolee,” says the sexy six-foot tenor from Philadelphia. “We did the first national tour of Les Miz.” Carmello adds, “That was 18 years ago. He was gorgeous and sang like a dream — and he still does. Besides his incredible talent, Hugh is just the sweetest, warmest, kindest and most generous man you’ll ever want to be onstage with. He really taps into Lestat’s soul, and with all the changes we’ve had, I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as Hugh.”

Panaro, who was phenomenal in The Phantom of the Opera, is also working on his first solo album for Sony: “I’ll be doing mostly new tunes: Elton John, Desmond Child, Richard Marx. I want to get back to beautiful singing. When you hear songs these days, there’s so many bells and whistles that you can’t hear the melody.”

Question: Congrats, Hugh! How did you land the lead of Lestat?

Hugh Panaro: When I first heard about the show, I couldn’t get an audition. My agent told me there was no interest in me, so I let it go. Two years later, they let me try out. No matter how much experience you have, you always have to prove yourself. Tyne Daly once said in an interview that not only does she still have to audition, she wants to. Even if it’s only for five minutes, she says it’s her chance to play that role. And that’s how I look at it. I don’t go into an audition to impress anyone. I pretend the role is mine. For Lestat, I did the Jean Valjean soliloquy from Les Miz, and I sang the s*** out of it. And because I’d read the books, I knew who Lestat was. He and I are so parallel. Like him, I’ve gone through a lot of painful life experiences, like deaths in my family and deaths of my colleagues to AIDS. I’ve been in this business since I was 12, and you have to find that fire in you, despite whatever showbiz throws at you. I love this character. He has balls of steel and stamina. And doing Lestat is so much more physical than Phantom. I beat the crap out of Armand. I carry Nicholas on my back. I’m at the chiropractor every other day.

Q: What’s the story of Lestat?

Lestat starts off as a mortal young man living with Gabrielle, his mother, whom he adores. Through a tremendous act of courage, he confronts his abusive father and leaves for Paris to find a life for himself. Magnus, a deranged vampire, bites Lestat and turns him into his heir. That’s how Lestat’s dilemma begins: How do I make peace with who I am, someone who has to kill in order to live, but still maintains a human conscience and the knowledge that killing is wrong? And how do you deal with the loneliness? Do you turn others you love [into vampires], like Louis, Nicholas, Claudia and Gabrielle? In the end, Lestat learns to do the right thing.

Q: In the books and in the show, Lestat has passionate and intimate relationships with Nicholas, and later with Louis. Are they lovers?

Panaro: No. If I had to label them, I’d say that Louis and Lestat are life companions. In Anne Rice’s world, vampires do not have sex. The deepest way they can show affection is through an exchange of blood. It’s their equivalent of having an orgasm. Louis and Lestat also have a daughter [Claudia] together, and that’s a complete mirror of where we are in our current culture. So many same-sex marriages are now adopting children and raising, quite honestly, much more functional families than someone who’s divorced or staying with [a spouse] he or she hates.

Q: In the song “To Live Like This,” Lestat sings: “Don’t fear the world out there because of who you are. So free yourself and you’ll see there is no need to live like this.” Is there a coming-out theme in there?

Panaro: There could be. But to me, it’s about freeing yourself of the shackles that are holding you back. That could be homophobia. It could be religious repression. The bottom line is: Have the balls to live the life you want to lead.

Q: Elton John said writing Lestat “was like being bitten by a f***ing vampire” and it’s some of his best work. For instance, you get a beautiful, soaring solo called “Sail Me Away.” How would you describe the score?

Panaro: It’s not a rock opera. It’s not Aida. It’s surprisingly legit. It’s rangy, and we are singing our asses off. I love Elton and Bernie. I just got a new song called “Right Before My Eyes” and it’s f***ing great. The day after Elton sent it, it was so cute. He wanted to know if I liked the song. Omigod, the melody’s great and Bernie’s lyrics are so poetic and show-specific. Now it’s my favorite song in the show.

Q: Anne Rice’s website boasts that “during its pre-Broadway run at the Curran, Lestat grossed $4,315,293, breaking the record previously held by Wicked.” What was it like trying out in San Francisco?

Panaro: It was one of the most helpful workshops I’ve ever done. We were given scenes at midnight sometimes that we put in the next day. I don’t read reviews, but I know they were mixed, negative and great, and Elton, Bernie, Linda and Rob [Jess Roth] addressed [the criticisms], which is why we have this kickass version. We also had amazing fans there who came back each week and they don’t bull**** you.

Q: In San Francisco, Drew Sarich took over the role of your nemesis, Armand, from Jack Noseworthy. For the record, what happened?

Panaro: I believe Jack is very close to the character as he’s described in the book. But we were told that they wanted a more menacing presence, and Drew is maybe 6-foot-1. Jack was a class act and told us all that he was fine with it. Since then, he’s been on “CSI,” so hopefully he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Q: Finally, Rice has said she wouldn’t be doing any more vampire novels and would only “write for the Lord.” What’s she think of Lestat?

Panaro: We’ve kept her abreast of everything, and she loves the show. That’s how I know we’re already a hit. When the movie of “Interview With a Vampire” was first cast [with Tom Cruise], she was not happy and said so. I’m gonna toot my own horn for a second. I met Anne in San Francisco, and it was like meeting the Pope. We hugged, and she said, “When I wrote this character, I never thought anyone could play him. You are Lestat. You sound like him. You look like him. I have nothing to add.” Her blessing gave me the freedom to let go of any insecurities. It was great.

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