Playing Madame Giry in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” Broadway’s longest running musical, eight times a week is a dream come true for soprano Maree Johnson.
A friend for over 20 years, Maree spoke with me about preparing to return to the Majestic Theatre for the show’s reopening on October 22nd, a year and a half after the pandemic closed down theaters.
New York’s entertainment industry has been through a very unsettling 18 months with Broadway’s theaters remaining dark for the longest time in history. What’s it like to back in rehearsals for “The Phantom of the Opera”?
It’s a very exciting time. The general feeling is we’re coming home to a long lost family. We’re a week into rehearsals and the first few days have been very emotional. There are a number of safety protocols we’re learning to navigate and it’s full steam ahead to get this show on the road or rather back on Broadway!
What are some of the new safety procedures the cast and crew will be taking to stay Covid-free?
In rehearsals everyone is fully masked most of the time unless eating, drinking or singing. At this point in time we are being tested twice weekly and when we return to the theatre, all the backstage crew and front of house staff will be wearing masks. As cast members, we won’t be wearing masks when performing but are encouraged to wear a mask backstage if our costume and wigs allow. We have a 14-page document outlining all of the protocols to follow and everyone is very dedicated in keeping everyone safe.
You play the character of Madame Giry, the ballet mistress. Can you tell us a bit about what makes her tick — and her mysterious connection to the Phantom?
Madame Giry is fiercely dedicated to the arts and her ballerinas (corps de ballet). Her life revolves around dance and the intricate inner workings at the Paris Opera House. There is a long history between the Phantom and Madame Giry which is shrouded in mystery. Madame Giry is also a mother and as the story unfolds and the drama accelerates, she watches over her daughter Meg Giry and Christine Daae.
The joy of coming back and rehearsing the show is I get to play with all that again, and I get to play with that together with the cast from scratch. It’s really very exciting.
What does playing Madame Giry 7-8 shows a week require by way of fitness?
The amount of adrenaline that pumps through your body in those first few shows is always intense. The fitter you are, the easier it is to handle that adrenaline. I do a variety of workouts from yoga to some light weights and running. My character is very still on stage but in that stillness there’s a strength, so my posture is important. The Broadway theaters are also very vertical and the dressing rooms are spread over many floors; that alone keeps me fit.
You’ve played other well-known leading ladies on Australian stages, including Christine Daae in “Phantom.” Can you tell us some of your other favorite roles?
In Australia, I started out in the cast of Les Miserables then played Maria in “West Side Story,” Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”, Grizabella in “Cats” and many concerts and cabarets. Here in the U.S.A., I’ve played the Widow in “Zorba!” and Fosca in “Passion” — and most importantly, a mother to my two daughters.
What brought you over from Australia? And why did you choose New York City?
I came to New York City after winning the Sydney Cabaret Festival and quickly realized the thriving arts in New York City was mind blowing. I wanted to be here, to grow and learn as a performer. It’s an incredible city and I’m so lucky to have been here for the past 21 years. I’m so lucky to have two incredible cities I call home – Sydney and New York City!
I met my husband here and we’ve raised two beautiful daughters and a dog named Banjo!
“The Phantom of the Opera” is directed by the late great Hal Prince and features music by the one and only Andrew Lloyd Webber. Can you tell us what it was like to audition for them?
I played Christine in the Sydney production of “Phantom”. When I walked into the audition room in New York, I had a quiet confidence in knowing they already knew my earlier work. It’s always been a very friendly, supportive environment and I was now a little older and wiser. I was in the right place at the right time and landed the role!
I remember meeting Hal in his office back in 2017. I was primed by the creative team to be ready for anything “You know you may have to sing songs from the show — there’s a piano in the office, we’ll just see what happens.” I didn’t have to sing; he trusted in his team’s decision to cast me. We chatted and he shared some great theater stories, and then he congratulated me and welcomed me back to the family. That was all that was needed. From time to time Hal would come in, watch the show and give notes. I will always remember his wonderful support and compliments.
When the show closed in March 2020, “Phantom” had just celebrated its 32nd Anniversary on Broadway. What celebrations are planned for the reopening in October?
The celebration will be the fact that we’re back! It’s a momentous occasion after such a long lockdown and all the loss. I can’t wait to be on stage and see the actors and people in the audience again. I’m so grateful to be getting our city back on track and making Broadway theatre history!
It’s definitely exciting times ahead for the city, and we hope you and the company break a leg out there on “reopening” night!
Thanks [laughing], “Chookas,” as we say Down Under.
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