Musician To Perform Broadway Favorites

Sharon Johnson, The Sunday Patriot (Harrisburg, Pa.), June 2, 2002

Between bites of a bagel as he enjoys a late breakfast, Hugh Panaro talks about Camp Sondheim.

It's the name New Yorkers have given to this summer's Stephen Sondheim festival at Washington's Kennedy Center. The unprecedented celebration has emptied Manhattan of most of the musical theater's top performers.

Including Panaro, who co-stars with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski -- "a kick-ass company," Panaro triumphantly proclaims -- in the critically acclaimed production of "Sweeney Todd" which is sold out for its limited run.

It's the only one of the six musicals -- which have attracted theater fans from Europe and Asia -- in which Panaro will appear. The Philadelphia native admits he can't afford to do more than one. Summer is the time for lucrative engagements with major orchestras that allow him to afford the luxuries of life. Like a place to live.

With the 17 performances of "Sweeney Todd" scattered throughout the summer -- "I'm so grateful it's in repertory," Panaro says in a phone interview -- he was temporarily back in New York. But he's not going to see much of his home in the months ahead.

In addition to Sondheim and symphony orchestras, there will be a few chances to work with his friends in that flexible concert known as "Leading Men of Broadway."

Panaro, Jamie Laverdiere -- Nathan Lane's original understudy in "The Producers" -- and Matt Bogart -- who played Radames in Broadway's "Aida" -- will bring their show to Whitaker Center's Sunoco Performance Theater at 8 p.m. Tuesday. It's a benefit for The Rabbi David L. Silver Yeshiva Academy's scholarship fund.

Any chance to perform the music of Broadway is fine with Panaro, who fell in love with musical theater when his parents took him to see "Annie" on Broadway. (It starred fellow Philadelphian Andrea McArdle.)

It wasn't long before Panaro was appearing in "The Sound of Music" at a suburban theater and planning his own assault on Broadway.

He planned to make his move right after high school. "But my dad made a deal with me." If Panaro went to college, his parents would subsidize him until he established himself as an actor.

Which didn't take long. One Temple degree later, Panaro moved to New York. Two weeks after that, he was hired for his off-Broadway debut.

And "knock on plywood," he adds, he's been working ever since.

One secret of his success, he thinks, is that "I look to see what's different about a role."

Like Raoul, in "Phantom of the Opera," one of the more thankless juvenile roles in Broadway musicals. Director Hal Prince was intrigued to note that Panaro played him "kind of like a spoiled brat."

He later worked his way up to the Broadway musical's title role.

Similarly, he sees Marius in "Les Miserables" as the hero of "a coming-of-age story." As he's played him, he's "not just a young guy in love."

There've been less triumphant moments, of course. Chief among them the national tour of the musical "Martin Guerre," which never made it to Broadway.

"A lot of people's life's blood was put into that show," Panaro says. Its premature closing in Los Angeles was "so sad. There were a lot of good things in that show."

The quick demise of the Broadway musical "Side Show" also saddened him. "In my opinion, that show should still be running. It had the best reviews of the season."

But he regards the death of "The Red Shoes" as a mercy killing. Working on that Broadway adaptation of a classic film "was a nightmare," he says simply.

Then there's "Leading Men of Broadway," a dream job for a man who says proudly that "I'm a ham. The more we connect with an audience, the more I love it."

Expect to hear songs he's performed on Broadway -- and from "Sweeney Todd" -- as well as songs he wishes he'd performed on Broadway. Often in different arrangements than those you're accustomed to hearing.

David Lai, the music director and conductor for the Broadway company of "Phantom of the Opera," has arranged the music and will be the accompanist for the three singers' performance.

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