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Mizzin' Around With Hugh Panaro - the character behind Les Miserables'
Looking at Hugh Panaro, it's hard to believe that he was once a 175-pound kid who sat around the living room watching television, eating potato chips and candy bars. "Ask my mom," he says. "Until I was 16, I was this little fat blobbey kid who just sat around and ate all day. My nickname in school was Pugsley, from The Addams Family. I looked just like him, too -- I had poker straight bangs and was, of course, fat. I was always getting teased by the other kids."
Now Panaro is having the last laugh. No longer a couch potato who eats out of loneliness, 24-year old Panaro puts his energies into other things. One being his lead role as Marius in the national company of Les Miserables, currently playing to sold out audiences at Philadelphia's Forrest Theatre.
Panaro lounges back in a wooden chair at his kitchen table in his East Oak Lane home and munches on the homemade cookies his mother baked for the interview. He is bleary-eyed and looks like he has just rolled out of bed. Gray sweat pants and a matching Les Miserables t-shirt seem to be his standard off-stage wear. Dark-brown tousled hair peeks out from underneath a checkered baseball-type cap. Panaro takes another thin wafer cookie, chews, and contemplates.
Real life began way back in the second grade. When Panaro was a "loner without any friends," he began to plunk out the keys at the piano, just to pas the time. His mother decided to give him lessons. "My mom kind of thought, well, maybe he's found his niche. That's when I really started getting into music. I guess it was therapy, an escape type thing," Panaro says.
He also remembers his parents took him to see his first Broadway show, Annie, when he was 13. I fell in love with Andrea McArtle. I thought she was the greatest thing I'd ever seen and so did my parents," he says. "When we got home, I sang all the songs from the show. My voice hadn't changed and I sounded like a little girl singing `Tomorrow,'" he says. His parents saw something in him that they had never seen before -- a talent for singing.
His first acting break came when his voice teacher asked him to audition with her for the Huntington Valley Dinner Theater's production of The Sound of Music. He took her up on it, just for fun. What happened? Ironically the oldest show biz story in the book -- he got the job and she didn't. "It was actually very traumatic because I wanted to do the show with her. But she told me to take the job because you can't always work with your friends. And that was it. I was hooked," he admits. What attracted him to landing the part was that "it was the first time in my life that there was something I could do well. I think there's something that there's something everybody works for in their life that gives them a purpose and makes them unique, and this was it for me," he says.
His role as Friedrich in The Sound of Music was the start what was to be a long relationship with the Huntington Valley Dinner Theater. He went on to play Hugo Peabody in Bye, Bye Birdie, the Artful Dodger in Oliver, as well as supporting roles in My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Little Me, Chicago, and he had his first starring role as Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees. Panaro kept right on with the dinner theatre circuit through high school.
He attended Temple University's Esther Boyer College of Music and graduated with a BA in voice in 1985. But, as he recalls, college was definitely not in his immediate plans. "I didn't want to go to college. I wanted to move to New York after high school and take singing, acting, and dancing lessons, and, basically, just try to make it," he says. "But my parents said, `we'll make you a deal. If you go to college and then go to New York, we'll help you out and support you.' I guess you can sort of say it was blackmail," he laughs.
His college years were not the most enjoyable. But he made it through and has the degree hanging on his bedroom wall as proof. He remembers his first year as his favorite. "I had the most fun my freshman year because I cut classes and ate whitefish salad and onion bagels in the music lounge," he says.
"Once I got into college, doing dinner theater didn't go over real big with my professors. I was a classical, opera-oriented voice student coming in at ten in the morning for my lesson and obviously very tired from getting home at 12:30 the night before and singing horrible musical theater. It was almost like a sacrilege in a classical voice program. People told my I wasn't giving my classical music a fair chance because I was always tired and rushing to do theater after school." The theater, he says, kept him sane. In Panaro's senior year at Temple, he cracked down and got serious. He left the dinner theater to play Orpheus in the opera department's production of Orpheus And The Underworld. Knowing that graduation was just around the corner, he concentrated on finishing school so he could dive right into his career.
A week after graduation, Panaro arrived in the Big Apple and rented an apartment. He immediately found work in an off-Broadway show called What's A Nice Country Like You Doing In A State Like This?, a show he describes as "a complete ensemble show similar to the feel of Saturday Night Live."
Panaro jokes about the circumstances of landing the part. "I didn't even have a headshot of myself. I went to the audition with this awful picture of myself and attached my resume to it. But, I got it." He admits the show was great fun and allowed him to do comedy. "I love comedy more than people know, and for me to be funny in my first Off-Broadway show was just such a relief." The show last eight months but he left after five months for the musical Chicago, in East Windsor, Connecticut.
Four months later, he returned to New York City, and within three weeks, he landed a part as an immigrant in another Off-Broadway show called I Have Found Home. The show was performed on a paddleboat which left New York seaport and traveled to the Statue of Liberty for each performance. "The show was definitely Off-Broadway. It was interesting but hard because there were actual immigrants who would come up to me and ask questions about the character. I played a German and many times, German people would come up to me and rattle off some stuff," he says smiling, dimples showing. "Why couldn't I have been Italian instead?"
After a leave of absence from I Have Found Home, he went on to play what he describes as the best thing he's done next to Les Miserables -- Jesus Christ Superstar. Playing Jesus, Panaro says, was extremely emotional for him. "You can't do much better than playing God," he says. "I spend each night in my dressing room crying after the show. That sounds ridiculous, but it was just amazing. I mean, getting flogged and crucified every night really makes you think."
After a short stint in South Pacific at another dinner theater in Connecticut, he was cast as Henrik in A Little Night Music at the Walnut Street Theater. Right after the Philadelphia run of A Little Night Music, Panaro left for Buffalo to play the same role in an entirely different production. A Milawaukee production of South Pacific was his next opportunity, but he had to turn it down because he had just learned of an audition for the national touring company of Les Miserables. "I did something which I don't think I'll ever do again -- turn down a job so that I could audition for another show." This time, it paid off. He got the role of Marius a little over a year ago and has been touring with the company ever since. The show opened in Boston, shortly after Thanksgiving of 1987, and it stayed there for eight months. Then it moved to Washington D.C. for four months, playing to packed houses and standing ovations in both cities. The next stop was Philly, Panaro's hometown.
Being on the road for a year away from family and friends has had its effects. "Last year for Christmas I was in Boston. I remember not having time to shop, so I got all of my gifts out in the mail, Les Miz mugs and t-shirts and other show memorabilia. I was exhausted. On Christmas Eve I just stayed in and watched Star Trek," Panaro says.
Now that he's back in Philadelphia, Panaro is living at home with his parents in a comfortable home in the suburbs of Philadelphia -- the house where he lived for 21 years of his life. Panaro is happy about staying with his parents, who he says are his best friends and the two most inspirational people in his life. "We can talk about anything, but they never let me forget they're my parents. My house is like the Cleavers. They've never held me back and have always supported me. They're not classic stage parents, they never pushed me," he explains. "My parents have always said, `Go for it, and don't be afraid of failing because we're here for you if you do."
As far as role models go, Panaro says he simply doesn't have any. "I guess if I was to say I had any role models, I'd have to say my parents," he says. "But as far as the business goes, I've always been my own person. I admire other people's work, but I don't think I want to be like them. I know I have to be who I am to survive in the business."
Panaro insists he's a boring guy, claiming he doesn't have much of a social life and is, for the most part, a homebody who likes his privacy. "I leave my house around 6:30 every night, go to the show, come home, go to bed by 3:00 a.m., get up around noon, work out if I feel like it, eat dinner and then go to the show again. It's really a vicious circle."
On Sundays, his only day off, he makes a trip back to New York, where he may see his agent, go to an audition, see some friends, and get a fix on his favorite food, Mexican. "I have a cast-iron stomach, the hotter the food the better. I especially love jalapeno peppers. But I pay for it the next day," he laughs.
Peforming in Les Miserables eight times a week is very taxing, so Panaro spends most of the day at home, relaxing and resting his voice. He enjoys his time alone, just listening to music and "chilling out." He does aerobics to keep in good physical shape, something he believes is important for any actor's craft. "Can you imagine trying out for a soap and they ask you to take your shirt off for a love scene and you're out of shape? You don't want to be embarassed when they say, `Nice love handles!'"
After Les Miz finishes in Philadelphia in the middle of March, he will quit and stay in town for a while. What he really wants to do is try something completely different, such as TV or film work. "I love theater and singing, but the other work gives the security to do the theater," Panaro says. "I would like to work on shows at least on the same level as Les Miserables, if not better. In ten years, I won't go backwards. You have to go forwards and try new things. Les Miz is honestly the best musical around for me right now." Panaro sits further back in his chair and smiles. "I guess I just want to keep working and be happy," he says.
Panaro has made his mark and is not stopping here. He no longer sees himself as the fat kid who used to be scared that he wouldn't make it home for lunch on time. "I'm realistic, but I do tend to be somewhat of a pessimist. I don't kid myself about auditions. I never get myself upset about losing a job. I just go without giving it a second thought," he says, "I think that's why I do so well."