Catching Up With Anne Kanengeiser at ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ at The Kennedy Center

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As the National Tour of The Phantom of the Opera is about to end its run at The Kennedy Center, I had the pleasure of catching up with Anne Kanengeiser, who is starring as Madame Giry, before The Chandelier and its talented cast pack up for their next stop in Denver.

Joel: It’s so nice finally having a chance to catch up. How are you enjoying your Kennedy Center run of Phantom?

Anne Kanengeiser. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Anne Kanengeiser. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Anne: I just love it at The Kennedy Center. It brings back so many memories. I did Phantom before there. It’s a beautiful house. I don’t know how it is in the audience, although I have been in those seats for completely different reasons, but I know that performing there has a wonderful sense of intimacy that a lot of the big theatres just don’t have. It’s one of the things that makes it so special.

What was really so much fun for me this time was coming in with a crew of actors who are much younger – and this is all new to them – so literally the standards – when getting ready for sound checks – people are literally taking pictures – like, “Oh my Gosh! This is The Kennedy Center!” It was really fun to see the space through their eyes.

I was very young when Kennedy was President and was killed, but still that was part of my lifetime, so historically to see the responses to people  and then when I throw out a questions and they say, “What?” – and then I say, “You may want to do a little research…”

It’s wild being surrounded by so many young performers. We are talking 20’s and 30’s – a totally different generation – so it is very exciting to see it through their eyes.

Who did you play when you appeared in Phantom before?

I was in the Ensemble and then for a month or so I did Madame Giry – so I did both.

I was also there with Little Women, when I was standing by for Maureen McGovern. I don’t think I went on for her, but I did go on for Aunt March, because I was also covering for that role.

You received Helen Hayes Awards for two musicals you appeared in at Signature Theatre and Ford’s Theatre.

In 1996, I won for Passion at Signature Theatre. It was at that time that I went up to NYC to audition for Ragtime. 

And we were there to see you perform the role of Mother when you went in for Marin Mazzie.

Right.

You called me and said, “I am finally going in.” We thought you might have pushed Marin down the stairs… (Because she never missed a performance). 

[Laughing]. I think she might have been on vacation or had a little cold…Yeah, I did get to go one and that was wonderful.

You were terrific!

And Passion was such a phenomenal experience. And of course working with Eric [Schaeffer] and Jon Kalbfleisch… and Lewis Cleale and April Harr Blandin was phenomenal.

Did you ever do it again?

"ProMusica presents 'Passion' as a chamber opera in Columbus, Ohio...Anne Kanengeiser finds a little-girl quality in Fosca."
ProMusica presents ‘Passion’ as a chamber opera in Columbus, Ohio…Anne Kanengeiser finds a little-girl quality in Fosca.”

I did! I did it with ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio in 2000, at the newly refurbished Southern Hotel. So I got the experience of doing the show in a Black Box in the intimate space at Signature, where you had to be so subtle, especially with that show, and with that role.

And then I went in to this big theater, and then I really understood some of the caveats that anybody who is doing that show on a very large stage – it’s really challenging – because you don’t want to make it over-the-top or almost Delsarte – just grand and silent movie-likeWhen you are on a big stage and you have this woman and she is coming down the stairs – it was very challenging in the Southern Hotel.

You were scary as hell as Fosca. I will never forget it. Have you brought any of your experience with Fosca to your performance as Madame Giry?

It was just one of those roles. And I realized as we were doing it, Eric kept saying, “Pull back… Pull back…” It was so easy to go too far with it. I got a lot from Eric – I learned a lot about just holding still. Yes – I use all of that with Madame Giry. Less is more.

Passion helped me to access things as an actor that I didn’t know I had or could do. I have always been very analytical. Most of the directors look at me and say, “You have already done all the work….Let it go!” And that’s very common for a lot of actors. You analyze and research the history and you dig in to create the character…I know I do.. and then someone will say to me, “Let it go! You have everything inside of you that you need.. And for me-it’s then when all the stage work begins. And I had to do a lot of this with Passion. 

Anne Kanengeiser (Madame Giry) in 'The Phantom of the Opera.' Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Anne Kanengeiser (Madame Giry) in ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

I was very grateful that my sister was a psychotherapist! The original novel by Tarchetti, that Passion is based on, doesn’t give you much. You just know she falls to the ground – and she’s reactive. Is she epileptic? What is she? And I talked about manic depression and other things with my sister. And through all that I was able to create a character that I understood. I actually called on my whole  – they are all gone now – my mother and grandmother, and father and how they all lived their lives, and how they passed – and those things I used helped me to understand these characters. It helped me to find dysfunction as well as joy.

Passion gave me the confidence – I had just not done anything like it before – and it gave me the confidence many years later to study Shakespeare. And I put together a wonderful group of people here -I am working with Kim Schraf. Edward Gero is coming in to work with us.

I needed a new dream. I have done a lot of great things – and I am very grateful, and there are a lot of new things I want to do. This is an homage to my grandmother. She was a great Shakespeare person and a scholar, and a director.

So, yes, Passion lead to a lot of things.

Lewis Cleale and Ann Kanengeiser in ‘1776 ‘ at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Lewis Cleale and Ann Kanengeiser in ‘1776 ‘ at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Stan Barouh.

And then I got to come back and do 1776 with David Bell directing at Ford’s, in 2003. I got to work with Lewis [Cleale] again. He was my John Adams and I got to be his Abigail. It’s still today one of my favorite shows, and it always will be.

And then coming back to do Eleanor: An American Love Story.

And you won your second Helen Hayes Award playing Eleanor Roosevelt. What’s happened to the show?

I actually had a reading of it in NYC, in hopes that maybe it would go somewhere further, whether for more regional productions. I met one of the producers for Little Women, and he had seen me in Eleanor, and we chatted for a long time, and now Eleanor has been published by The Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation, so the script is there, and like everything…it needs money. It was such a wonderful role and a wonderful experience for me. I am glad I got to record it.

I love historical pieces. I love period pieces. It’s a genre I fit best in personally. But doing those two shows at Ford’s Theatre – like performing now at The Kennedy Center – was such a memorable experience.

Anthony Cummings (Franklin Roosevelt) and Anne Kanengeiser (Eleanor Roosevelt). Photo by Stan Barouh.
Anthony Cummings (Franklin Roosevelt) and Anne Kanengeiser (Eleanor Roosevelt). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Let’s get back to this gorgeous production of The Phantom of the Opera which ends its run tomorrow. It looks incredible! What makes this production so unique?

You saw it.

Yes. I was there on opening night. How is Chris [Mann] doing?

He had an emergency appendectomy. We are human beings – even the Phantom – it happens and what can we do? He didn’t feel well and between his wife and his good friends – “Maybe you should get this checked out” – and right before our first preview he told us, ” I am going in to the hospital.” And they were kind enough to postpone opening night for a week.

Katie Travis (Christine))and Chris Mann (The Phantom). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Katie Travis (Christine) and Chris Mann (The Phantom). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Chris is doing well and he has his strength back. He’s done a great job and we have had wonderful shows and audiences.

Going back to your first question: Having done the other version for four years, I love the original Hal Prince version. It’s spectacle. It’s big. And I learned that Madame Giry was based on Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca – the movie – and that presented its own challenges.

When [Director] Laurence Connor was asked to do this, Cameron got the blessings from Sir Andrew. Laurence likes a more ‘organic’ and ‘naturalistic’ version. He said, “I want to create real people.” The Phantom is a man who has clearly been affected – in our version – by a birth defect of sorts- and lives at the theater. This show does not have the grand ‘romantic mystery’ that the other version has. However, you still have the time frame. It’s 1875, and you don’t have any electric lighting; you would have had torches and footlights that were ‘lit,’ so there’s a built-in time frame.

In the managers’ offices, some people like the fact that we now have this wonderful set that is created and it’s rather ‘intimate,’ and it’s smaller. And some people prefer the other open version – but I love it.

For me, as Madame Giry, it was a specific stylized version of her in the other version. In this one, I remember working with Associate Director Seth Sklar-Heyn, he said, “OK, in this version, this is not presentational. This is about talking to everyone – eye-to-eye contact, and yes – if they are behind you  – turn upstage. So these are some of the technical things an actor deals with. And I love that it’s really about talking to each person and really investing in, “What is the situation, what are we going to do about it, and for me, of course, in this version – the triangle: The Phantom, Raoul and Christine – a more specific love triangle – because the Phantom is now younger, everybody is now younger, and Christine is now consciously making decisions between these two men- that are both viable.

And for me – I didn’t just get to be the disciplinarian – as she is as the Ballet Mistress – but I got to be a Mom in a much more specific way. I am protecting the ballerinas even though I am disciplining them. I know where they come from – they come from the streets of Paris. They happen to be fortunate enough to be able to do this and dance like this. So for me, I am really like a den-mother. And then with Meg and Christine I am her mother- so I am protecting her. But because the Phantom is younger, I am a mother to him too. In my mind, I have had a certain connection with him. And I probably met him when he was tiny – and we were about the same age – and in this version we talk about how he was probably in his early mid-teens when I saw him locked up. So I am definitely more of a mother figure in this version. I am protecting him possibly to the detriment of the Opera House. But for me – it feels more real.

The Company performs "Masquerade." Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The Company performs “Masquerade.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Some people do not like that. The things that most audiences will say in talkbacks are that they feel they understand the script better because of the way it’s communicated. And that’s the direction. They catch things that they didn’t see in the other version. Like when Raoul catches me after “Masquerade” and says, “What is going on and who is this man? I know this man. You know something.” And they have let that expand breathe and with the video behind us – so I get to take my time to tell that story. So people get a better idea – still short but truncated – but they get a better idea of who the ‘man’ is.

And of course the most amazing thing is the Paul Brown’s amazing new set – that amazing wall. I saw Paul’s amazing work in Man of La Mancha in NYC with Brian Stokes Mitchell. I asked, “Why does this look so familiar?” It was the same designer.

It’s been fun watching people’s reactions and watching them be open to a new version. I think that’s very exciting!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with a 20-minute intermission.

The Phantom of the Opera plays through August 20, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
‘The Phantom of the Opera’ at The Kennedy Center Opera House reviewed by Emily Cao.

Anne Kanengeiser on Playing Janna in ‘The Personal(s) at No Rules Theatre Company by Joel Markowitz.

Anne Kanengeiser. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Anne Kanengeiser. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Broadway: Ragtime, Little Women. National Tour: Beauty and the Beast(Mrs. Potts); The Phantom Of The Opera (Mme Giry, Music Box Co.);Little Women. Regional: Eleanor: An American Love Story (Eleanor Roosevelt, Ford’s Theater – Helen Hayes Award); Passion (Fosca, Signature Theatre VA – Helen Hayes Award); Fiddler On The Roof (Golde, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival); Carousel (Nettie, Goodspeed Musicals); Workshop Theater’s 11th Annual Will-A-Thonw/Richard Easton (Lady Macbeth/Gertrude). TV: Law & Order: SVU;Guiding Light. Recordings: Ragtime; Eleanor: An American Love Story.

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Joel Markowitz
Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.