After spending months surrounded by the churches and biblical art of Rome, I was starting to feel more and more curious about what exactly was in the New Testament. Being the musical theater fan that I am, I turned to "Jesus Christ Superstar" (JCS), an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical I had managed to go without seeing, up until then. I watched a modernized version that had been filmed while on tour a few years earlier, and found myself completely entranced by it. The lighting, costumes and staging were endlessly creative and new, but what really caught my attention was the performance by the leading actors. Ben Forster, who won the role of Jesus after performing on the show, "Superstar," was captivating. Not just in his singing, but in the way he put so much emotion and intensity into the role. His interpretation just radiated sadness and anger.
This was only a week before my trip to London, during which I would be seeing "Phantom of the Opera," a show I had been dying to see for the past 12 years. Imagine my surprise when I looked up the current cast and found that I would be seeing Ben Forster as the Phantom, just days after I'd discovered him. Reviews of his performance weren't entirely positive, complaining that his voice didn't have the strength to play the Phantom. I would agree that his voice isn't as heavy as the Phantom's normally is, but once I heard his opening soft and quiet "Brava" echo through the theater before he calls Christine's name, I could tell that that voice was going to become an advantage. Rather than that robust quality the Phantom's voice normally has, Forster's Phantom was unbelievably quiet and soft from the beginning, with this almost sickeningly sweet tinge to it on certain notes. In his more intense moments, all of this sweetness spiked not into a roar, like other Phantom's tend to favor, as much as a wavering and broken anger. This became especially unsettling when combined with Forster's character interpretation. Everything from his facial expressions to the slow, fluid way he moved across the stage in Act I, especially around Christine, seemed like a predator examining his prey.
One moment that stands out in particular is the way Forster's head tilts and his slow stalking in "Music of the Night" became noticeably snake-like, despite the sweetness of the song. His movements were some of my favorite elements of his interpretation. He emphasized the way the Phantom seems to force and pull the final notes of the title song from her throat, clenching his fist and pulling toward his chest as Christine reached higher and her chest heaved forward. Rather than just moving his hands as Christine sings her part in "Point of No Return," he actually starts to conduct in his lap, bringing everything back to the fact that he is Christine's teacher and that this is his opera.
These acting choices are especially important because since his voice is missing that robust quality and it is combined with the fact that he is about the same height as Celinde Shoenmaker's Christine, his character can be a bit hard to seem fearsome. This became most apparent in the "Point of No Return" reprise, when the Phantom needs to have a strong and menacing presence to combat Christine's howling anger, something Forster doesn't exactly have and his slow and unnerving treatment of the Phantom up until that point can't really save. He makes up for it in the emotion he brings to the whole Final Lair scene, though, and throughout the musical. Every feeling is heightened and intensified. His softness with Christine in the beginning is in every movement, from the way he guides her into the Lair during the title song to the way he removes her hand from his mask in "Music of the Night." He is slow and quiet and hypnotic, so much so that the audience is on edge throughout "Music of the Night," the song that normally makes them fall for the Phantom in the same moment Christine does. His high and soft voice lends itself to the sadness of the role, especially throughout the "All I Ask of You" and "Masquerade" reprises, and remains behind every moment of loud and sudden anger.
What some may think Ben Forster lacks actually allows him to explore different elements of the character, allowing him to bring something very different to "Phantom of the Opera." If you're looking for a show to see on the West End while he's still in the role, don't let poor reviews or even disliking him in "JCS" discourage you. You'll be seeing a version of "Phantom" you can't find elsewhere.