When he wasn't performing in front of thousands of people as the Phantom in Broadway's "Phantom of the Opera," Cris Groenendaal enjoyed a life of relative anonymity.
After shows, he would pass unnoticed on his way out of the theater, rushing to Grand Central Station to catch his train home. The groups of schoolchildren waiting outside for the actors didn't stop him.
They were waiting for the man in the mask.
"I'm not a big celebrity," Groenendaal said. He just played the lead role in Broadway's longest-running musical, the musical that all others are measured against. "If you play the Phantom, people don't really know what you look like anyway," he added.
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Groenendaal played Broadway's third Phantom eight times a week for a year before switching to a touring Canadian company. After more than 860 "Phantom" performances, Groenendaal moved on to other roles, and eventually left the stage altogether. But he still does concerts and singing performances, including an upcoming series of shows for the May River Theatre Company in Bluffton.
The theater company is kicking off its 14th season with a fundraiser and three performances by Groenendaal and his wife, Broadway pianist Sue Anderson. Groenendaal and Anderson will perform at 8 p.m. March 13 and 14, and at 3 p.m. March 15 at Ulmer Auditorium in Bluffton Town Hall.
The duo will sing and play favorites from "Phantom of the Opera," "Cats" and "Wicked" as well as some original cabaret and songs from composers Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin.
Of course, the "Phantom" songs are what Groenendaal is known for.
"It's like any profession you've dreamed about and you get the job," he said of landing the role 20 years ago. "It's thrilling.
"First you dream about getting into a Broadway show. Then the dream in the back of your head is to play the title role in a Broadway play."
Groenendaal was originally in "Phantom of the Opera" in the role of Andre and was already in the cast when directors were looking for a new Phantom. "I saw the cast list of all the people coming in to audition and I said, 'I should be on that list,'" he said.
The Phantom was an important role to play, and one that gave his career tremendous weight and legitimacy, but it wasn't his favorite, Groenendaal said.
"It really is kind of a solitary, lonely role to play. He's dark; he's always in the dark; he can't see very well; he's in tight spaces all the time -- I'm 6'2" -- he's hanging above the audience ... in the beginning it was tough."
In the two-hour show, it seems like the Phantom is everywhere, but he's only onstage for about 45 minutes total, Groenendaal said. Otherwise he's in the dressing room.
"I got into this business to work with other actors, and the Phantom doesn't really work with anybody. He's kind of a one-man show," he said. "That's why I did a year on Broadway and I quit."
Groenendaal moved on to do "Passion" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" on Broadway.
But then auditions weren't coming as often as they used to, and when they did, Groenendaal wouldn't get the role. He tried out for "Law and Order" eight times and wasn't cast. He began getting requests for roles that, after playing the Phantom, "would be like asking a nuclear physicist to fix a blender," he said.
Groenendaal shifted his career from stage to concert performances. He augmented them with a job teaching ESL classes at Westchester Community College in New York, working from the experience he had teaching English in South Korea in the Peace Corps. He took a semester off to spend the winter in Sun City Hilton Head, escaping the cold up North.
At the May River Theatre Company performances, Groenendaal said audiences can expect to hear favorites, and some funny songs that might surprise some "Phantom" fans.
"Sometimes if you have a really nice, classical voice, they don't expect you to be funny," he said.
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