By Naomi Serviss / New York City
Richard Poole, who holds the Broadway record for the longest continuous run, from performing in Cats from December 1994 to Phantom of the Opera in April 2023, descended triumphantly to the 10th step of the legendary masquerade ball staircase during last August 6th's performance.
The 11th step? Dicey. Poole, who had stepped in for an understudy, dazzled in his glorious cape.
Unfortunately, it also slipped him up. Down he tumbled. The cast was aghast, as was the gobsmacked audience. “I proceeded to fall all the way to the deck, rolling and bouncing with momentum,” he recounts over a steaming bowl of matzo ball soup in Friedman’s Restaurant at midtown’s Edison Hotel.
The dedicated actor, black ski cap augmenting his green-ish eyes, has been in two record-smashing shows, Cats (Broadway Gus, the Theater Cat) and Phantom. Poole, 68, made his debut 40 years ago in Dreamgirls.
Back to the ill-fated tumble.
“I ended up in a pile and suddenly realized I was supposed to catch the opera score the Phantom was about to throw to me,” Poole says.
In true “The show must go on!” spirit, not only did he make the painfully awkward catch, but he also stoically hobbled his way through the performance, until the bitter end. A trouper!
“I was spurred on by an incredible rush of adrenalin,” he recalls, as singing waiters vogue by, belting
Broadway tunes and carrying drinks.
“Immediately after the show I went to the emergency room,” Poole says. Not good news for an active thespian in a physically and mentally draining production.
“My entire right knee quad was torn off. It’s been a seven-month recovery.” Physical therapy was grueling.
It wasn’t the first time Poole had bad luck with dangerous obstacles.
“A couple of weeks earlier, I had a backstage accident. I was playing the nasty stagehand and ran into the travelator [moving walkway] in the dark, breaking five teeth.”
You think you’ve had dental issues?
Poole had temporaries made while he waited for permanents to be made.
You know the drill.
One performance soon after, he was in a dramatic scene.
His next line was: “It must be a GHOST!”
“Well, the percussiveness of my voice ejected them out of my mouth into an
arc seen and followed by everyone onstage, finally landing at the feet
of Carlotta, the opera diva,” he adds.
“After an eternal two seconds, my mind was made up. In character, I decided to retrieve them and replace them in my mouth ONSTAGE!” he says.
“The gasps and laughter were really organic because it was disgusting, but justifiable for my slovenly character. A day to remember!”
Among the many ensemble roles Poole performs and knows inside-out, are Monsieur Lefèvre, Monsieur André and Joseph Buquet. That’s a lot of singing and dancing!
No need for extra workouts when your full-time job calls for thousands of steps daily! Who needs Fitbit?’
Poole’s Broadway and national touring credits include Cats, Les Miz, Evita, Mame (with Angela Lansbury!) and Dreamgirls (the original production).
Another (sad) day to remember will be April 16, when the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera hurtles onto the premium seats for the last time.
That chandelier has dropped nearly 14,000 times, terrifying and thrilling patrons. The New York production cost an astonishing eight million dollars in 1988. Try to put that together today and it would run at least 20 million.
Poole’s gratitude is palpable.
“It’s given me discipline and longevity and I’m eternally grateful
for the opportunity to have been in the production for decades,” he says.
The show remains magical for him, no matter how often he’s seen it from
onstage or in the wings.
“It’s a magic box in a magic box,” he enthuses. “Sounds like a cliché, but it’s gold. There’s something about hitting the mark and everything clicks with the audience. It’s a great story! That simple!”
Surprisingly, Poole was not a theater nerd in school. One production he recalls having been in is A Christmas Carol, where he played Bob Cratchit.
His fondest working musical memory outside Broadway?
Six Flags Adventure.
“I auditioned on a dare with a friend. “My friend didn’t get it, but I did,” Poole recalls. “I performed there all summer. It was a great gig, steered me to Broadway.”
His childhood upbringing was not very supportive. His family was religious and conservative.
“’If you don’t use your talent for the Lord, it will be taken away from you!’” Poole’s father admonished him.
“I went through so much stress trying to please them and not being authentic,” said the baritone (with high notes).
“I used to be so hard on myself, and self-critique nonstop,” Poole says. “It would just take me right out of a performance.”
He looks forward to more time spent at the dog park with his canine rescue, Boone (after Daniel Boone).
Fun facts about Phantom:
More than 400 actors have appeared in the New York production, including more than a baker’s dozen as the Phantom. Howard McGillin holds the record for playing Broadway’s title role more than 2,500 times.
The production uses 111 human and yak hair in addition to synthetic wigs.
The chandelier is awash in 6,000 beads, weighs a solid ton and rarely malfunctions. Always reassuring to the orchestra seat holders.
Tony-winning director Harold Prince calculated surprises in every scene. Which translates to an edgy anticipation experienced by attendees. For example, the gavel in the blackout at the show’s opening, the quick shift for full orchestral overture to a single, unaccompanied soprano voice, and flames shooting from the floor. All guaranteed to spook you unawares.
There are 19 official cast recordings and the play has been performed in 15 languages.
The show has been the single largest generator of jobs in Broadway and U.S. theatrical history. It was inspired by a real-life tragedy that occurred in a Paris theater, leaving one person dead.
And as the world knows by now, The Phantom of the Opera was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe.
Poole speed walks for therapy and mind-clearing.
Now that Phantom’s closing, he’ll have plenty of time for both.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com