The Secret Superstar Behind ‘The Phantom of the Opera’
It’s one of the greatest makeup jobs in Broadway history. Come behind the scenes to see how a legendary artist makes magic before the curtain goes up
The Phantom of the Opera has been wowing Broadway audiences night after night since 1988. Sure, everyone raves about the transporting Andrew Lloyd Webber score, the spectacular sets and, oh yeah, that unforgettable chandelier that gets oohs and aahs at every performance. But this show also has a superstar who you won’t see on stage. Thelma Pollard joined the show in 1987 as a hairstylist when it was in pre-production, started working on original star Michael Crawford’s makeup once the run began, and took over as production makeup supervisor not long after that. Nowadays, Pollard is in charge of makeup for every North American production of Phantom (meaning she teaches the actors to apply their own greasepaint). But her starring role is as the artist who personally transforms the Phantom from man to monster eight times a week. She invited us into her second-story studio at the Majestic Theatre to show us how it’s done.
The actor playing the Phantom walks into the small room adjacent to the star’s dressing room at six o’clock sharp. Tonight, he’s being played by Laird Mackintosh, one of several actors who understudy the title role (leading man Hugh Panaro is out this evening). Though this is only the seventh time Mackintosh has played the Phantom on Broadway, he’s surprisingly relaxed as he settles into the original makeup chair that’s been used for every Phantom since Michael Crawford. Makeup supervisor Pollard begins by wetting down his hair with a spray bottle then applying a bald cap that has been prepared with makeup to match his skin tone, turning up the edges as she settles it into place. The entire makeup process takes exactly one hour these days, but it took double that in the beginning, as the artists used to paint everything on the actor’s face. These days, Pollard does much of her prep work the night before (including painting the “scars” on the prosthetic that is applied for every show), so when it’s close to show time, she’s ready to roll.
As Mackintosh Tweets and studies his notes for the role, Pollard warns him to “pay attention!” as she grabs a pair of scissors and begins cutting the bald cap around his ears, using Pros-Aide medical adhesive to attach it. She explains that this type is easier to handle than other glues — she can still adjust it once it’s applied if minor adjustments are necessary. “It’s actually good if they do things while this is all happening,” Pollard says of the actor in the chair. “The makeup moves around while they’re singing during the show, so if we chat during the makeup process, it helps it settle.” For the record, during the musical’s 26-year Broadway run, only 13 permanent actors have played the title role. In addition to four temporary replacements, there have been 15 additional men who’ve graced the Phantom’s mask, including Mackintosh. Norm Lewis will take over the role on May 12, becoming the first African-American actor to play the Phantom on Broadway.
It’s time to apply the prosthetics that lie underneath the mask, the part of the Phantom’s face that is heavily scarred and totally obscured for most of the show — until the big reveal happens and the audience gasps. “These all are shipped from London and, yes, they don’t smell very good,” Pollard adds, holding up a bag of nude-colored rubber shapes. Each is carefully pre-painted by Pollard and used only once, and preparing them can take hours. She begins by gluing one large piece to the side of Mackintosh’s cheek. As she works, she pours more medical adhesive into a small glass, asking Mackintosh with a laugh, “Want a shot?” From here on in, she works fast, attaching a large lump below his lip and patting the whole thing down with powder. This isn’t a short process, and Pollard notes that it has helped build bonds between her and the actors playing the Phantom. “You become part of their family. I went to the wedding of [longtime Phantom] Howard McGillin and his husband Richard Samson, and Davis Gaines would bring his nieces and nephews backstage. In the end, we can all finish one another’s sentences.” Leading man Panaro, who’s played the role off and on since 1999, agrees: “We have this sibling energy together. I tease her tremendously the way a brother would tease a sister, and she teases me right back. We just joke and have a really good time.”
The stage manager makes the half-hour call over the P.A. system at 6:30, and cast member Susan Owen pops in from the dressing room across the hall. Tonight, she’s also going on as an understudy, as leading lady Christine. She only stays for a moment, assuring Mackintosh how excited she is to perform with him then dashing off to finish her own makeup job. Next, Pollard solidifies the bald cap with a blow drier then grabs a pancake stick and begins to apply a thick foundation to the actor’s face and neck, smoothing it all with a sponge. As she works, Pollard muses: “I have a passion for this, and I think it’s important to lend a helping hand to the next generation.”
The greasepaints come out. Pollard goes to work on Mackintosh’s face, holding a palette and applying various shades of reds, purples and darker shades to his cheeks and eyes, and of course, putting the right, bright colors on that hugely discolored lower lip. Suddenly, the entire makeup design comes into focus. “I told you it would,” Mackintosh says with a wink. Just then, Andrew Nelson, the show’s star dresser, enters to strap Mackintosh’s mic pack across his chest, and Pollard springs into action, gluing the cords from the microphone onto his bald cap. It turns out that there are two mic cords, in case one gives out mid-performance.
It also turns out there are two wigs: one with the character’s thinning, “real” hair, and another with the handsome, full-headed hair that is seen for much of the show. Pollard applies them both carefully. And when everything is ready, she says the magic words: “Are you ready to try on the mask?” And Mackintosh does, holding up a mask design that’s specially configured to the scale of his face and making sure that everything is Broadway-perfect. Conducting the show tonight is David Caddick, who is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s longtime, go-to musical director and has been at the podium regularly since Phantom‘s 25th anniversary in 2013. He stops by to make sure Mackintosh is good to go. Everything gets a thumbs up.
In his costume and ready to go, Mackintosh won’t appear for about 25 minutes into the performance, but he’s all set and gets a final once-over from the woman who made him look fabulous. This job is personal for Pollard, and the cast and crew are literally her family. Her sister, Pearleta, often fills in for her when she’s out on vacation. She also bonds with the actors playing the role—and not just because she’s gluing prosthetics to their faces. It’s just that kind of job.