Derrick Davis remembers the first musical he saw when he was a young boy living in New York City. It was the newly opened Broadway smash The Phantom of the Opera, and Davis knew in an instant what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He started singing in a church choir, studied opera at Long Island University and began auditioning for professional productions. Davis has since performed on stages across the U.S., and opera, concerts, television and film performances are all on his resume. From 2012 through 2016, he performed in The Lion King, both on Broadway and in the touring production, and recorded his first album, Life Music (CD Baby, 2015).
Currently he's the man behind the mask in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera, which is touring across North America and will stop at the Morrison Center on Wednesday, June 14 through Sunday, June 25.
Can I assume your professional roads have led you to the Phantom, probably the greatest musical theater role for an actor?
I studied music in high school straight through college. I started in opera but began auditioning for musical theater, my first love. I did regional productions and was eventually cast as Mufasa in The Lion King on tour, in Las Vegas and eventually on Broadway. That ultimately led me to this role.
You are only the third African-American actor to wear the mask of the Phantom. You must embrace that piece of history.
It's a weighty responsibility and a huge honor. I'm just so grateful to the company and creative team for being as open-minded as they are in so many respects, but specifically for allowing somebody of color to take this role, based solely on their ability to tell the story.
I'm thinking of the young boys and girls of all colors who come to your show, see you center stage and then get a chance to meet you backstage or ask for an autograph.
When I see young people coming to the stage door or connecting with me on social media, it warms my heart because I know what seeing Phantom did for me and my own journey. It's a privilege to do that for someone else. We were in Atlanta when a mother, an African-American woman, brought her son to the stage door. The mother was in hysterics and grabbed her son by the shoulder and said, "Look at him. Look at his face. Now you know, you can do anything." Moments like that constantly remind me of the responsibility that I have, not only to tell the story but to be an example to generations that will come after me.
I must admit that I haven't seen The Phantom of the Opera since it opened in London in 1986. It's my understanding your production is "re-imagined."
There's a lot more realism in this production. The characters are fleshed out in a much more grounded and less mystical way, and in the 30 years since this musical opened, technology has moved forward in great strides— especially the pyrotechnics, lighting and sound design. The new set design is... well, it's mind-blowing. I don't want to give too much away.
Promise me the new production still has a giant chandelier that comes crashing down.
I promise you that there's absolutely a chandelier. Trust me, you'll get your money's worth.
Can you put us in the moment of the iconic scene as the Phantom sings "Music of the Night?"
The Phantom is disfigured, but he's also a musical savant and architectural genius. In many ways, he operates on sound, almost like a bat, by not relying on the senses of sight, taste or touch. For him, it's all about what you hear, especially in the dark. In the moment that he sings to his protege, Christine, he's leading her to experience life by not using the senses we would normally use above ground or in the daylight, but to feel life through sound and, ultimately, the music of the night.