Q&A: Before Clearwater Christmas concert, Sarah Brightman talks ‘Phantom,’ going to space and more

She's at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Wednesday.

click to enlarge Sarah Brightman - OLIVER SOMMERS
Oliver Sommers
Sarah Brightman
This year marks 35 years since Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” debuted at London’s West End. With the constant hype that continues to surround the musical specifically—as opposed to the original Gaston Leroux book, 35 years doesn’t seem like that long.

The musical’s Swedish protagonist, Christine Daaé, was a role that Lord Webber re-established specifically for his then-wife, soon-to-be best-selling soprano Sarah Brightman. She went on to revolutionize the soprano that the Phantom falls for. Since then, hundreds have portrayed Christine (including Florida Orchestra favorite Lisa Vroman).

Brightman put together a massively successful, Christmas-themed live stream in 2020 while waiting for the OK to get back on the road. The positive response overwhelmed her, hence why she decided to embark on a 17-date, U.S. tour that celebrates her career—and Christmas—with two stops in Florida: Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall and Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Read our full Q&A below.
Location Details

Ruth Eckerd Hall

1111 McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater Clearwater

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Thank you so much for doing this with me.

Are you speaking from Florida?

Yes, I am.

So lovely. I actually have a place in Miami. My partner lives there. So yeah, it’s nice. It’s beautiful down there.

Yeah, it's actually raining right now.

Well, it's still in that kind of hurricane season sort of thing, isn't it? So, I was there a few weeks ago and it was really hot, but there was a lot of rain and wind and stuff at that time.

Where are you calling from?

London. In my apartment in London. I don’t have to tell you what our weather is like.

So, this is your first Christmas tour, and it's in response to the very successful Christmas live stream that you did last year. What drove you to do that live stream?

Well, everybody was able to go through a horrendous time, and people that like to celebrate Christmas, and especially go to the arts and see things. At that time, all of our musicians and artists–I mean, it was just horrible. So, I kind of invested my time and finances to put this show together, because I wanted to cheer myself up—and everybody else, and what’s a better time to do it than at Christmas, when I'm sure it was difficult for everybody everywhere?

So, I started putting together—I had done a Christmas album before, a seasonal album. So, I started putting the repertoire together, and a lot of my music I had done before, the hits I've had, actually fitted well into that category as well. You know, on the more spiritual message side. And we just put it together. I got, you know, a team of people in to help me with the lights, and the costumes and the sets and everything—and I had all my musician friends come in, and we were socially distanced. And we streamed it. We performed it in a beautiful old church, which they were prepared to let us use during this funny time. And it went up—we had an amazing response from people.

So I thought, to bring it to America, You know, that show was only specifically done for streaming, so it was quite short. But this is going to be a whole show. We’ve got a lot of beautiful Christmas songs as well, and a piece that people know, some slightly out of the way Christmas pieces, as well as a lot of my own hits. And I've got great lighting, great choir, great orchestra, lovely set, and I think it's going to be lovely.

So what else did you do during the pandemic when everybody was off the road?

You know, it was great. I went into a physical bubbl where you sort of worked or met another person, so that you weren't outside of the COVID rules and everything, because we were quite severely locked down in Europe. And so, I went into this bubble with my singing coach and worked a huge amount of my voice, which was actually the one upside of this, you know, often singers we don't get a chance to really sink into going back to school, really. With the training, we do as much as we can. But we're always on this sort of, you know—it’s on a treadmill. But it's the kind of thing of continually performing and so that's what I did.

I saw a lot of my family, which was fantastic, because I haven't been able to do that so much in the past. I have two dogs, so I was able to be with them. I did a huge amount of virtual meetings, or Zoom about what the future could hold. That opened all sorts of new doors so I won the title in a way. I tried just to keep very, very busy, so that I didn't think too hard about what was going on. Because it was sad and not very nice.

I want to go back a little bit, to when you were first getting started. You've been at the piano and singing for practically all your life, but was there a specific moment that you knew that the stage was your destiny?

Yes, I was 11, and I went for an audition for a musical for the director John Schlesinger in London's West End. It was a show, a musical that he was actually directing with a film director. And I got in. So, I started doing this role at age 11, and my mother said it was almost impossible to get me back to school again, because I just knew that was my destiny. *laughs* That was really when it started.

When you were younger, were there any performers that you aspired to be like? Who did you look up to the most?

It was a complete mixture. I trained to be a ballerina when I was very young. So, the sort of British stars that we had like Margot Fante. I loved the dancing and the acting of Audrey Hepburn. I love the tactical voice of Joan Sutherland. But at the same time, I was into musicals like “Hair,” which I wasn't allowed to go see because I was too young, and they were naked scenes on stage. I was really upset about that. My mother wouldn’t let me go.

All the stars of the time on TV that sang and acted, I was fascinated. I was fascinated by the entertainment world, really from a very, very young age and watched everything I could. And I remember, my grandparents, they had one of those great, big, old black and white TVs, where the screen was quite small. What you got on the screen was small, and I remember watching Liberace perform West Side Story one Sunday night, and I was just completely blown over that a musical could sound like this. It was beautiful to me.

When you were on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!” a few years ago, you mentioned that you also really loved pop and progressive rock as time went on. Is that a genre that you still indulge yourself in sometimes?

Yeah, I love it! I still do. I think, probably, I was introduced to it by my father, who really enjoyed that time. And he liked Deep Purple, and all the groups that were coming up at that time, and later on with like, David Bowie. And I loved the idea that music could be themed as well in some way. It could be a project. For me, that was a very theatrical thing to do with music. And I suppose progressive rock music lends itself perfectly to that, because it’s just so emotional. And also, when it started adding orchestras and all of that stuff, I just loved it. So you know, I've always enjoyed it.
You have collaborated with Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, and Anne Murray, just to name a few. Is there anybody that you have not collaborated with that you would absolutely love to?

I’d have to have some time to think about that, because there are lots of people, but I haven't gone into that area for a while. So probably quite a few. I have notes everywhere—I’m just not near them. Quite a few, like, much more contemporary people that I've got notes on that I would love to do stuff with. But I can't say who they are right at this moment, I'm afraid. Sorry!

Fair. I’d like to step away from music for a moment. Another one of your passions is outer space. And a few years ago you actually almost took a trip to the International Space Station. What drove you to nearly do that?

Very bold question. You know, I came out of the era of children thinking that they were going to space one day—it was actually going to be a reality, and quite soon. And, you know, space was back of our cereal packets at that time, in a different way to how it is now. So, I was completely fascinated. Actually, it was one of the reasons. I mean, I thank the whole “first man on the moon” experience, which I watched. Really in a way, it had the ambition to what I do now–in that I was just a young girl from a small market town in England. I worked hard, but I didn't really know that you could achieve such amazing things!

It actually really challenged my thought that when I was looking at the moon, people were actually out there and standing on it. And so, I started to work in a different way, and I started to think in a different way. And I was always fascinated by space. I mean, one of my first hit records that I ever had—when I was 17 or 18 years old, was actually based on that. It was kind of a bit tongue-in-cheek, that record, but it was based on space. And quite a few of my albums have been, so it was just something that—when the opportunity came up and I was medically right for it—not only physically, but mentally right for it, I trained to be a cosmonaut. And I was going to go up, but something came up with which, you know, I had to stop. So that was really how that all happened.

How do you feel about all the new Blue Origin flights that are going on? William Shatner just took one.

I’m thinking it’s fun for people. The fact that for people the fact that they’ve, like me, they feel that they could have a taste of all of this, especially people like Shatner, who was very much involved in a series that was talking about the future, and—albeit in the way that it could have been then. My feeling is that I'm not sure about humans in outer space at the moment, or even touching space. Only because there's a huge amount now, really that can be done with robots. And we need to be using all that information and sending robots up, I feel, because that's going to be more helpful to our planet, rather than spending loads and loads and loads of money trying to send people to Mars, and doing all those things. We've got a lot to get done on our planet and that can be done from space, but done in an easier way, rather than trying to send humans up.

And I think once we've worked all of that out, it's going to be easy to send humans up there. I think that's the time to do it—now isn’t. I think there are other things that we can concentrate on in using space to help our planet. So, it's quite a complex thing, and I learned huge amounts about it when I was actually in space training. And this question actually did come up in my mind in “why exactly was I doing this?” Why weren't humans doing it? Why did a lot of humans need to do it when you only need a few? So I'm watching it all very carefully, but I have mixed feelings about it.

Especially considering, like you said, it's so expensive and the humans only go up into space for about 10 minutes.

Yeah. Well, I think the idea of it is for humans probably to understand that this is something that they can do, and it gives us something very, very wonderful about feeling that we can move outwards. And we can explore, because we've always explored as humans, and a lot of humans just want to go out and, you know, go around the globe and just travel, and experience, and find out. So, it's very much in our nature. But I'm not sure the timing is now we need to get some things right.

And it's also very, very, very hutch up there. It's not, you know, “lovely and floating around,” and it will be one day in the future. We'll work it all out, but it's not right at this moment. So I think that probably everybody having a taste—that they can touch it. It's something in the future that will happen. But, it’s expensive, when expense can be used, I think sometimes in a better way.

Going back to music. In 2018, when it was in production, you were hyping up the “Cats” movie that came out in 2019. Now that it’s been released, what’s your honest to God opinion on it?

Do you know, I never went to see it.

Fair enough…

*laughs* I knew it would have a lot of very clever people working on it, which I stated. I knew that it would be clever, but I wasn't really sure how it would come out. People I do know that went to see it, who know the musical well, they actually said that for all of the things that weren't right, they still said it's a wonderful piece of work. So, I don't know. I sort of don't want to see it in a way.
Speaking as the original Christine Daaé, I’m sure you've probably seen the show from the crowd a couple of times. What would you say was the second best portrayal of Christine—next to you obviously, that you've ever seen?

That's a difficult one. Because everybody's so very individual, and I've never seen anybody that's not been good, ever. They've always been delightful. And it's always been wonderful for me to actually see them bringing forward their—obviously, I set a lot of the things that were there. And they carried that through, but because, you know, we’re all different as human beings and as artists. They bring their own thing to it, which is delightful. So, I just feel very proud that it's all still going, and people are still doing that part, and I was the original. *laughs* It’s a great feeling.

With that last comment said, what do you think it is about “Phantom Of The Opera” that makes it one of the longest running Broadway shows in history?

It’s a combination. I mean, in the musicals, they’re incredibly difficult to put together. I think one of the most important things is that it really involves the story and the words. Because this is a story which most people can relate to somehow, even if it's going to be subliminally, and I think that has a great start. And then, once you've got that amazing start, it's a combination, obviously, of the music, how the lyrics come out for it—whether people identify with all of that, then obviously the performers, set designers you know, all the obvious things which we know about. And this, for whatever the reasons were, all the ingredients were right. It made the right cake. So it's many, many things put together, but as I said, it's a story. A story that a human being will relate to in a mass way.

That's beautiful. My last question for you is one that I like to ask most of the people that I interview that are on the same level as you. What advice do you have to offer to young performers and theater kids?

Um…ooh, so much. That’s a difficult one. You know, at this point, I don't really know. There are, I think, that everybody that goes into the entertainment area, or wants to be a singer, or whatever they do with the arts. It's just to understand that–this isn't to put people off, but it's to understand that to be successful, you almost have to give up everything. It's a huge commitment, a really huge commitment if you have very high dreams of it being perfect. And it's almost more than you can imagine, what happens. You'll have moments of luck, but it's the amount of hard work and focus you need the entire time in your life. So that's all I can say, really about it.

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