Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber paid for actor Hugh Panaro’s house.
Not literally, because that would be super cool.
But after 2,000 appearances in Webber’s long-running Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera,” Panaro was able to buy a house in his native Philadelphia not far from his mother.
Then there’s composer Stephen Sondheim.
“My mom and dad took me to see ‘Sweeney Todd’ when I was 14 or 15 because they said seeing Angela Lansbury was literally part of my education,” said the 55-year-old Panaro, who played Anthony in “Sweeney Todd” with composer Sondheim directing at Kennedy Center in 2002 — the first of three productions of the piece including an off-Broadway show that wrapped up in early 2018. “It was just magical.”
When Panaro was offered a chance to take the greatest hits of Webber and Sondheim on the road with a pair of Broadway leading ladies — Debbie Gravitte (“Les Misérables,” “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” “Perfectly Frank”) and Anne Runolfsson (“Phantom,” “Les Mis,” “Victor, Victoria”) — he jumped at the chance.
“I love this concert, and because I’m the only boy, I get to sing all the good stuff,” Panaro said last week during a phone call to talk about “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber & Stephen Sondheim” coming to the Tucson Symphony Orchestra this weekend. “This has probably gotten the best reception of all of the different (concerts) I’ve done over the last 10-plus years. And I think it’s because it’s kind of interesting and probably a little weird. When you think of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Webber, they are very different and yet it seems to work.”
The concert, part of the TSO’s SuperPops series and featuring guest conductor Andy Einhorn, is divided in two “acts” drawn from the composers’ award-winning musicals: “Gypsy,” “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Evita,” “Phantom” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Panaro said Act I features thought-provoking, gorgeous stuff; Act II is more rewarding, like eating a maple-glazed donut studded with bacon after you finished your broccoli. It’s the big hits that have stood outside their place in the musicals and have made their way into the Great American Songbook.
“I love this show,” said Panaro, who has been performing in musical theater since he was a kid, starting out with Philadelphia’s dinner theater circuit.
Panaro’s mom was an opera singer before she had kids and was his first teacher and biggest fan. He started out playing the organ in church and would accompany his mom when the duo would get hired to do weddings and funerals.
“In the beginning she was the singer and I was the accompanist. When I started singing, we would do duets and harmony and stuff,” he recalled.
His mom also chauffeured him when he landed his first dinner theater role in “Sound of Music.” When a fellow cast member didn’t show up for a performance, the director slipped Panaro’s mom in as a temp; she was so good that he hired her to replace the cast member, so mother and son were in the show together.
His mom, who is now 89, will be in his thoughts when he takes the Tucson Music Hall stage this weekend. He likely will mention her as he tells a little bit about his connection to the songs he’s singing.
“When I perform I like to make it as personal and real as possible. I really feel like it’s about communicating as truthfully with an audience as you can,” said Panaro, who has appeared in more than 20 Broadway musicals including “Chicago,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Les Misérables,” “Show Boat,” “Company” and “Sunday In The Park With George.”
“What we get to do is so amazing and I try never to take it for granted,” he said. “To get to do something that you love? Come on, it’s almost as good as maple-glazed donuts.”