BARITONE Ben Lewis is on a fast-track to stardom with the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, writes Simon Plant.

BEN Lewis is on a roller-coaster, and hanging on for dear life. Forget your Scenic Railways and ghost trains: Love Never Dies, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s much-anticipated sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, is a joy ride like no other, a multi-million-dollar theatrical escapade, the cast and crew swooping this way and that, dodging danger at every turn as they hurtle towards opening night at the Regent Theatre.

Lewis is sitting up front as The Phantom but if this 31-year-old singer from Sydney is struck dumb with fear and regretting he never fulfilled a childhood dream to play rugby union for Australia, he’s giving nothing away today.

In a bare-boards Sydney studio, he has covered the right side of his face with a white mask — the emblem that defines the Phantom — and commands the floor in a flowing white coat. Lewis looks the part, all right — furrowed brow, piercing eyes, jutting jaw etched with stubble — as he surges through an emotion-charged number titled Beneath A Moonless Sky.

"There’s a fantastic, dark quality to Ben’s voice," director Simon Phillips tells me. Indeed there is: Lewis’s supple baritone seems to almost caress Lloyd Webber’s words ("Ah, Christine, you came and found where I hid") and when he scales the song’s thundering crescendo, Phillips and the whole ensemble looking on are left in no doubt: this man was born to sing the music of the "knight".

"In some ways," Phillips says, "the high notes sound more thrilling coming out of the big, rich sound Ben delivers."

Not one to big-note himself, Lewis will only say: “The music in this is very lush, very rich, and as soon as I sang these songs, they sat really well with me.”

Years in the making, Love Never Dies advances the original Phantom story to 1907. The masked man who once haunted the Paris Opera House has found a new lair among the amusement rides and freak shows of New York’s Coney Island; to win back the love of his life, soprano Christine Daae (played by Anna O’Byrne), he sets a trap that will lure her to Manhattan with husband Raoul and their son, Gustave.

Reviews were mixed after the 2010 London premiere of Love Never Dies. Webber himself had reservations. So when Melbourne was chosen to host a second production in 2011, it was agreed that an all-Australian team would “re-imagine” it for audiences here. Enter Phillips (fresh from directing Priscilla Queen of the Desert — The Musical on Broadway), designer Gabriella Tylesova and choreographer Graeme Murphy.

Lewis recalls: “The show had not been on my radar, really. I’d heard of it, of course, and sung Webber’s songs, but I’d never done a full show of his before.”

Urged on by wife Melle (also an actor), he attended Love Never Dies auditions and found himself in the running for both the Phantom and Raoul. “Vocally, I was feeling fit and healthy, and as it went on, I began to think I could be in the ballpark,” he says.

Phillips, who knew Lewis from two previous shows he had directed (Urinetown and Priscilla), was not just looking for a full-throttle voice. “The leads in this need to have some kind of iconic quality,” he explains. “The ultimate diva. The mysterious masked man. And yet, they need to give you all the fire and passion and chemistry when you want it. Ben and Anna both had that. They’re incredible.”

Lewis follows in the footsteps of Anthony Warlow and Rob Guest, heroic artists who put their distinctive stamp on Australian productions of Phantom and became household names because of it. Are their long shadows intimidating?

"Not really," Lewis says. "I tend to have a gut reaction to things and when this one came along, I went, ‘Bugger it, I’m really good for this’. If you don’t back yourself, you’re not going to make it in this business."

Lewis knows this better than most. His father is Michael Lewis, the distinguished opera singer. His mother, Patricia Price, was a singer and now teaches singing. And his brother Alexander, a tenor, is another rising star — playing Raoul opposite Warlow’s Phantom two years ago and now a student at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

"Al was a chorister as a kid and loved music," Lewis says, "so that was always a progression for him, but growing up I just wanted to play footy and cricket. I would genuinely give up everything if I could play rugby union for Australia. That’s never going to happen, so I can say it."

Lewis discovered theatre at university and admits he spent more time “smoking cigarettes and hanging out at the drama society” than attending lectures in English and modern history. But crafting a showbiz career did not come easily. Halfway through his second year at the prestigious Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), he was “ready to quit. I was depressed. I didn’t get what the whole thing was about. I just couldn’t be there”.

The tide turned when he was cast in a musical directed by Tony Sheldon, who became a kind of mentor: “If I ever find myself in a situation that’s difficult, I ask myself, ‘What would Tony do?’ “

Graduating in 2004, he landed roles with Malthouse, Sydney Theatre Company and The Production Company. He also nabbed the part of Sir Galahad in Monty Python’s Spamalot (“The best fun I’ve ever had on stage”) but his leading man status was confirmed only last year when he played Count Carl-Magnus in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (opposite Anthony Warlow).

"Anthony is a hero," Lewis says. "He’s up on a pedestal for me, as is he for many younger guys starting in music theatre."

But asked to nominate favourite singers, he dodges opera in favour of Harry Connick Jr and jazz stylist Kurt Elling.

"Kurt is the best singer I’ve ever heard. He’s the king."

This month, at the opening of the new Myer emporium, Lewis got to exercise his inner crooner performing a swinging version of Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E. The next morning he was back in the rehearsal room, “sweating with Anna, crying with Anna”, and coming to grips with the melodrama that powers Love Never Dies.

"Scary as they’ve been, I’ve enjoyed the last few run-throughs," he says. "I’m feeling the ebb and flow of the whole piece and what strikes me more than anything is that this is a really emotional show. The stakes in the love story are very high."

Seeking to understand the Phantom’s inner torment, Lewis has looked to Michael Jackson: “Here’s another guy who never had a childhood, who created a Coney Island of his own and invited kids to come in and share that.”

But as Love Never Dies enters the home straight (the company transfers to Melbourne on Monday), Lewis is looking closer to home — to his own struggles for acceptance — and identifying with the very flawed, very human Phantom.

"When you’re in control of your world, it’s lovely," he says, "but if you’re not, you’re kind of like a pinball machine. Bouncing everywhere."


Love Never Dies opens at the Regent The

atre on May 28.

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