by Carole Verona
She stands backstage. There’s a flash of lightening while the organ plays one of the most famous musical themes in the world. Then, utter silence and a pin spot. She walks on stage and hits her mark just as the music stops. She begins to sing, totally a cappella, aware that she must come in exactly on the right pitch. If not, when the orchestra starts to play, there will be total cacophony.
“This entrance —repeated eight times a week — was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done on any stage, anywhere,” says Chestnut Hill’s Leigh Munro, describing her performance as Carlotta Giudicelli, an aging prima donna, in “Phantom of the Opera.” “When the orchestra finally does come in, you say to yourself, ‘Thank you, Lord!’“ (Munro has lived in Chestnut Hill for 12 years, ever since she left Broadway.)
This Saturday, Jan. 26, Munro will join present and former cast members at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Broadway production of “Phantom,” where she has been invited to participate in two songs during the Grand Finale at the Majestic Theater, 247 West 44th St., where “Phantom” has been playing to sold-out houses for 25 years. Her granddaughter Abby, a talented flutist, will accompany her to New York for the occasion. (The current “Phantom,” Hugh Panaro, is an East Oak Lane native who has been the subject of feature articles in the Local.)
Munro, a native of Lansdowne who says her age is “somewhere between 65 and death,” began her career doing summer stock while a student at Lebanon Valley College, a school 20 miles east of Harrisburg that is known for its music program. She later studied with voice teachers and coaches all over the world. Early on she had the opportunity to meet and perform with actor/singer/movie star Howard Keel, who later sent her to Richard Fredricks, his voice teacher in New York. At the time, Fredricks was performing at the New York City Opera with Beverly Sills.
Sarah Caldwell of the Boston Opera was conducting, and when she told him that she was looking for a soprano for “Rigoletto” with her company, Fredricks recommended Munro. She got the job, her first in opera. Caldwell kept rehiring her, and her career took off. Munro performed for over 27 years in every major opera house in the U.S and Canada, including 10 years as a leading soprano with the New York City Opera under Beverly Sills’ management.
Through Beverly Sills, Munro met Hal Prince, legendary theatrical producer and director, who asked her to audition for the role of Carlotta in “Phantom of the Opera.” With her operatic training and background — and the fact that she could sing the high E required for Carlotta’s aria — Munro was perfect for the part. But first, she would have to go to New York to audition for Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was flying in from London on the Concorde just to hear her sing.
“My boyfriend at the time had this old beat-up Volkswagen. He prided himself on keeping that car running. We were starting over the bridge into Manhattan during a downpour. He hit a puddle, and the car stopped. Nothing. He walked to a nearby gas station, and they came and towed the car. I was hysterical; my manager was hysterical! He said, ‘Andrew is flying back on the Concorde tonight. You cannot keep him waiting.’ So we ended up paying the mechanic to drive us into New York. Then — believe it or not — the mechanic’s car broke down! I said, ‘Surely, this is a sign. I’m not supposed to do this role.’ The mechanic called a friend, who picked us up and rushed us to the Majestic Theater.
“While wending my way through the backstage area, water from a leaking pipe dripped right down the front of my dress. I ran out on the stage. There is Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber … and here I am with my hair hanging down and a huge wet spot on my dress. I don’t even remember singing; I just remember a fury, which of course was wonderful for the role. I screamed out that high E; they called me, and I got the role.”
Munro went to Los Angeles in 1989 to perform “Phantom” for a record-breaking four-year year run with Michael Crawford, Robert Guillaume and Davis Gaines. She then performed with companies in Toronto (twice), Singapore, Hong Kong, and Basel, Switzerland. She also appeared on Canadian TV as Gilda in “Rigoletto” and was featured in a broadcast of “Elixir of Love.” Among countless other roles, she was Johanna in “Sweeney Todd,” Cunegonde in “Candide,” both directed by Hal Prince; Hanna in “The Merry Widow,” Magda in “La Rondine,” Rosalinda in “Die Fledermaus” and Kathy in “The Student Prince.”
She recalls Michael Crawford as a unique performer and person. “He’s immensely gifted, but he has a quirky sense of humor. One night, I jumped out of the shower and was drying my ear with a Q-Tip when the phone rang. I hammered the Q-Tip into my ear and perforated my eardrum. When I got home from the emergency room, there was a knock at my door, and it was Michael, standing there with a huge trash bag filled with Q-Tips. ‘Thought you might run out of these, lovey,’” he joked.
“Professionally, I was fortunate when it came to working with Michael. Because of my opera background, my work ethic was pretty well entrenched. I didn’t mess around. He was a perfectionist. If someone were making noise in the wings, he would let them know about it. And you could not speak to him when he was on his way to the stage for his first entrance. He needed to get into character. We knew not to disturb him.”
After “Phantom” closed in Switzerland, Munro stayed there for two years and opened a voice studio. In 1998 she got a call from her manager, asking if she would return to New York for the Broadway gig. She did and became part of theatrical history, performing the role of Carlotta in the longest running show on Broadway.
“As I get older, I can look back and certainly empathize with my character’s (Carlotta Guidicelli) predicament,” Munro says. “I often wondered what I would have done if Beverly Sills called to tell me she was replacing me because I was too old for the part. I do think bringing that kind of insecurity to the role made me the most authentic Carlotta of all!”
Kim Stengel, a renowned opera singer who has performed the role of Carlotta Giudicelli in “Phantom” more than anyone else — over 5,000 times — said this about Munro: “I could never say enough great things about her. She is one of the loveliest, kind, funny, generous, talented women I have ever had the privilege to work with. She is a great lady who sets a wonderful standard of grace and professionalism in the industry.”
Munro has a daughter, Amy Craig Martiner, a Mt. Airy resident, and a son, David Craig, who lives with his wife, Christine, in Broomall. She has two granddaughters, Abby Martiner, 13, and Grace Martiner, 11.
Leigh Munro currently teaches voice in her Chestnut Hill studio. More information at email@example.com