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22 February 2008

Department of Drama
Sponsors Kaleidoscope Event:
Alumna Mary Leigh Stahl Reminiscing about 18-year Role in Broadway's Longest Running Musical

Mary Leigh Stahl

The JSU Drama Department is presenting a lecture billed as a Kaleidoscope event featuring JSU alumna Mary Leigh Stahl.  Ms. Stahl recounts her distinguished Broadway career in her presentation "Reminiscences of Eighteen Years Performing Broadway's Phantom of the Opera."  The lecture will be held on Monday, February 25 on Main stage of the Ernest Stone Performing Arts Center.  The lecture is free and begins at 7:00 p.m.

Stahl made her Broadway debut with Phantom. Prior to being an actress, she was a schoolteacher in the South. Her passion for theatre began at a Georgia community theatre, Springer Theatre Company, where colleagues associated with a summer theatre in Pennsylvania encouraged her to audition up north. She landed a job at Lakewood Musical Playhouse, in the Pocono's, and never looked back.

"I don't think I'd still be in New York if I hadn't gotten 'Phantom,' " Stahl said. "This isn't an easy business, especially for women. I feel like I hit the lottery."

Stahl was one of only two original Broadway cast members of the Harold Prince production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber smash at the Majestic Theatre.  The musical opened on Broadway in 1988 and became Broadway's longest running musical.

Reviews of Phantom were generally positive, and the production eventually won seven Tony Awards, including "Best Musical."  But there are hits and there are Hits. With worldwide box-office receipts of more than $3.2 billion, "Phantom" is now the highest-grossing entertainment venture in history – dwarfing the $1.8 billion earned by "Titanic." According to the show's public relations office, more than 80 million people around the world have seen "Phantom," either in one of the six permanent productions scattered from Budapest to Tokyo or in the U.S. road version, which has for years been crisscrossing the country. Another version is set to open at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

Phantom set the record  as the longest-running production in Broadway history; upon setting the record, the musical had been performed 7,486 times--one more than the number reached for "Cats" upon its closing.

Here's the staggering part: When "Cats" closed, there wasn't a single actor who'd been in the production from the start. Prior to Stahl's retirement, "Phantom" had three: Andrews, Richard Warren Pugh and Mary Leigh Stahl. Excluding vacation and sick leave, this trio has been rehashing the same story about the same half-masked freak in the same hokey extravaganza, eight times a week, for 18 straight years.

For Stahl and the other 18-year veterans of the show, "Phantom" has provided a lifestyle that is all but unheard of in the theater world. No audition anxiety, no hop scotching to different productions, no strutting in a Cleveland road show.  Unlike the show's other long-runners of the last few years, she was the only performer to have the same "track"--the role of Wardrobe Mistress--the entire run.

Backstage at the Majestic, the dressing room area feels surprisingly like a cabin on a submarine. Everything is packed in close, every inch of space is utilized and before a show, everyone is scurrying to do a job they seem to know by heart. You hear the tra-la-las of performers warming up. A voice on a loudspeaker booms a countdown to curtain time and occasionally the name of an actor.

"We counted, and it's over 700 steps per night," says Mary Leigh Stahl, who has the distinction of playing the same parts every night for the entire 18-year run. "That includes three trips to the dressing room, which is on the fifth floor."

Mary Leigh Stahl retired at the age of 60 on August 19, 2006.  At the time of her retirement, Stahl, was one of only two original Broadway cast members of the Harold Prince production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber smash at the Majestic Theatre.

"I'm ready," Stahl told "I will miss the idea of doing it. I won't miss doing it eight times a week, I won't miss climbing up to the fifth floor dressing room. And the people — I will certainly miss my cast mates."

Stahl, who went to high school in Alabama (she was born in Wisconsin), retired in Weaver, AL, to a house and land she bought a couple years back with earnings she had saved from her Phantom career.

"I do have enough acreage that I can do some gardening if I choose to," she said. "I'm really big into trees and flowers."

Stahl's exit will leave George Lee Andrews (currently playing Andre) as the final remaining performer from the original cast, though there are still some original backstage people still with it. Bethe Ward, one of the Equity stage managers, has also been with the show since 1988.

In honor of Stahl's contribution to Phantom, a private party for the cast and crew was held Aug. 19, 2006, at the Majestic. Tregoney Shepherd — from the Phantom tour, who made her Broadway debut 10 years ago in Les Misérables as Madame Thenardier — will take over Stahl's track.

Sources: - "Phenom of 'The Opera' on Broadway, the Lloyd Webber Musical with 10 Lives."  By David Segal, Washington Post Staff Writer, Monday, January 2, 2006. - San Diego Union-Tribune - Jan 8, 2006  "Photo Flash: The Phantom of the Opera Nears Record Performance."

Playbill: "Longtime Broadway Phantom Actress Hangs Up Her Costume for Last Time Aug. 19.

See article in Playbill from which passages were cited.

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