When Laird Mackintosh received the call to step in for The Phantom of the Opera's final Broadway performance on Sunday, April 16 (as well as the final “public performance” open for fans the night before, and the special charity performance the night prior to that), fans and fellow Phantom cast members past and present instantly rallied for Mackintosh’s unexpected magic moment. And Mackintosh himself couldn't believe it when his phone rang the night of April 13.
“Thinking about the road to Sunday night, there were about a hundred things that had to happen in a one-in-a-million serendipitous way for it to end up being me going on. I’m really speechless,” he tells Playbill the day after Phantom's final performance.
Mackintosh has played the Phantom off and on since 1993, donning the mask over 200 times. But even though he's done it so often, he notes that the role's heavy vocal lift and emotional intensity shouldn't be underestimated. The events leading up to his unexpected turn in the musical’s finale last weekend serve as a sobering reminder of this—principal Ben Crawford had been sidelined due to doctor’s orders for vocal rest.
“As much as I know he so wanted to be there and deserved to be there after all these years, he had to be off, and this is one of the realities of performing eight shows a week on Broadway,” Mackintosh shares. “One of the things that those who play the Phantom always talk about is how incredibly intense and demanding it is, physically and vocally. It’s a part that requires you to be operating at a kind of emotional and vocal 110 percent from the very first scene, and it never lets up."
When Mackintosh received the call offering the opportunity to return to Phantom for its final weekend, he had already processed and made peace with the end of his Phantom Broadway chapter—he wasn't even in New York City. But there was a plot twist in store. “I was Upstate, an hour and a half above the city. My wife and I have a place up there." Mackintosh’s wife, Polly Baird, is also a longtime member of the Phantom family, making her Broadway debut in the production as Meg Giry in 2003, before eventually serving as dance captain through the very end. “I got a call that was sort of like, ‘Can you be at the show tonight?’ And I literally threw my stuff into a bag and flew into town.” He observed the Thursday night show—which starred understudy Jeremy Stolle—to prepare for his return as the Phantom on Friday, April 14.
Mackintosh’s roots in the role of the Phantom date all the way back to 1993, when he understudied the titular role while serving as the principal Raoul in the show's Toronto production. Two decades later, he joined the Broadway cast as opera owner Monsieur André while, once again, covering for the Phantom (and serving as the “interim” principal twice: in 2014 and 2017-2018). And though he eventually departed from the production in 2019 to play Henry Higgins on the national tour of My Fair Lady, he returned several times in the past year to don the mask.
“When I covered it in Toronto, I was 26, and I think I might have been the youngest Phantom at the time to have done it. Looking back on it, I was certainly too young for it then. I feel very much in the pocket for it right now,” he says. “I have always thought that the story lends itself to the idea of the Phantom having lived with this debilitating condition for a long time, so I think it serves the story very well if you’re older. In fact, David Caddick [the production’s original music director and conductor] reiterated to me that the Phantom’s first line in the show is 'insolent boy, this slave of fashion' about Raoul. The contrast is that there’s this great sense of offense and rage that this young boy is moving in on the object of his…everything,” Mackintosh explains, emphasizing the “everything,” considering that “affections” is quite the understatement for the character’s desperate yearning for Christine.
Through Mackintosh’s interview with Playbill, he references several other quotes and words of wisdom from members of the original Phantom creative team, whether from Caddick, or the late director Hal Prince or choreographer Gillian Lynne. His clear appreciation for the production, as well as his evidently profound understanding of the Phantom’s character, has, over the years, earned Mackintosh a cult following of “phans” (superfans of Phantom of the Opera).
On the sporadic occasions that he stepped into the role of the Phantom, Mackintosh stressed the importance of expressing the intensity of the character. “With the Phantom, you must give the extremes. You have to see both sides of the person in order for it to be a compelling characterization. That’s the thing that people latch onto, is that the affliction is profound for this character. The audience feels this incredible pull, but they also are thinking, ‘Wait, I shouldn’t be pulling for this person who’s capable of doing terrible things.’”
On the other side of the spectrum, in Mackintosh’s regular performances as André, he's served as a breath of fresh air for the audiences between those moments of tension—since the opera house owners provide the rare moment of comic relief in the melodrama. “Sometimes if I did them both in the same day, the shift would be quite extreme,” he says lightheartedly. “But that was another honor of being in the show all those years when I played André, because I got to do this fun featured role and sing ‘Prima Donna’ and have a wonderful time out there. And then every once in a while, I’d go on for the Phantom and I was the guy, so I got the glory, too. I was pinching myself the entire time.”
Prior to that Thursday phone call, the last time Mackintosh had performed in Phantom was almost two months ago, covering the role of the Phantom. “I had said goodbye and thought that was my last time onstage at the Majestic. I had begun my own process of letting it go. I had no inkling whatsoever that I would be coming back.” Meanwhile, beginning in early April, several understudies and swings cycled through the notorious mask.
Though closing out Broadway’s longest-running show is an honor that likely won’t be bestowed upon another person for many more years, Mackintosh shared that the biggest privilege of the night was being reunited onstage with the Phantom company. “The company as a whole, the entire company, the crew, the backstage team, our artistic team, the stage managers, my fellow Phantoms, and most of all, my wife Polly, who was an absolute rock for me the last couple of days,” he said warmly, explaining that she was by his side backstage through the entire night making sure he was “taking an Advil at the right time and drinking enough liquids.”
After the cast took their final bows on Sunday, they remained onstage for nearly 30 minutes to hug and congratulate one another. According to Mackintosh, the love was palpable. “Everyone was so, so supportive, and that’s been the hallmark of the company for me the entire time I was there. It’s a beautiful loving family.”
The love outside the theatre rang clear through the night as well, as Mackintosh’s sudden stand-in performance was fully embraced by phans. Many had followed his career in Phantom for almost a decade. Mackintosh became infamous amongst phans in the mid-to-late 2010s for his backstage photos, where he often highlighted props and costumes audiences typically only get a passing glimpse at. Remarks Mackintosh, with a chuckle, “I was going around taking pictures of people in their costumes because I was so thrilled to be there too!”
With Maria Björnson’s intricate and detailed design, Mackintosh provided the costumes and props the close-up they deserved, alongside the Phantom’s dresser Andrew Nelson, who also loved capturing those images. Mackintosh’s favorite backstage photo was taken with equipment that the very characters in Phantom of the Opera likely would have used in the 1880s: “I’m a big photography aficionado, and there’s a very old Victorian type of photography called stereograph photos. It's a three-dimensional photo, and I have an old stereocamera that actually takes the pictures on film, and if you look at them through these old Victorian viewfinders, it puts the picture together and suddenly you see one image in striking 3D.”
A post on Mackintosh’s Instagram from 2018 is a stereophoto of himself in costume as the Phantom. “It looks like two identical photos side by side, but if you look and very slowly cross your eyes, you see the two photos come together, so try it out!”
The photo, like many Mackintosh posted over the years, was enthusiastically shared by phans across social platforms. As he remarks, with wonder, “I’d never been in a show like that, where the fans are so curious about the show. They wanted to see those things.”
Despite all the hints of Phantom’s inevitable return someday, Mackintosh still admits that this is the end of an era, because Phantom was the last of the '80s megamusical that was still running in its original incarnation. "Phantom may come back—I hope it does, and I’m sure it will—but one can't help but feel there is a great loss in the opportunity for audiences to walk into the Majestic Theatre and feel like they are taking part in musical theatre history,” he says.
In the weeks to come, many will express the reasons why and how Phantom’s legacy will impact musical theatre history. For Mackintosh, the greatest impact is on those who loved the show so much that it became a part of their lives, whether they were dedicated phans or an orchestra member who had been there since day one. “Its legacy will be in the fans and the people whose lives it has touched. A show like this has an enormous legacy in the family it has created, as Hal Prince said,” he says. “I know we’re all feeling the same way. Polly, who has been in the production for 19 years, feels that way. And I can see that you feel that way, too,” he says, referring to the writer of this article, who first spoke to him as a phan at the stagedoor years ago.
As for what the final man-in-the-mask hopes to do next, Mackintosh is happy taking it one step at a time. “I don’t know what I’m doing next. But obviously, I’m riding on a cloud from Sunday night. I’m feeling incredibly inspired,” he says. He shares that he and his wife just saw the new Kander and Ebb musical New York, New York last week, and are seeing several more shows this week. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to do that. I feel like I came from so far away from Broadway growing up in Western Canada,” says Mackintosh. “To be a tiny part of the theatre community is such an honor, and my wife and I both feel like we just want to be able to continue to be a part of it. We feel so lucky and fortunate that we are a part of it.”