by Anna Altheide
Before Ben Crawford became the nightly music maker in The Phantom of the Opera, he made his Broadway debut in the 2006 revivalof Les Misérables at the Broadhurst Theatre as both an ensemble member and understudy for Javert and Jean Valjean. Crawford sits down with The Ensemblist to tell us a little more about company life and his early roots.
“I had just gotten my Equity card the summer before I started in 2006. I got the audition for Javert for the revival and it went really, really well. I mean, really well. It was one of those things where the practical side of you is like, ‘I get to play Javert.’ But I found out I didn’t get it. But like two weeks later, they had an audition come up for the cover of Javert, and I thought, this is something I can do.”
Crawford flew through the “crazy whirlwind” casting process – which he described as a “Tuesday and then a Wednesday and then a Friday audition”—with flying colors. That Friday evening, he got the congratulatory call from his agent while standing in his kitchen.
“I remember I’m making mac n’ cheese with the hot dogs cut up in it, and my agent calls. He’s like, ‘Ben, I need you to do me a favor, can you go to the Broadhurst and get your measurements done?’ I had to quit my two survival jobs; call them up: ‘I quit!’, and I then started rehearsal the next day. It was nuts to have like eight hours of rehearsal, four hours of music, four hours of blocking, and then go see the show that night.”
He made his debut the following week, an experience he describes as a bit of a blur. “I don’t really remember my first show, but I remember I got on the turntable a little late for one of my entrances and slipped back and stepped on someone. They were like, ‘I broke my hand!’ I was like, ‘Oh my god,’ And they were like, ‘Nah, just joking.’ People were already ready to poke and prod me, which was great. It meant I was part of the family, and that was awesome.”
Working with the late, great Gary Beach (most renowned for his beloved performance as Roger De Bris in The Producers) also left a lasting impression on the younger Crawford. In keeping with the family-like energy: “There’s something I remember about Gary. He took a medical leave [for six weeks], but he came in one day. We’d have some people come in and out of the show, and he grabbed a Playbill so he could know the new peoples’ names. He was that kind of guy.”
During his time in Les Mis, Crawford was fully prepared — like every tried and true understudy — to step into the shoes of Javert or Jean Valjean at any given time. “It was a lot of stress for young Ben, just the constant, 'oh, what part am I going to do?'" Though Crawford landed the understudy of Javert at his audition, he accepted the role of Valjean further into his run. "I went from playing a student to a member of Thénardier'sgang. And because of that, they were like, ‘Do you want to cover Valjean? Just do it all?’ So I grew a beard and had to go through Jean Vajean’s track. I never went on for it, but that became just a very interesting thing to be ready for at any moment’s notice, and discovering that if I needed to go on last minute, I can get through it with pure adrenaline.”
For the new or aspiring ensemblist (or ensemblist at heart), Crawford offers a few pearls of wisdom to succeed artistically, physically, and as a team player:
1. CYA: Cover Your Ass: “There was one thing I remember in school from one of my professors. He and I never got along, he was a real hardass, but he always had great advice. One thing he always taught was CYA – cover your ass, which is a great thing for understudies. Don’t assume they’re going to teach you that. It saved my butt many times with my job understudying and covering people.”
2. Check In With Your Body: “The beginning of that show was so grueling on a physical level. That got me into stretching and being more aware of my instrument, for lack of a better term. Now I’m a stretchaholic, I stretch all the time before Phantom, I got my foam roller. [If] this is tight, I go get a message. Just go do it, go baby yourself. Something hurts, don’t tough guy through it. Go get it figured out.”
3. Stay Humble: “The people were really wonderful. I think that’s something I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to work with people who are just real, and treat people like people. I think when you are in that environment and see how good it makes you feel, you want to spread the love. It was really fantastic to work with those guys (Norm Lewis, Alex Gemighani, and Gary Beach) and see them give that energy to everyone.”
For more tidbits and takeaways from our conversation with Ben Crawford, stream the very first edition of our popular reoccurring series, #138 My First Time (feat. Ben Crawford).