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Lisa Vroman, the beloved Christine in S.F.'s 'Phantom,' is back in town in 'Sweeney Todd'
Cynthia Robins, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
So, Lisa, whatcha been doing since "The Phantom of the Opera" closed?
For five years, Lisa Vroman, the popular lyric soprano who sang Christine Daae, the heroine of "Phantom," lived in San Francisco. She thought she would never leave. In fact, when "Phantom" closed she stayed an extra year, worked on a CD and sang local gigs with symphony orchestras.
But a friend offered her an opportunity to buy his home in Pasadena, sans Realtor, and she jumped on it. She bought a dog -- a shepherd mix named Romeo - - and promptly got booked for eight months in New York City on Broadway as . . . you guessed it: Christine Daae in "Phantom."
Now Vroman is back in San Francisco, briefly in rehearsal for a concert version of "Sweeney Todd" that opens Thursday for a three-night run at Davies Symphony Hall. It stars George Hearn in the title role, Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett and Vroman's first Phantom, Davis Gaines, as the love interest to Vroman's Johanna.
"Johanna does not end up in the meat grinder," laughs Vroman over the phone,
early on the morning of her first rehearsal. "She's one of the few people who lives in this show -- everybody else dies. Davis and I get to go off into the sunset and live happily ever after."
Vroman's latest "Phantom" run ended 10 days ago on a Saturday. By Sunday, she and the pooch were headed to upstate New York to visit family for a scant three days. Her brother is baby-sitting Romeo, and Vroman is back "home" in California -- albeit briefly, having flown in from Syracuse, N.Y., after a pesky delay at O'Hare in Chicago, her arrival timed so she could go into rehearsal for "Sweeney Todd."
Sounds like a rough schedule, but not as intense as six performances a week in a musical. As much as a role as taxing as Christine strengthened Vroman's agile, bell-like voice, she always planned to broaden her scope to a more classically oriented career. And to that end, she has been singing with symphony orchestras around the country. When "Sweeney Todd" was offered to her a year ago, she jumped at it. "What do you think? I'd give my eyeteeth to do it," was her reaction.
The first musical young Lisa Vroman, daughter of music educators and native of Adams, N.Y., ever saw as a teenager was "A Chorus Line." The second: "Sweeney Todd." "The first time I saw it I thought: This is what Broadway is. This is what I want to aspire to. Stephen Sondheim became everybody's idol then, and the god of our theater. . . . The first thing I did when I got to New York all those years ago was get the music to 'Sweeney Todd.' I know every bit of it. I could sing along with the entire show."
It was not Vroman's intention to sing on Broadway. She wanted to be a music educator like her folks. She still does. "I would love to teach privately and teach in the theater department -- music to actors. Not only to help them aerobically and musically, but how to use the voice they have."
Which is exactly what happened to Vroman when she left State University of New York at Potsdam's Crane School of Music for graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Her classmate, still a friend, was opera diva Renee Fleming. The two couldn't have gone in more different directions -- Fleming to grand opera, Vroman to the Broadway stage.
"I never thought I was going to be an opera star," says Vroman, a petite redhead who tips the scales at a trim 109, a weight not difficult to maintain during an exhaustingly physical show like "Phantom." ("We used to call it the 'Phantom' aerobics," she says).
Her category, if there is such a thing, is crossover, much like one of her templates, Marni Nixon, who voiced Audrey Hepburn's songs in "My Fair Lady." Finding out who she was vocally and what her goals were after Carnegie Mellon was a process that landed her in musical comedy. Her voice fit the contemporary mode of the time, i.e. the Cosettes and Fantines of "Les Miz" (she was cast at times in both roles for road companies), Guinevere in "Camelot" (which she performed with her future "Phantom" co-star Gaines) and then Christine. In these difficult roles, and in the stage in general, she found her metier.
"Theater, and 'Phantom' in particular," she says, "allowed me a certain amount of freedom. It combined all the elements of what I trained for in one show. It allowed for a classically trained singer to test the bounds. It was an emotional piece, and I loved the level of acting in it. I also loved living in San Francisco. It was a dream job."
Years ago, Vroman commented that "Phantom" changed her voice. "My voice thickened and got a lot bigger," she says. "It's matured to where there are a lot of operatic roles I could do. But, for me now, it's where the work takes you."
And the work will bring her back to San Francisco in September to sing three performances with Michael Tilson Thomas during the Symphony's opening week after gala star Audra McDonald leaves. But between "Sweeney Todd" and then, Vroman will go back to New York, pick up the dog, buy a used SUV and drive cross-country with a friend. Is this the life of a diva?
When she left San Francisco, she opted for a life that would give her some stability. "I bought a home and I'm doing concert work," she says. "It focuses me more musically. And after doing theater -- six performances a week -- for a total of six years in a row, you have to take a break emotionally from that kind of show."
That's not to say that Vroman has become a slacker about her talent. While she was in "Phantom," she was coached and she studied with a teacher, "preparing myself for after -- for what I would be left with when it was all over. I had to look at what was beyond. If you concentrate on 'this is it,' your voice will not serve you."
SWEENEY TODD: The San Francisco Symphony's concert version of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical thriller plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets: $15-$75. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.
The San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum presents stars Patti LuPone and George Hearn and director Lonny Price in conversation about "Sweeney Todd" at 2 p.m. Saturday, 401 Van Ness Ave. Tickets: $20. Call (415) 255-4800.
E-mail Cynthia Robins at email@example.com.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page E - 1