The Phantom has held his grip on Ali Ewoldt for years.
In 1992, a 10-year-old Ewoldt stepped on the stage for the very first time, at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, New York, to perform the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit version of the beloved “Phantom of the Opera” story. That very same year, she went to watch Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning blockbuster rendition on Broadway with her family.
“We were sitting in the box seat at house left,” Ewoldt recalled. “I loved the story, and I remember falling in love with the character Christine and thinking, ‘Wait, I’m a soprano! I would love to sing that someday.’ It was a dream of mine.”
Well, some dreams really do come true: 24 years later, Ewoldt – whose mother is Filipino and whose father is Caucasian – is the first Asian American actress to take on the star turn as Christine Daaé, the young singer with whom the Phantom falls in love, in Broadway’s longest-running show.
For Ewoldt, who made her debut on New York’s Great White Way in 2006 as Cosette in “Les Misérables,” being able to play this part is an experience she called “surreal,” especially one particular point: in those first minutes of every show, when she looks out into the audience while singing “Think Of Me,” a number perhaps just as iconic as the character. “Both as Christine and as Ali, I have great moments of working up my courage to sing this big song, and enjoying the moment of getting to share it with everybody,” Ewoldt said. “It’s very much art imitating life imitating art.”
“Phantom of the Opera,” which has grossed an estimated $6 billion worldwide since its 1986 premiere, is regarded as the most successful musical of all time. And Ewoldt has long coveted the Christine role, auditioning year in and year out for the gig. Finally, earlier this year, after singing at a callback for Hal Prince, the legendary theatrical producer with a record 21 Tony Awards to his name, at the Majestic Theatre, Ewoldt received the fateful call from her agent.
Now, it’s up to the actress to live up to the responsibility of being labeled as “the first Asian American Christine after 28 years.”
“In the last five to 10 years, we’ve finally been able to talk about the fact that Asian Americans are underrepresented on Broadway and on TV and film. It’s really exciting to be on the forefront of [changing] all of that,” Ewoldt said.
In 2012, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that, of the 6,639 total roles cast in five theater seasons, only 54 parts on Broadway had gone to Asian Americans. But when those parts are filled by similar faces, it can have profound effects.
Ewoldt watched Lea Salonga, the Filipina actress famous for being the singing voice of both Disney’s Princess Jasmine and Mulan, playing Eponine in “Les Misérables” as a kid. “That blew my mind and really inspired me. There I was, seeing somebody playing a non-Asian role on Broadway and being amazing at it. It’s important to have people like that to look up to,” Ewoldt said.
Ali Ewoldt and Jordan Donica, who plays Raoul in “Phantom of the Opera” (Courtesy photo)
“I have to do [Christine] to the best of my ability and really show that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. It’s not about race at all. We can tell the story just as well as anybody else can,” said Ewoldt.
Shows like the explosive “Hamilton,” which drew attention for its diverse cast, are helping to shift the stage toward more inclusivity, she said. “I hope it will continue to change and get to a point where we can actually say we have color-blind casting, and everybody is starting on equal footing and everybody believes they can be the lead in any Broadway show,” Ewoldt said.
Ewoldt comes from a long background in performance, dating back to that Elmsford stage. You could even say her psychology degree from Yale University was just an intermission between acts. Post-college, she played Princess Jasmine in the production of “Aladdin” at the Disney California Adventure theme park, as understudy to another hero of hers, Filipino American actress Deedee Magno.
If she has a personal goal, it’s to bring honesty and understanding to a character that has been interpreted and re-interpreted again and again, on the stage and in film, by dozens of actors.
“I want the audience to feel like [the show is] happening for the first time,” Ewoldt said. “I want it to feel exciting and like something that they are a part of as the story unfolds in front of them. It’s a really great journey that I can go on every night.”
One of the most recognizable scenes in the musical comes when the Phantom, enamored with Christine and jealous of her relationship with Raoul, brings her to his secret dungeon beneath the opera house by crossing a foggy lake on a boat. It’s Ewoldt’s favorite moment on stage.
“There’s something so iconic about being in that boat,” she said. “It’s taking in the moment where Christine really is seeing this new world for the first time – there’s a wonder and joy and and a sense of how I feel on my part [as Ali], too.”