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By ERIC GRODE
Sierra Boggess' recent stage efforts have pitted her against, in order, a deformed impresario, a conniving octopus, and the impresario again. Now the 29-year-old veteran of The Little Mermaid and both of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera musicals faces her most formidable enemy yet: Maria Callas.
In Terrence McNally's Master Class, which returned to Broadway this month after an absence of 14 years, Boggess plays Sharon Graham, a precocious Juilliard student who first withers and then sparkles under the unsparing eye of Callas (Tyne Daly). Over the course of McNally's play, the opera legend turns the eponymous lesson into a turbulent recounting of her own triumphs, betrayals, and fears. But when she remembers to shift her attention back to Sharon and two of her fellow students, La Divina is rarely in a nurturing mood.
"I think she lives in black and white," Boggess says of her character. "She always does her homework, and she's not used to being humiliated." Sharon flees the stage for a large chunk of the play, only to storm back and square off against Callas. "When she comes back, she's ready to fight. It's sort of a now-or-never moment, and that's a really cool thing to play."
Boggess stresses that Callas' imperious, dismissive personality couldn't be further from Daly's. "The morale with any company starts from the top," she says, "and Tyne is a fearless leader. The extra stuff that she's done for us---she's just a goddess."
For many theatregoers, Boggess also faces another hurdle: the memory of Audra McDonald, who created the role of Sharon and won her second Tony Award in the process. A week into Master Class rehearsals, Boggess actually met McDonald at an award show, and she says her predecessor could not have been more gracious. "The most important thing for me is that I honor the role knowing how much it meant to the person who created it," says the actress, who hasn't seen McDonald or anyone else play the part.
(As it happens, Boggess has had some practice stepping into daunting shoes. When Webber cast her for the West End debut of his Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, she became the second person to originate songs for Christine Daae; the first, more than two decades earlier, was Webber's wife at the time, Sarah Brightman.)
Mastering the piece that Sharon sings for Callas, the virtuosic "letter aria" from Verdi's <i>Macbeth</i>, came with its own complications. "Most singers don't hit this particular aria until their 30s or even 40s," Boggess says of the piece, which not coincidentally was one of Callas' most lauded. "I'm young and singing a piece that isn't appropriate, which Callas recognizes right away." Luckily, Stephen Wadsworth, the show's director, also holds positions at Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera, and he was able to call on connections from both places to supply Boggess and the other actors with coaching.
After the limited run of Master Class winds down in September, Boggess will find herself once again immersed in Phantom of the Opera. Her first big break came in 2006 when she was tapped by Hal Prince to star in the reconceptualized Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular at a lavish theatre that was built specifically for the production. "I loved that it didn't have cup holders in the seats," Boggess says.
Then came Love Never Dies, which earned her an Olivier Award nomination. And if she thought Vegas was classy, wait until she steps out on the stage of Royal Albert Hall for a fully staged 25th-anniversary concert of Phantom in October. Boggess admits to being a bit nervous about performing with more than 200 singers and musicians, but after being on the receiving end of Maria Callas's acid tongue eight times a week, she should have pretty thick skin by then.
Eric Grode will read from his book, Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation, and be joined by cast members from the current revival at the Columbus Circle Borders on July 19.