George Lee Andrews has a well-worn evening routine. Pick up an iced chai from Starbucks; check. Sign in for work on a bulletin board ringed by Christmas lights; check. Greet every one of his colleagues; double-check.
Then, at about 6:30 p.m., Andrews makes his way up three flights, through a narrow stairwell decorated with vacation photos and drawings, to the cozy dressing room where he gets into his "work underwear," applies makeup and gets wigged up by his dresser for the night's performance of The Phantom of the Opera. He's currently playing the show's flamboyant opera manager Gilles Andre, one of the four roles he's played throughout the show's record-breaking Broadway run. Andrews holds an endurance record himself: In November, he'll mark 20 years since his first U.S. rehearsal for the Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut.
And on Jan. 26, 2008, George Lee Andrews will cement his status as the longest-employed Broadway performer currently on the boards when he celebrates Phantom's 20th year at the Majestic Theatre. Apart from the standard vacations and few sick days to speak of, he's been loyal to this Phantom since it first dropped its chandelier here in 1988.
"I decided a while ago that I would stay," says Andrews, now 65, who originated the roles of the baritone Don Attilo and the servant Passarino in Phantom's shows-within-the-show, and has since moved on to alternate in the roles of the opera's managers, Firmin and Andre. "I love the job. I love having a job. I hear actors say, 'Oh, God, I've been with this show three years.' I've had feelings like that, but I don't entertain them. I'd rather entertain the thought of: I get to go to work today."
When Andrews took the gig, he had appeared as a principal in a few Broadway shows: Merlin, On the Twentieth Century, A Little Night Music (in which he originated the role of the butler Frid). But he was doing what many New York-based actors do: work elsewhere, tour, audition, scramble and pray. He had young children he wasn't seeing very much of. It was no sure thing at the time, of course, but as it turned out, the Phantom run has offered him that rarest of show-business commodities: job security.
"I'm a workhorse anyway," Andrews says. "I figured, if I can keep it fresh, then I can just stay here. I can have my theatre, and I can have my family."
Not that it's been a cakewalk, he points out.
"If you get into the chorus of this show, it's an ironclad contract, and you almost can't get fired unless you're drunk all the time or something," Andrews says. "But I'm a principal, which means I've had my contract renewed every six months. So I can't ever let them think, 'Oh, George is looking tired.' "
Nearly as long as he has been doing Phantom, Andrews has had people ask him how he manages to keep it from getting stale. Sure, while some of us in the civilian world stay at a job for 20 years, if we're lucky (or unlucky, as the case may be), most of us don't have to make our work entertaining to others.
"It's a technique--to do what you're supposed to do but approach it in a fresh way," Andrews says. "It's about staying concentrated in the moment of the character and moving through the play. That's Acting 101. So when I walk onstage, I don't ever feel unfresh; I always let my characters burst into a new situation."
He's had his ups and downs, of course.
"You go through physical periods that are problematic; there's lots of moving around and lots of stairs, and I did hurt my knee at one point," Andrews recalls. "There are also times when there's a mental problem, and the show will get scary to do." He's not talking about falling light fixtures, but about the kind of "actor's block" some performers develop during long runs; they'll slip up a line or an entrance one night, and the more they think about it, the more they feel condemned to repeat it night after night.
Andrews remembers one such period early in the run. "I got so scared doing the show, I thought I couldn't do it anymore. But everything is in a wave. If you can, ride out the wave and it's gonna clear. Now I just steel myself and ride it through."
It certainly doesn't hurt that there are a few routines he's developed--and some that have grown up around him--to keep things interesting.
"I have little things I do each night before I go on," Andrew reports. "I recite poetry to myself. I always touch a certain set piece with my cane. These sort of things become little personal traditions for me."
And anyone who goes backstage will notice a gallery of hand-lettered and illustrated posters with lightly outrageous premises, some riffing on the show: One reads SPONGEBOB PHANTOMPANTS. Many pretend to be headlines or posters: GIANT PEACOCKS INVADE NEW YORK, HAIRBALLS OF THE GODS.
Andrews explains that one of the show's dressers and one of its dancers conspired years ago to create a diversion for a moment in Act Two when Firmin and Andre look off into the wings in search of the Phantom. Each night to this day, the same dresser makes a new sign, and each night Andrews and his cohort, Jim Romick, can expect to look offstage and read something like DANCING PENGUINS BRONX ZOO REVUE, all while staying dutifully in character. Andrews has posted many of his favorites on every available space in and around his dressing room; he gestures to a corner where several months' worth of cards remain.
Another fixture of the Majestic's cramped backstage, painstakingly maintained, is the headshot gallery: Every actor who's ever haunted this Phantom, from Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford up to the present, has an 8x10 up somewhere in the halls. As Andrews proudly shows off this huge extended family of performers, for whom he is the only common link, it's clear that one thing that keeps it fresh for him is the steady pulse of new blood.
"I'm always working with new people onstage," Andrews confirms. "This week I have three different partners, and that's fun to deal with. There's a list every night on the sign-in sheet of who's out, and it's usually five to seven people. It's seldom that there's the same company onstage."
As he approaches his 20th anniversary in the show, Andrews admits that he may finally be looking beyond Phantom for his next step. "I don't see staying here forever and ever," he says. "It won't take a huge thing to get me to go." But for now, he says, with the utter conviction of one who knows whereof he speaks: "It's a sweet job, doing something fun for people every night."