"Unmasking What Matters" : An Exclusive Chat with “The Phantom Of The Opera” Star Sandra Joseph

Darren Paltrowitz

Simply put, actress Sandra Joseph is the longest-running leading lady from the longest-running Broadway show of all time. Returning to her signature role as Christine in The Phantom Of The Opera, 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the musical’s debut on Broadway; it won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Musical. The show's worldwide gross receipts are estimated to be over $5.6 billion, and it had been seen by over 130 million people as of just a few years ago.

I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with Joseph. Not only is she working hard in the theaters, but she is an in-demand keynote speaker and the author of Unmasking What Matters: 10 Life Lessons From 10 Years On Broadway. Ultimately, Sandra Joseph comes across as a person that is grounded, self-aware and gracious. 

As the longest-running leading lady from the longest-running Broadway show of all time, I must ask: When you first signed with Phantom, how long was your original contract for? And how long did you plan on being there?

Sandra Joseph: When I originally signed with Phantom, I was in the ensemble playing several characters in all of the crowd scenes. I thought at that time that I might stay as long as three years. What I never imagined was that after a year of being in the ensemble, I would be promoted to playing Christine, the leading lady, on the national tour and then after two years of playing Christine all across the country, I would get the promotion of a lifetime and be invited to join the Broadway cast. I never dreamed I would stay for a decade. I also never imagined I would fall in love with my co-star and wind up marrying the Phantom in real life(actor Ron Bohmer). You never know where life will take you.

Has the show changed at all over time?

Sandra Joseph: Hal Prince, the director, and all of the supervisors of the show have kept its integrity intact over the years to a degree that is astonishing. People now know and love that show and have for so many years, that it’s become iconic. Audiences can rest assured that when they go back to see the show now, often taking their grown children to experience the show they loved seeing when they were younger, that they will see the same show and hear the same songs performed in the same beautiful way that they remember.

Do you have a favorite song to perform live?

Sandra Joseph: Audiences love all of those sweeping Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies. I still sing “Think Of Me,” “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” “All I Ask Of You,” and the title song, “The Phantom of The Opera” quite regularly, and what’s really fun about it now is I get to meet and interact with the people who are in the audience because as a keynote speaker, I can break that fourth wall and talk directly to the audience.

After I step off the stage, people often tell me about their special memories that have to do with those songs. For example, “All I Ask Of You” has been performed at many weddings and even during engagements, so it’s really fun to bring those songs to life for people, knowing that they hold such a special place for so many.

Prior to working in the musical theater world, had you ever performed with a band? Or performed anywhere outside of the theatrical world?

Sandra Joseph: My first ever professional performing job was singing with a band at a resort in northern Michigan called Schuss Mountain. I was still in college at the time. We did some pop songs and some musical theater songs. I’m mortified to admit that I sang “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dream Girls with my then youthful, fluttery soprano voice. I was 18 and didn’t know any better! I was never any good at singing pop music. I am a musical theater soprano through and through.

I also performed on cruise ships in my early 20’s, doing song and dance revues, but I have always felt most firmly rooted in musical theater. It was my first love, and that is the music that best suits the type of voice that I have.

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Unmasking What Matters: 10 Life Lessons From 10 Years On Broadway is your forthcoming book. How long did you spend writing the book?

Sandra Joseph: Oh, boy. It’s been more than 10 years in the making.

Was it difficult to write something so introspective, knowing that you had to share life lessons that may have been painful?

Sandra Joseph: Yes, absolutely. I think this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not only the commitment and discipline it takes to complete a book, but having to be so unmasked myself, to open up and share my personal truth with no character to hide behind and no tried and true script, just me on the page. It really requires walking through vulnerability, which has required me to practice everything I know and everything I talk about in the book having to do with moving through self-doubt and fear. I hope that by sharing my story, others will see themselves and feel inspired to believe in bigger possibilities for their life.

You also do speaking engagements. Do you get a similar performer's high from doing that? In other words, is it surprisingly an artistic experience for you?

Sandra Joseph: 100% yes. Transitioning from playing a character in a show with a tried and true script written by someone else to what I’m doing now, standing on stage talking to people as a keynote speaker, just being Sandra, not Christine, it was initially quite unnerving, but I felt that I had a message that might help someone or inspire someone. Crafting that message and learning how to tell my story in a way that I hope touches other people’s hearts and empowers them to find their voice has been a wonderful, creative exploration for me. Finding my authentic voice on stage as a speaker has been incredibly fulfilling, and I can honestly say it is the most rewarding thing I can possibly imagine doing with my life right now.

Is there something else in your career that you hope to accomplish? For example, you appeared on several episodes of Law & Order, do you hope to do more TV work at any point? Writing a second book?

Sandra Joseph: The next little pull I’m feeling right now is to work more with women and to more directly connect with women and girls in order to inspire more female leadership. I’d like to start leading women’s retreats and convening more workshops so I can really work directly with people who struggle in the same ways that I have with self-doubt and fear. So many of us know in a secret place within our hearts that there’s something more for us to do, that we have something to say or gifts to contribute, but we hold ourselves back out of fear of criticism, failure, rejection…

It’s not easy putting yourself out there. It has never been easy for me to stand in front of a crowd with all eyes on me, particularly as an introvert, and a highly-sensitive, empathic person, but the love I have had all of my life for this particular art from of musical theater kept inching me forward. I’m really feeling a desire to be a part of inching other women forward toward what they love and what they would like to express in their lives.

When in life did you decide to become a certified yoga instructor? What inspired that?

Sandra Joseph: I started getting into yoga while I was doing Phantom as a way to ground myself and work through my own anxiety. I taught yoga for a short time and loved it, but I never felt that it was meant for me as a career. I just wanted to learn as much as possible about it in order to deepen my own practice.

When not busy with work or yoga, how do you like to spend your free time?

Sandra Joseph: I am happiest and most at peace when I am at home in San Diego with my husband watching the hummingbirds that come to our feeders. I can also pass blissful hours alone reading under the trees or watching the squirrels play.

What is the last play that you saw for fun?

Sandra Joseph: Hamilton.

Finally, Sandra, any last words for the kids?

Sandra Joseph: If someone like me -- a shy, insecure kid from Detroit -- can move through her fears and become Broadway’s longest-running leading lady, then you can absolutely move through your self-doubt and achieve far more than you can imagine.

More on Joseph’s new book and upcoming appearances can be found online at www.sandrajoseph.com.