To be Franc: Unmasking 'Phantom's' long runner

Michael Crawford may be THE stage "Phantom" to many ... but it's Franc D'Ambrosio whose name made the record books.

And it's his hand prints that are cemented for all time in the sidewalk outside San Francisco's Curran Theatre.

Since 1999, the 52-year-old Bronx native has logged well over 2,000 unmaskings as Andrew Lloyd Webber's opera-lurker, with no end in sight.

Or so hopes D'Ambrosio, who first took over the role in 1999, then flowed with the music of the night in various tours of the blockbuster hit, both here and abroad, eventually becoming the most prolific Phantom, with performances continuing over the better part of a decade.

Before the chandeliers started dropping, though, he was best known to the public for another night at the opera: as the aria-singing tenor member of a certain American dynasty, name of Corleone. 

In 1990's "The Godfather Part III," he was young Anthony, son of Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay (Diane Keaton). Had Marlon Brando's Don Vito survived the first "Godfather," he would have been gramps.

While D'Ambrosio's Anthony sang at the opera in Palermo, Sicily, cousin Vincent (Andy Garcia) was outside orchestrating his own opus, assassinating left and right.

Instead of falling chandeliers, it was dropping bodies.

With up to eight shows every six days, his "Phantom" run was the most strenuous. But pulling Corleone duty "was probably the most difficult role I ever played," says the tenor who once called Pavarotti teacher and who is bringing his one-man show, "Franc D'Ambrosio's Broadway: Songs of the Great White Way," to the stage of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. Sunday. 

Around 27 at the time of filming, "I played that role probably 10 years before I should have," he says of the demands made on his cords via the particular opera at hand, Mascagni's "Cavalleria rusticana."

Carrying the audio portion of the film's weighty climax on his shoulders, he says "it was what was necessary for the movie, so I did it ... but it probably stretched my vocal capacities at the time since that part is normally sung by a dramatic tenor, and most dramatic tenors don't come into their own until their mid-30s." 

He may be the only one who judged himself that way: his selection to play Anthony Corleone was the climax to a reported two-year talent search for just the right look and sound to match family specs.

And it was his vocals carrying the film's Oscar-winning theme song, "Speak Softly Love," in both the film and on the soundtrack album. 

When the talent scouts found their Anthony, "I was singing in the chorus of 'Sweeney Todd'," he notes, referring to the Stephen Sondheim show's successful 1989 revival.

Just as the talent scouts saw/heard something they liked in "Sweeney Todd," they paid it forward with "Godfather Part III," whose viewership included Luciano Pavarotti, about to make an offer no singing Corleone, or any singer for that matter, could refuse.

"At the time he was taking on one student a year to spend a couple months of the summer with him at his home in Italy," recalls D'Ambrosio. "He knew some of the people on the production and contacted them, asking them if I'd be interested."  

As if!

"Luciano was my idol, and here I was being asked to meet and sing with the person who inspired me, who set the bar so high ..."

So it was off to the Pavarotti estate for the summer of a lifetime.

The old saw about "you shouldn't meet your heroes" was buried as far as D'Ambrosio was concerned: "It isn't always the case, but with Pavarotti ... the thrill was finding that the person I always idolized was, in fact, a great guy, too. So he actually exceeded my expectations in that regard."  

From Corleone and Pavarotti, he was ready to make the leap to Webber and "Phantom."

Now in the thirtysomething dramatic tenor range he felt would have better suited his "Godfather" performance, D'Ambrosio was more than ready for the music of the night.

But could he have possibly predicted the length of the night's duration?

"Not really ... I knew it was going to be successful, but I never thought I'd be breaking any records," he says. "I'm just so happy that it was a show I was happy doing, not one where I was unhappy to be on stage ... and, yes, I'd love to do it again if I ever get the chance."

Meanwhile, people were still coming to him with hard-to-refuse offers.

Next in line: pop legend Barry Manilow, who tapped D'Ambrosio to play the lead character of Tony for the year-long pre-Broadway run of "Copacabana" in 2000.

Despite his splashy "Godfather III" debut on film, he followed that with just one more credit, Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," with nothing since (though he did a 2007 "Godfather III" alumni reunion/screening with Francis Ford Coppola and others).

"I ended up realizing pretty quickly, much to my agent's chagrin, that I didn't like the process of doing movies," says D'Ambrosio.

"For me personally, I didn't like the waiting around, and I don't like doing five takes of a scene and then having them put in the hands of an editor. I like being able to connect with an audience, the interaction, orchestrating my own performance."

Which is exactly what he's being doing the past decade with his one-man shows, including this weekend's Broadway-themed edition at the BCPA.

"It was Barry Manilow who showed me how all that's done," he says of his "Copacabana" tenure. I remember that he said 'Franc, you're a singer, and I'm a performer ... I'm going to show you how to do this.'

"And  he did: he taught me how to break the fourth wall, which until then I didn't know how to do. Now, I can look out at the audience, ready to address and engage with them ... because I learned from the best."