More than phantom feelings Michael Crawford's latest album concentrates on songs with emotional power. He considers it the culmination of his musical career.

CATCHING UP WITH... MICHAEL CRAWFORD

July 12, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,sun pop music critic

Michael Crawford does go on at times.

Ask the veteran singer and actor what made him interested in recording a CD of inspirational songs - his latest CD, "On Eagle's Wings" - and his answer stretches on for almost 20 minutes. After a while, he makes a joke of it, self-mockingly interjecting, "Gosh, I'm so long-winded."

Yet no matter how long Crawford goes on, it never seems like he's talking too much. For one thing, the 56-year old Englishman, who is appearing at the Baltimore Arena this Friday, is a natural storyteller, blessed with wit and able to paint a picture so vividly that the listener hangs on every word.

For another, his career has left him with some incredible stories to tell. Never mind the obvious stuff, like how he originated the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera," or what it was like to have a cast album that sold more than 12 million copies worldwide; that's just part of the man's repertoire. Others range from being a choirboy in the late '50s and singing for composer Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival, to working with John Lennon on the Richard Lester film "How I Won the War" in 1967.

As varied as these threads of narrative may seem, Crawford has a way of weaving them into a single, sturdy fabric. Because, as he sees it, "On Eagle's Wings" is in many ways the culmination of his musical life.

"Music is something you hear from virtually the day you're born to the day you leave this world," he says over the phone from Los Angeles. "When it starts to have some influence, I don't know. ... But it's something I'd swear goes back to my nan, my Irish grandmother."

Crawford's earliest memories of music are of his grandmother singing to him. He particularly remembers her singing ballads, tragic songs about a child's mother being taken away, or about a boy called off to war and lost to his family. "I was forever in tears at the words," he says. "I was sensitive to sad songs then. I could understand somebody not having a mother or a father, ossibly because I didn't have a father."

As he grew older, Crawford began to sing those songs himself, revealing a boy soprano strong and supple enough to earn him a place in the English Opera Group. He wound up auditioning before Britten, was cast in the 1957 premiere of the children's opera "Noye's Fludde," and sang the lead in a production of Britten's "The Little Sweep," a role he shared with David Hemmings (who later went on to appear in such films as "Blow-Up," "Islands in the Stream" and "Camelot").

"I wasn't that good, but I loved it," he says, modestly. "I was very enthusiastic."

Eventually, though, he tired of singing. "You go through adolescence, and other things become more important," he says. "I realized there were girls in the world, and things." The sad songs his nan sang were replaced by Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers, just as his youthful days in the English Opera Group were replaced by non-singing work in films and on television.

It wasn't until 1969, when he was playing Cornelius Hackl in Gene Kelly's film of "Hello, Dolly!" that Crawford reconnected with the sort of musical emotion his nan had instilled in him.

"It was quite strange that I would be cast in one of the three leading roles in 'Dolly!' " says Crawford, who worked alongside Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau in the film. "An Englishman as a Yonkers clerk, Cornelius Hackl?" He laughs merrily. "I didn't really have the sound for it."

Nonetheless, Kelly had liked the naive innocence of Crawford's performance in the Richard Lester comedy, "The Knack ... And How to Get It." That emotional honesty, he told Crawford, was precisely what the part of Hackl demanded.

"I found myself, 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, singing on the Fox lot," says Crawford. "I'm singing, 'It only takes a moment for your eyes to meet, and then your heart knows in a moment, you'll never fall in love again.' I was an actor by now, and these words were my script.

"But to actually say words like that and mean them ... " He pauses.

"I looked at this beautiful girl I was singing to, and I sang them," he says. "When I finished, ... there were tears running down my face. I thought, 'Oh, my god!' And [Kelly] just came over and hugged me. It was a very, very special moment."

Crawford had a hard time watching the scene later - "I was horrified, because I looked grotesque!" he says, laughing - but he still valued the performance, because it taught him that, "It's all right to show your emotion. ... So I've accepted it."

Still, it wasn't until almost two decades later that Crawford considered recording an entire album of such emotionally charged songs. And the idea struck him as being a pipe dream.

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