|Las Vegas Weekly - July 27, 2006
|The Phantom Minister
Chatting with Larry Wayne Morbitt, the cleric-turned-Tenor of the Opera
by Steve Bornfeld
There's the church of God and the church of Phantom--the latter, to die-hard fans, generating as much religious fervor as the former. And Larry Wayne Morbitt has preached in both.
The talented tenor and Assemblies of God minister from Southern California, came to Las Vegas in the '80s as the minister of music at Trinity Temple (now Trinity Life Center), launching an unusual career arc that has sped him from church podiums to recording studios (three Christian-themed CDs) to extensive solo performing for world leaders and with symphony orchestras and on to history's most heralded musical, The Phantom of the Opera.
A genial man who laughs easily and heartily, Morbitt assumed the role of singer Ubaldo Piangi--the comic-relief sidekick to opera-house diva Carlotta ("Carlotta's lapdog," as he calls him)--donning a fat suit 10 times a week and dying nightly at the hands of the Phantom. He was ensconced on Broadway when the same role beckoned for Phantom--The Las Vegas Spectacular, returning him to the town where his twin careers first blossomed.
SB You've played this role for seven and a half years now, giving you the record for performing a single role the longest in Phantom, in several companies. It seems very challenging, vocally. How have you managed it for so long?
LWM Piangi has the distinction of singing four high Cs every night. I'm an operatically trained singer, so four high Cs, you might want to sing in one week, but not eight times a week [on Broadway]. But I had a great teacher who taught me a pretty good technique.
SB Should you be talking to me if you had to do four high Cs tonight?
LWM (Laughs) Well, actually, because they've abbreviated the show here in Las Vegas, they cut two of those Cs.
SB Did your religious passion take rook at an early age?
LWM I was very much raised in a Christian home, my family put in a lot of activities with the church. Look, I knew in ninth grade I wanted to go to Oral Roberts University, which I did. That kind of puts everything into perspective.
SB Why did you come to Vegas? Was it to save the sinners in Sin City?
LWM When I first came here, there were more churches per capita in Las Vegas than anywhere else. The New Testament says, and I'm paraphrasing, "Where sin abounds, there grace abounds all the more." When and where there is a lot of need for God's grace, it's amazing how that grace God provides at a greater level. Some people are drawn to Vegas for the obvious reasons, but a whole lot more have become broken and hurt because of what gambling does. Not only do individuals pay that price, but families do. When I came here, I saw a group of people who really loved people and wanted to make a difference in their lives. When it comes to my spiritual walk, my job is to reflect Jesus Christ.
SB How did you come to be involved with the Trinity Temple?
LWM I very much felt called to the ministry. I also know that I had performing gifts. I didn't know how God was going to use them. But I knew my job was to be ready whenever those opportunities came. I always kept myself with one foot in the performing world. The pastors I worked with were always very understanding. I'd do an opera here and there, a musical here and there. I kept taking voice lessons. I was able to have a dual thing going on.
SB In addition to music, you were also counseling congregants?
LWM Certainly. In my particular denomination, the Assemblies of God, I had to be licensed. I was a full-time minister of music, and my activities were about writing choir programs for worship and orchestras, but my primary focus was that of a minister. The counseling, I loved every minute of it. That represents my heart and my soul. Then this came along and I thought it would be maybe one or two years of a detour. But that's been 11 years ago.
SB How did this career U-turn come about?
LWM I left my full-time position to work full-time on my master's program, and it was the faculty who led me to go to summer programs like the Des Moines Metro Opera. Agents, as they do, came and saw me at work, and came to me and said, "You're Piangi." And I said, "Great! Who's Piangi?"
SB Director Hal Prince and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber asked you to leave the Broadway production to reprise Piangi out here. Was that a difficult choice to make?
LWM Actually, no. Most of my family is in Southern California, and I have a lot of friends here. I own a home here, and I decided, wouldn't it be nice to come for a year and get to spend a year's worth of holidays with my family, which I never get to do in New York. I have the option in my contract to go back and resume my role in one year. That's June of 2007, which is probably what I'll do.
SB Because of your background, do your castmates consider you to the spiritual advisor of the group?
LWM (Laughs) I don't know how formal that is, but it does seem that many of our conversations eventually turn to spiritual matters. I'm happy for that, to be there for my colleagues.
SB Having done the full-blown Phantom on Broadway, were you expecting that some purists might balk at the Vegas version?
LWM A lot of them are going to have problems, and my feeling is, don't come and see the show. But there are a lot of people who love Phantom just because they love Phantom, and not all the detailed character development. They love the story and they love to get to that moment at the end, when Christine decides to protect Raoul, and the Phantom has to make the human choice. That's what they live for, and it's all there. And they purists, we love them, but Broadway is still there for them.
SB The Venetian's theater is much different from the Broadway theater, being so ornate and enormous. What's it like to perform there?
LWM Are you kidding me? It's very rare that a musical has a theater built for it. You're instantly put in the Paris Opera House. It's wonderful when those sheets come off and you're automatically there. And it's designed for all those special effects we want to show you.
SB When I saw the show, I sat directly beneath the chandelier that comes crashing down, which is a little nerve-wracking.
LWM It's something, isn't it? I was hoping to get the Depends concession in the lobby.
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