Born in Philadelphia, Hugh Panaro performed in regional theater before joining the first national touring company cast of Les Misérables in the role of Marius. He made his Broadway debut as the replacement for Marius in the original run around 1990. Panaro was a replacement for Raoul in the original Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera in 1991 and, seven years later, returned to the show as the replacement for the Phantom.
In 1993, he originated the role of Julian in Jule Styne’s last musical, The Red Shoes, and later appeared as the replacement for Gaylord Ravenal in the 1994 revival of Show Boat. At the end of 1997, Panaro played Buddy Foster in Side Show by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger.