BWW Interview: Stars Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington Talk BAT OUT OF HELL
Relative newcomers Andrew Polec and Christina Bennington were thrilled to land the lead roles in Jim Steinman's musical Bat Out of Hell. Several decades in the making, the show is now playing at the London Coliseum.
What was the first musical you saw?
Christina: I suppose the first musical I saw that I remember inspiring me is Mary Poppins. I saw it in the West End and on Broadway and I adored Laura Michelle Kelly. I just thought the whole show was really magical.
Andrew: Wow. We must have both been inspired by Disney in our childhood. I think the first musical I saw was Beauty and the Beast. I was obsessed with the magic in the show. I couldn't figure out where they hid the rest of Chip's body and when the actor came out for the curtain call, I was shocked that he wasn't just a head.
Christina: Haha. Is that really what you thought?
Andrew: Yep. Still don't know how they do that.
When did you realise you wanted to act professionally?
Andrew: I was a late bloomer. I was obsessed with lacrosse as a teenager and figured I would get a sports scholarship and become a doctor in college - you know, the usual route. I then got into a major cycling accident - ironically not unlike the situation in the song "Bat Out of Hell". I was in the head trauma unit for five days with a severe concussion.
When I left, the doctor said I couldn't play contact sports for a year. I was devastated and didn't know where to put all my energy. My dad then played me "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" and I was totally hooked. I fell in love with Meat Loaf and the whole Bat Out of Hell album and decided to pursue rock and roll and theatre.
Christina: I always performed as a child. I was in choirs and pursued classical music at school. In my mid teens, I realised I liked dancing and acting as well and musical theatre seemed a natural fit, so I started working towards auditioning for drama school.
Where did you train?
Christina: I trained at the Guildford School of Acting on the musical theatre course for three years.
Andrew: I went to Brown University's Grad School for Theatre - Brown Trinity Rep, and studied there for three years as well.
What was your first professional acting job?
Christina: I had done BBC young singers projects like The Little Prince, but my first post-training credit was A Christmas Carol at the Birmingham Rep.
Andrew: My first professional acting job was actually doing the workshop for this show.
How did you react when you found out you'd be leading this big show? Any pressure, or have you learned from other actors how to lead a company?
Andrew: You know, we don't feel pressure. It's more of an honour and a privilege to be a part of this project, and it really feels like an ensemble piece because everyone is giving it 150% whether it's through the dancing, singing or sweating! We love this show and we are grateful to be doing it every day.
Christina: Absolutely. It's my first time playing a role of this size and I'm so thrilled and feel very lucky. We have an amazing company and we all work really well together. I was lucky enough to cover Gina Beck in Show Boat and she was a wonderful mentor in showing me how to be a leading lady.
Did you know Meat Loaf's music well beforehand?
Christina: Of course. My dad used to play it on car journeys. So I was familiar with all the music, but it's definitely different to be given the opportunity to sing it and rediscover the music as an adult.
Tell us a bit about the story
Andrew: The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic and futuristic Manhattan. The island has broken off from the rest of North America through a cataclysmic event and has floated out to sea. The island is now ruled by a tyrant called Falco.
I play Strat - an 18-year-old, Peter Pan-like character who doesn't age and is the epitome of rock and roll and rebellious youth. With his forever 18 gang (The Lost), he is fighting against Falco and his overbearing militia. He then realises that Falco has a daughter named Raven and turns into a pile of mush as he falls head over heels in love with her...
Christina: And I play Raven. She's lived a sheltered life, locked away by her parents. She watches the world through the window and when she finally gets to meet Strat, it's a meeting of minds. I can relate to Raven's need to follow her heart.
Andrew: Strat is a combination of so many rock and roll legends. He has elements of Mick Jagger, Bowie, Iggy Pop, Chuck Berry, Meat Loaf, Jimi Hendrix, and Jello Biafra. However, he most strongly resembles Jim Morrison - a combination of innocence and complete recklessness. He is a poet and a dangerous revolutionary.
Playing in rock and roll bands for many years and researching a lot of old concerts, it has been a blast to bring Jim Steinman's character to life because he is truly based on the blueprints of what built rock and roll in the first place.
Were you influenced by Meat Loaf's style of singing?
Christina: What's been so amazing for me is that through this process, I've been given license by Jim Steinman and our musical supervisor Mike Reed to find these songs in my own voice. It's an incredible challenge doing these huge songs justice and Meat Loaf himself gave us amazing advice. He told us to commit to the emotions and make the songs our own.
Andrew: No one can sing like Meat Loaf - he's a vocal Olympian. He landed on the moon first and we are following in his footsteps. Meat Loaf's advice was crucial: these are songs that need to be acted as much as sung. The lyrics and the story will guide you through the epically long songs and help you reach the Everest and Marianas Trench points.
Steinman songs are not something to be sung casually. Watching old Meat Loaf concerts, you learn so much about pacing and where to unleash the big guns for the climactic, larger-than-life moments.
What's it like being part of a show with major technical elements? Any challenges in rehearsal?
Andrew: First off, the set is amazing.
Christina: Yes! We have a pretty groundbreaking set designed by Jon Bausor. It's wonderful and huge and brings the world of the show to life. It's full of surprises - which we can't tell you about! We also have a live camera operator on stage with us (Paulina Jurzec), which was a challenge to rehearse. Her feed is projected onto different parts of the set offering different perspectives and close-ups on the action. It's so exciting and it's been a learning curve for me definitely.
Andrew: One review said that the technical elements are paving the way for the future of musical theatre and I have to agree. We are letting the audience see and explore the stage in so many unique ways that you will definitely have to come more than once if you want to catch everything that's happening.
What's your favourite number to perform?
Christina: My favourite song to perform is "For Crying Out Loud". It's an important part of Strat and Raven's relationship - it's physically and vocally challenging and so much fun!
Andrew: "For Crying Out Loud" is my favourite as well. A close second would probably be "Anything for Love". However, all of the songs are so electrically charged with operatic, godly rock and roll that it's really difficult to choose.
Andrew, how does this compare to your experience of theatre in the US?
Andrew: My theatre experiences in the US were quite tame compared to my theatre experience in the UK. Each performance of Bat Out of Hell is a seamless genetic splicing of a theatrical performance and a high-octane rock concert: the audience sings along, we scream our hearts out and magnificently bruise our bodies without even realising it, and to hear the cheering at the end - it feels like the theatre roof might collapse. I love it here and I love the people.
Why do you think Meat Loaf's music still resonates with people now, and why should they come see the show?
Christina: The music in the show is so timeless. It resonates now I think because it felt so ahead of its time when it was originally released. This show is over 40 years in the making and it feels like it's really finally landed on the stage where it was meant to be.
Andrew: Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman are all about love and their amazing fanbase shows that no matter who you are, love is all. This show resonates with everyone because we all want to feel loved, be loved, just plain love each other, laugh about love, cry about love, realise that it can be all-consuming and even awkward at times, I mean love is love. So what better way to experience love than through passionate, electrifying, gravity-defying, heaven and hell, rock and roll? Come rock with us!
Bat Out of Hell: The Musical is at London Coliseum until 5 August. Book tickets here from £20
Photo credit: Specular