BWW Interview: Samantha Pollino of HAMILTON at Orpheum
THE most talked about musical to hit the stage this century is opening at the Orpheum tonight! HAMILTON, Lin-Manuel Miranda's colossal success story integrating American history with hip hop music won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. HAMILTON also received an unprecedented 16 Tony Award nominations winning 11 of those, including Best Musical and Best Choreographer for Andy Blankenbuehler. Blankenbuehler also won Tonys for BANDSTAND and IN THE HEIGHTS.
HAMILTON is sung through; therefore, it is danced through. According to "Hamilton; The Revolution," Blankenbuehler "reaches far beyond conventional dance steps, of any tradition." His calls his choreography "stylized heightened gesture" and explains, "Dance is just meant to be a framing device that matches emotionally what I want the audience to feel," rather than having the audience focus on the dance itself. This requires dancers who are able to give their all for the entire production.
One of the talented dancers coming with the HAMILTON tour to Omaha is Samantha Pollino. Pollino has accumulated an impressive theatre resume for her young age. Starring in Hot Feet at the age of 11, she has danced in HEAD OVER HEELS and the Chicago company of HAMILTON. She has toured with the Nickelodeon production, LAZYTOWN, and has performed with Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Cincinnati Pops. Pollino was last seen here in Omaha with Broadway Dreams Foundation. I spoke with her last week on the phone.
You signed with an agent when you were only 9 years old. How did that come about?
I got picked up from a dance competition. I got scouted when I was only 9 years old. I signed with an agent in New York and began auditioning. I started dancing when I was 3. My parents signed me up as a recreational hobby. They didn't really expect me to take it seriously. But I was really shy growing up. The first time my dance teacher and my parents saw me on stage they were literally like, "Who is this stranger? She's so much more extroverted the second she's on stage." My dance teachers told my parents that if I genuinely liked this, it would be good for me to keep doing it because it brings me out of my shell. I loved it. I took my first dance class and I was, "Oh yeah, this is it for sure." It's all I've ever done.
You were also just in the Go Go's musical, HEAD OVER HEELS.
Yeah. When I graduated from college, I joined HAMILTON in Chicago. I left that after about a year and a half and did HEAD OVER HEELS on Broadway.
Since you were with HAMILTON in Chicago and are now on tour, is there a big difference in the productions?
It's easy for me to answer that question because I've done the same show, stationary and traveling. For me the only real difference I've noticed as far as the show itself is that the show never changes. The set never changes--it's just a matter of the theater. Our back stage space might change, which might slightly alter my routine, like how I go about the show. We have different dressers every three or four weeks in different cities. We're playing to different audiences. They don't vary a lot in size, give or take 100-200 seats. But the theaters go from brand new music halls to very old, ornate theaters.
I know you've been at the Orpheum before. The last time you were in Omaha you were with Annette Tanner's Broadway Dreams Foundation (BDF), right?
Yeah, I was. I worked more with them when I wasn't on an eight show a week schedule. Broadway Dreams is kind of the reason I got HEAD OVER HEELS. I met Spencer Liff, one of the choreographers, through Broadway Dreams. While we were in tech for HEAD OVER HEELS I set a piece for BDF in New York. So, I'm still pretty involved. I love it there.
Will you be doing any choreography in addition to your dancing?
I'm not quite sure yet. I really like choreographing and I'm pretty good at it. I'm good enough at it, I guess. If I really wanted to work at it, I probably could do it as a branch of what I'm doing already, but I don't think I'm ready to start doing it yet. I really like to perform! (laughs)
I've seen you described as a "precision dancer." Is that from your training or something that comes naturally to you?
I'm not really sure. I've always had a knack for hitting things really hard in my dancing. But I also think that I have a lot of music training in addition to dance. I went to a performing arts high school for voice and music, so I intentionally studied music theory and composition and things like that. Because of that, I have a sharper ear for musicality. I feel like I can hear accents in music a little bit easier because I know what to listen for. Being a musician, whether you're a really great musician or just studied it a lot, helps a lot for dancers.
When I spoke with you in Chicago, you mentioned that performing in HAMILTON is physically demanding. Has it gotten easier or does it still take a toll on your body?
In a way, yes and no. It's gotten easier for me because at this point I've done about 1,500 performances. I know what to hold back on and, if my body's feeling a certain way, I know what moments in the show I can use to breathe. I know how to pace myself. But also, as of recently, I've had to take a step back and be like, okay, I started doing HAMILTON when I was 21. I'm now 25. Doing eight show weeks and dancing reckless and hard the way that I did when I first started doing the show...I can't really do that anymore without rolling out every day and doing a full warmup. Those are things I didn't have to worry about as much three or four years ago. It definitely comes with a lot more upkeep nowadays.
What happens if you aren't able to go on? Do you have an understudy?
Yes, we have swings. Basically, they are understudies that cover all of the tracks. We have about three female swings and three male swings. They are backstage and know all of the ensemble tracks. At any moment whether it be two hours before the show or a half hour before the show or at intermission, they can throw a costume on and go onstage.
I talk to a lot of older people who are concerned about the rap music in the show. What can you say to assure them that they will like the music despite their preconceived notions?
Personally, I don't feel like HAMILTON is basically rap music. I feel like that's the easiest way to describe it because it's not HELLO DOLLY! or CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. It's definitely a bit more urban than your everyday musical. But when people see it, they will actually end up coming out and saying, "Well, I was told it was going to be rap music, but it wasn't as hip hoppy as I thought."
How long will HAMILTON tour?
Right now there is no last show. It's open ended.
What's the hardest part about touring?
Our tour is really lucky, because whereas some tours travel every week, our shortest stops are three weeks long. Some are fourteen weeks long. However, I am a homebody. I really like to have my own place to come home to at the end of the day. It's not easy when that's changing every three to four weeks. But, you know, there's good and bad with that. I really like being on a tour where I get to live in a place for three weeks at a time instead of like one week like my fiancé. His tour goes somewhere new every seven days. He's been touring with THE BOOK OF MORMON. He pretty much exclusively lives in hotels. I don't know if I'd actually be able to function like that.
What about future plans?
I really love the show. That's why I came back to it. Chicago was amazing. The one thing I love about tour is getting to travel to different places and hear about people who have had their tickets to see the show for like, two years! They've been waiting and waiting and waiting. That's different than the same superfans in Chicago (who are also amazing) who have seen the show ten times and come back every weekend. That's cool and I love that. But right now after tour, I'm basically just focusing on getting married. That's what's on the radar for me now. We just booked our date and reception and all that stuff. It's about a year out. And I'm very excited!
HAMILTON runs SEP 10-29. Tickets are available at https://ticketomaha.com/Productions/hamilton