BWW Interview: Getting to Know the Stars of BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL
An electrifying new musical has roared into the Ed Mirvish Theatre. BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL, based on Jim Steinman's critically acclaimed album, became one of the best-selling albums in history. The musical features some of Steinman and Meat Loaf's greatest hits including, You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth, Bat Out of Hell and I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That).
Broadway World's Taylor Long sat down with four of the show's leads, Rob Fowler (Falco), Sharon Sexton (Sloane), Andrew Polec (Strat) and Christina Bennington (Raven) to talk about the journey of getting cast, rehearsing and bringing BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL to Toronto.
- BECOMING A PERFORMER -
ROB FOWLER: I come from a really small village, in the middle of nowhere. I started off like every young boy that dreams of being something like a superhero, or a fireman, or on the stage - but I was too shy to voice that - and it took a situation where my father died very young and I just wanted to escape. Theatre was where I escaped to. In the meantime, I had become a Formula One mechanic.
So I started very late. I'm one of the boy-next-doors who dreamed of doing something, but never had the guts to do it. It took losing a family member for me to go, "Do you know what, I'm 26 years old. I'm going to try this, because life's too short."
SHARON SEXTON: Mine is just way more obvious. I've been doing this since I was a duck. I've never done anything else, I have no idea what I would possibly do if I didn't do this. Somebody told me that I could sing, I think when I was three, and that was it. The whole way through school, people kept trying to put me off, saying, "Go and study something else" or, "Get a real job." I just wanted to prove to everybody that it was possible to actually earn a living doing this. That has given me the biggest drive to actually do it.
FOWLER: Even today when I hear stuff like that... When people say, "Go and get a real job" - I just want to shake them.
- THE LIFESTYLE OF A PERFORMER -
SEXTON: It's just the way people think. They're like, "Oh my gosh - you get to work for like 2 1/2 hours a day!" And it's so much more than that.
I remember having a lecturer in college, who became a really good friend of mine, and one of the things he said to me was that being a performer - being an actor in this business - it's really not about the 2 1/2 hours you spend on stage every night. It's about what you do with the other 21 1/2 hours of your day. That's what makes you a performer. It's the lifestyle.
FOWLER: One of my mentors once said, "Theatre is not a toy that you get for Christmas, something you just put on the shelf and play with when you're happy or when you're sad. It's a life experience. It's escapism."
For us to convince an audience... it's like in the old days. In the old days, people used to give a part of themselves, because it was more the poor generation of people that were actors, and they had to give everything to get paid. They had to give part of their soul on stage.
- THE POWER OF LIVE THEATRE -
FOWLER: Maybe because I come from being an engineer, before coming onto the stage - all I knew was, give everything. Don't hold back. If you've reached into the souls of your audience - they take it home, they talk about it and maybe, you can change their life.
SEXTON: Completely! Look at me, it's been 14 years and I just said to you, I'm sitting here now and I know exactly where I was when I watched The Producers in Toronto. I remember every emotion that that show gave me, and that was just a two hour window of my life. Theater can do that to you.
That was the first professional show I saw!
SEXTON: Was it? I remember, mine was Phantom. I think I was about 13. I had been doing musicals and the touring production came to Ireland, to Dublin. My parents were going to a corporate event and they had tickets, and my mom went, "You know Sharon would love this." They got me a ticket and I sat on my own for the whole thing and it just blew my mind. The fact that people could do that as a job, on that scale - that was my, "This is what I'm going to do" moment.
FOWLER: My first musical experience was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I had never been to London before - so I went into this whole new colourful world of London, outside of village life. And it sounds really strange because I was in my twenties, so I lived a very, very sheltered life. But I was just going wow, wow, wow.
I got to the theatre and it just happened to be a preview. And I think, if I'm not mistaken, there were a lot of famous people around me, Hollywood stars, and I just couldn't grasp this theatre experience. I had gone there to take my mom and my sister, to kind of escape from this tragedy that happened in the family, and we'd gone because there was a pop star playing the lead, Jason Donovan - and I totally forgot that he was playing the lead. I kept getting contact from ensemble members, or at the end of numbers from the lights and the music. I was crying, laughing - I had never experienced anything like it in my life. The circle of that for me is, that the musical supervisor for that show, is the musical supervisor for BAT OUT OF HELL.
- GETTING CAST -
ANDREW POLEC: I had been in New York City for about three months and I was kind of just going to a bunch of open calls - and I had an appointment for the SpongeBob musical. At first I went to the equity chorus call and there were so many people packed into this room, that they literally did something that I thought was an urban legend. They lined us up and they just went, "No, no, yes, no" - and I got a no. I was distraught because I love SpongeBob.
The week after, there were principal auditions and I was like, "Oh gosh, there's going to be so many people there too." But I went anyway, and there was no one in the room, so I got to sing for the open call. Like two days later my agency called me up and said, "Hey, did you audition for the SpongeBob musical?" And I was like, "Yeah, I did." They were like, "Well, you have an appointment with them. Bring a musical instrument and go back for another session."
So I brought this huge red floor drum, that was about half the size of my body and I was going to bang away on it and do that audition. And I'm sure you're wondering, why I'm talking about all of this...
I walked into this audition with a SpongeBob belt, shirt, and backpack - which was way too much, even the casting director said so - and of course, a big red drum. And while I'm waiting to go in for this audition, someone next to me goes, "Hey, are you going to go to that open call for Bat Out of Hell, two blocks down the street?" I looked over at him and said, "Do you mean like Meat Loaf, Bat Out Of Hell?" And the guy said, "No, no, it's written by like some guy named Jim - I don't know." And because I love the album, I was like oh it's Jim Steinman, the guy just doesn't know.
So I took that as a bit of serendipity, and right after I did the SpongeBob appointment, I lugged my drum down the streets of New York City, bumping into people, and made it to this audition, in my SpongeBob gear. Everyone else was in leather jackets and I was like, "Oh geez, I do not fit in." But I read the character breakdown, and I read that it was by Jim Steinman, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, I have to audition for this."
So I barely fit into the room with the drum. The casting director looked at me like I was a nut, because of what I looked like with the big drum - and I played the drum and sang. I didn't hear anything for about two weeks and then my agency called me up and said, "Did you audition for Bat Out of Hell?" And I was like, "Yeah I did." And they were like, "Well, you have another audition with them and they want you to bring back the drum."
So at first I was called for supporting characters and then they liked me so much that they gave me a shot at the lead. I was competing against people from Glee and the guy who played Spiderman from Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark and I guess I was just oblivious to all of this, because I probably would've been very nervous had I known all of this information. But I was blessed enough to get the part. So I did the workshop and they loved me so much that they sent me to London.
CHRISTINA BENNINGTON: If that guy from the audition is reading this, we should really thank him for mentioning that call.
I just did more of a regular casting process. I got a call from my agency - I knew the casting director from a lot of other processes - and he's probably the only casting director that would've called me in for the show, because I had only done legit classical soprano roles before this. But he had seen me do a couple of things for various workshop auditions that were kind of more rock-belt genre and I don't know, I just kept getting called back and each time I'd be like, "Really? Are you sure? Definitely me?"
Eventually I found out at midnight on a Thursday night, because someone tweeted something saying there was a rumour that I got the part. I rang my agent and she told me the offer was coming in. So I guess I'm still kind of in that mindset of, "Really? Me?"
We are very grateful every day to do what we do and it's all still a bit surreal, unbelievably, even after a full year since we met.
SEXTON: I think I was one of the last to be cast. I walked in, did one audition and was told my tapes were being sent to Jim. Boom - like that. So I was like, "Finally, somebody that sees me." *laughs* One-audition wonder - it was incredible.
FOWLER: I came also into the end of the audition process and that was via a phone call asking if I would have time to learn three or four songs and video myself. The tape was sent over and I was flown in to meet the musical supervisor and have a Skype session with our director. That was all in the proximity of three days - it was really fast. This was in late August and we started rehearsals in December.
- THE SHOW -
POLEC: I play Strat. He is the essence of rock 'n' roll, youth and rebellion. Basically the line that sums him up is, "A wasted youth is better by far, than a wise and productive old age." And he sings that about six times, so you know Jim Steinman really means that.
Strat is leading the rebellion, this revolt against the tyrannous ruler in the city of Obsidian, a post-apocalyptic world. He leads these 18-year-old kids who never age, and nobody knows why they never age (but if anybody found the secret they'd be making a lot of money). The rebellion is going very well until Strat realizes that Falco has a daughter named Raven. His heart exterior kind of melts away and he turns into a pile of mush as he completely falls for this girl.
BENNINGTON: Raven is a trapped and frustrated girl - we find her on the eve of her 18th birthday, which is the age that Strat and the gang of The Lost are stuck at - Forever. So we find her just at that moment, at the turning point.
Raven has been watching Strat and The Lost out of the window of Falco Tower (which you see on the stage) for her whole life. She just wants to get out, and be free - that sort of classic theme of being free from overbearing parents, who won't let her do anything, go anywhere.
She sees in Strat a kindred spirit, when they meet eventually. She sees a darkness in him, that she feels in her, that she always felt wasn't right or was strange - and then when she meets him, she sees someone similar who she would follow anywhere, for love.
SEXTON: As Raven and Strat fall in love and find each other, my role as Raven's mom, Sloane - I'm kind of torn in this piece the whole way through. I have a loyalty to Raven and I want her to literally take flight and go live her life, in a way that Sloane never did. But there's also this loyalty that Sloane has to Falco. She needs to back him up as well.
Then there's this weird affinity that Sloane has with The Lost, because she was young and she's constantly chasing her youth. So for me - my character is a really complicated and complex journey. I'm trying to decide where her loyalties lie throughout the entire piece.
FOWLER: Falco is your typical fearless leader. He's also a protective father. He's obviously made so many different life choices and, in the way that I invested in the character, he was once one of The Lost and he chose to grow up.
I think you can have this feeling that The Lost is a group of teenagers who are frozen in time, or you can say that they chose freedom, they chose to be bachelors, or chose to be spinsters - for the rest of their lives.
SEXTON: "Spinster" doesn't really have the same ring to it, does it?
FOWLER: They are choosing to be free spirits... And Falco fell in love with this girl Sloane, and she got pregnant, and they had a kid. So they had to grow up. With parenthood you don't really get to decide to grow up, you have to grow up.
So when he saw that his daughter was coming to age, to the age of 18, and that she wants to be part of this Lost community - being a father myself, I know that you do whatever you can to protect your children. You want the best for them, but sometimes that's misread.
- REHEARSING FOR BAT OUT OF HELL -
POLEC: I broke my finger on the stage when we were doing a recent rehearsal. I fell on the escalator and I thought there was something behind me to catch my fall, but instead my finger caught most of my fall. So, I had to go to the hospital and they did an x-ray. The joint broke, so now I keep this on for the show *gestures to finger splint* it kind of looks like a fancy ring.
That's the beauty of this set - it can help you or it can possibly hurt you. *laughs*
The show has been described as being "opera-like", and I know that your director, Jay Scheib, has experience directing opera -
SEXTON: Yeah, you move so fast emotionally through the songs, that I think it's like opera, because the songs can take you from zero to ten, with Jim's music, in a couple of bars - you leap forward really quickly in the space.
It's a really tough sing. We've spoken about Jim's music before, it's written in a way that really pushes your vocal ability to its limit, because he wants it to be that kind of high octane, on the edge of your seats, thrilling sound.
The first time we did a sing-through, we all put our hands of our throats and were like, "Oh my gosh, are we going to be able to do this every week?" But like any athlete, once you do it you kind of build up the muscle memory.
FOWLER: I have to drink so much water and chew gum, just to keep the muscle lubricated. It's like a runner - if you don't stretch you're probably going to pull a ligament.
Christina, you mentioned that you usually sing classical soprano rep. Are your parts written in soprano land, or did you have to play with the music?
BENNINGTON: I played with the keys of my songs a lot. I think originally some of the stuff has been brought down for other people who auditioned in the workshop, so like All Coming Back to Me Now, famously sung by Celine Dion, was actually too low for me.
They gave us the freedom to explore and find the biggest sound possible within our voices, within our range. I guess in a lovely way, I've kind of tailored the part of Raven to my singing voice. How often do you get to do that? It's a dream come true.
The production looks really physically demanding. Talk a little bit about the rehearsal process. What was the most difficult or exciting part of working on the set?
POLEC: I think what is so amazing about our whole rehearsal process is that it's been continuous. We started in, no lie, a military anti-aircraft base. We were rehearsing BAT OUT OF HELL on two stools.
BENNINGTON: Because the show is so physical, we had to get used to the raked stage and what is quite unusual is that we have second-story levels on both sides of the set, so we had to have scaffolding built to rehearse. Of course, a piece of scaffolding with some stairs up to it, you're like, oh great we've mastered the whole show. Then we got to the set and it was a mountain. With no discernable steps. You were literally climbing a mountain on stage right.
POLEC: No easy way to climb up it at all.
BENNINGTON: I think our physical language between Strat and Raven has really grown over the last several months. One of my favourite bits, physically, in the show for us is Crying Out Loud. Strat and Raven are physically challenging each other, as well as vocally around the stage. It started out as this kind of push and pull feeling, just feeling each other out, but we were given a lot of freedom by Jay Scheib, our amazing director, who really would give us a couple of tips and hints and then leave us for eight minutes to improvise the song.
It used to be us stomping around the stage, and now it's like, tuck jumps, rolling - it's so demanding because of the way it's naturally evolved and grown.
POLEC: Yeah, I think every piece of the show has naturally grown and evolved and continues to grow and evolve based on where we are rehearsing this piece. Whether we are in Manchester, or London, or Canada, the stage always seems to slightly change in dimensions and size. I mean, it's always entirely too big for the stage that we're trying to fit into, however, each iteration of the stage always provides for different stories to be told, different movements to be told. It's like a huge pop-up book and it's a different edition each time.
BENNINGTON: I think what's odd about this show, out of anything I've ever done - it feels more like a living breathing organism, because there are so many variables that are given the freedom to change. So it depends even on who is on in the ensemble. If someone is injured in the ensemble, and the swing comes in, they don't have to do what has been left. They fill the right spaces, but every single character has their own look and feel, designed by Jon Bausor. So depending on what combination of people are on that day, it's a different show. I've never been part of something so malleable. I think it's really exciting, because you never see the same show twice.
- THE FANS -
SEXTON: This a show that I would love to be walking into with no expectations. We've only done a couple of shows in Toronto and after our very first matinee, we went outside and I met a guy at the stage door who just went, "I just booked tickets for tonight. I've just seen the show and I came out and I went straight to the box office and I want to go see it again."
FOWLER: It's is a great first time. If you're going to be broken into theater, there's nothing more exhilarating than BAT OUT OF HELL. Even from walking into the theatre and seeing the merchandise you're already going, "What are we about to see?" We have life-sized pictures of every member in the cast, and there's 32 of us - each one with their own cut-out and character name. So you come in and you're starting to get familiarized with what you're about to see on stage. You get to know us before you get to know us. And then you see the set, this amazing set by Jon Bausor.
BENNINGTON: In London, we had so many people come up to us after the show, at stage door and say, "This is the first time I've ever set foot in a theater, and I loved it." So it's bringing a whole new audience to the theater, which is amazing because this music means so much to so many people. They have this huge nostalgia and this huge love for it - which we do too. When the show means so much to us, and we care so much about it, it's incredible to see the response we get.
POLEC: As far as we know, this album sold the most in the UK and in Canada. Toronto was the city that actually gave Meatloaf his first huge concert to perform this album. So to be performing it in the city that basically lit the fire for this album and the whole love of this album, they helped it become a classic and they helped this music in permeating this culture.
Anything else you would like to add?
BENNINGTON: Shout-out to the Bat Clan and The Lost.
FOWLER: Come and see it. There's nothing like it. It's setting the benchmark for new musicals.
SEXTON: ...and see it with the original cast.
BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL is presented by Mirvish Productions runs through December 24th at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, Toronto, ON
For more info and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.mirvish.com/shows/bat-out-of-hell
Book, music and lyrics by Jim Steinman, direction by Jay Scheib, choreography by Emma Portner, with musical arrangements and supervision by Michael Reed, set design by Jon Bausor, costume design by Jon Bausor & Meentje Nielsen & Jon Bausor, video design by Finn Ross, lighting design by Patrick Woodroffe, sound design by Gareth Owen, orchestration by Steve Sidwell, casting by David Grindrod Associates and musical direction byRobert Emery.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity*