BWW Interviews: Michael Hughes and Gabi Epstein Talk WEST SIDE STORY Suite

The West Side Story Suite is being presented by the National Ballet of Canada as part of Luminato, the Toronto Festival for the Arts and Creativity. It features seven of the popular song and dance numbers from the Broadway musical. In 2007, the National Post described the West Side Story Suite as something that "lifts audiences to their feet" and this year it looks to be a fantastic production.

The West Side Story Suite includes vocals from the Broadway musical, performed by two of Canada's young up and comers Michael Hughes and Gabi Epstein. Michael and Gabi sat down to talk with BWW about this unique opportunity and how it differs from being in a traditional stage production:

You two are providing vocals for the West Side Story Suite with the National Ballet...

Gabi: well, for one we are not on stage...at least I'm not. I'm singing in the orchestra pit and "lending" my voice to the performers on stage. The dancers are doing such an amazing job and our role is to really make their performance look flawless. It's a really neat experience to feel a part of the performance without actually being on stage.

Does that mean that neither of you are visible during the performance?

Michael: Actually, I am featured on stage, but the challenge is still there because there is a dancing Tony. My job is to work with him and make my voice reflect the choreography and emotions that are running through the character. When the singing and dancing combine together it makes for a really energetic and exciting ballet.

Gabi: It's learning how to be expressive with you voice and about capturing the moment. For example, myself and the other two performers I sing with (Robyn Newman and Louise St.Cyr) sing in the song America. We were told first to sing with an accent and make our voices sound nasal and really forward. We can also sort of see the dancers from where we are sitting and so we can feed off of their joy and playfulness during the number.

It's also interesting to note, however, that Michael and I have both recorded CD's and when you are in a studio it's the exact same challenge. The audiences can't see you but you have to convey an exact emotion.

Some people tend to shy away from the ballet...what would you say to them?

Michael: Before I saw the Canadian premiere of West Side Story Suite two years ago, my experience with the ballet was limited to seeing the Nutcracker as a child. But because I loved the musicAl West Side Story, I got myself a ticket and saw the ballet. Afterwards, I turned to my friend and said "I would kill to be a part of that". And now here I am! Dreams come true at the ballet! Since then, I have seen many ballets through a wonderful program set up by the National Ballet called DanceBreak which allows youth ages 16-29 to get tickets for $25. Check out www.dancebreak.ca for more information.

And lovers of Broadway and Musical Theatre? They are going to love this production. The best part is that they will be exposed to two other breathtaking ballets: Pur Ti Miro and Opus 19/The Dreamer. I have a feeling that if it's their first time at a ballet, it certainly won't end up being their last.

Gabi: Oh yeah! If the Broadway lovers get their butts in the seats, they'll totally enjoy themselves. It's West Side Story! How could you not!? And personally, I think it's just awesome to see the ballerinas in Converse shoes. It's a great way to get non-ballet goers into the theatre. And with the two other ballets, it makes for a really interesting and diverse evening of entertainment.

What has been the most challenging part of participating in the West Side Story Suite?

Gabi: Oh you know what I'm going to say: OBVIOUSLY I want to be onstage dancing and singing with the ballerinas! This is my second time singing in the production (I was part of the 2007 Canadian Premiere) and so I am pretty familiar with a lot of the choreography...it is really hard not to jump on stage and dance along.

Michael: I have been singing "something's coming" since I was a teenager, but recently I have been focusing more on my album and concert gigs (David Foster & Friends etc) so I had to get the song back into my voice. And remembering all those lyrics. Sometimes the song feels like a maze. I haven't had any issues yet, but it's the actor's nightmare.

You two are friends off-stage, what has it been like getting to work together?

Michael: It is always a great treat to have the opportunity to work with your friends. Gabi and I met in high school, so it has been awesome getting to share this experience with her.

Gabi: It has been ridiculously fun. We've been excited about doing our first contract together for months now. It's rare that you get to work on such a professional level with your close friends so I'm really fortunate that this has happened. We still text, and hang out the same way we always have, but it's in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, from our fancy dressing rooms! Also, we have probably spent 95% of our days together-whether its rehearsal, or Starbucks, or dinner, or swimming in my parents pool during a long break in the middle of the day...yeah it has been great. Here's to more, right Micke?

Have both of you had a chance to see the ballet? And do you have a favourite part?

Gabi: I have! The first time I performed the ballet, the singers were actually brought on quite early in the rehearsal process, and so we got to see the ballerinas not only rehearse, but learn this great piece with Rex Harrington and Karen Kain in the room with us. It's really wonderful to see the final polished product now remembering how hard they worked to get to this level. I don't think people realize how challenging it is for these guys. Somebody said to them today "You have to completely forget that you are ballerinas". And in addition to this, they are singing and acting on stage, totally out of their element.

My favourite part...there are so many! I love the Tony solo that was choreographed for Michael's song "Something's Coming". I love watching America because those ladies are out of this world good and it's an honour to be able to contribute vocally to that number, but I think my absolute favourite part would have to be the finale, "Somewhere". That song was my first big solo as a kid and to be singing it in such an amazing production with such amazing performers is an absolute honour. To have this opportunity is a truly emotional and unparalleled experience.

Michael: Well, I watch the first two ballets from the wings or on a television by my dressing room and I have to say that Jormo Elo's Pur Ti Miro is absolutely stunning! The dancing and the music! Wow! Opus 19/The Dreamer, like West Side Story Suite, was created by Jerome Robbins and is wonderfully danced. In the West Side Story Suite, I have several favourite moments, including the Cha-Cha when Tony and Maria first meet and dance together (the orchestra is plucking away at this point, it is gorgeous) and the Somewhere Ballet (sung by Kathleen Brett). Those are the parts of the show that get me pretty choked up. Such beautiful moments.

Also, I love any time one of the dancers gets to sing. They are so excited and do a great job. I also have to say that I am obsessed with the amazing Orchestra under the direction of conductor David Brisken. Bernstein's score is a real treat for them since they are usually playing much more classical pieces. The drummers and the brass section really let us have it every night. And I love it! This entire experience has been magical and I am so thankful to be surrounded by so many talented and wonderful people.

Greta Hodgkinson and Piotr Stanczyk with Artists of the Ballet in West Side Story Suite

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

When and Where?
Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite - National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, ON

Friday June 4th at 7:30PM
Saturday June 5th at 2:00PM and 7:30PM
Sunday June 6th at 2:00PM
Wednesday June 9th at 7:30PM
Thursday June 10th at 2:00PM and 7:30PM
Friday June 11th at 7:30PM
Saturday June 12th at 7:30PM
Sunday June 13th at 2:00PM

Tickets range from $20 to $210 and can be purchased in person at the box office, by phone at 416-345-9595 (Toll Free call 1-866-345-9595 or online at the website: http://www.ballet.ca/performances/season0910/west_side_story.php

Discount tickets are available by phone for groups of 10 or more and a select number of rush seats are available for $30 in person the day of the performance.

In addition, DanceBreak members aged 16-29 can purchase tickets for $25 the day of the performance, subject to availability. Please visit www.DanceBreak.ca for more details.




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