Eurovision: The Theatrical Connection
Around this time every year, something weird and wonderful happens: an entertainment juggernaut rolls into a European country by virtue of its musical exploits the previous year. We're talking, of course, about the Eurovision Song Contest.
Purportedly the most-watched non-sport TV event anywhere in the world, Eurovision brings together specially written songs from Europe (and beyond) in a festival of musical fun, frivolity and occasional frightfulness.
BroadwayWorld will be bringing you a couple of features in the run-up to the 2018 contest, which is being held in Lisbon on 12 May, with semi-finals on 8 and 10 May.
So, why are we covering a music competition? Well, although it's a song contest, Eurovision often features some pretty spectacular theatrics in terms of staging and performance. We'll discuss that a bit more in our next article previewing some of the performances to look out for.
In this first feature, after being lucky enough to meet several of this year's contestants at a recent press event in London, we explore their theatrical pasts and how that experience might help them when they take to the stage in Lisbon.
Many of the 2018 Eurovision crop have had formal theatrical training. Ireland's Ryan O'Shaughnessy attended the prestigious Billie Barry stage school in Dublin from the age of four, whilst Coco Gfeller, lead singer of Switzerland's group ZiBBZ, went to Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom.
The UK's SuRie studied on the Royal Academy of Music's post-graduate theatre course, and Iceland's 19-year-old representative, Ari Ólafsson, will follow in her footsteps to continue his singing studies there this autumn.
Another act to have studied in the UK is Mikolas Josef from the Czech Republic. He told us: "I received a gold medal with distinction from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts for solo acting," before launching into the opening of Richard III's "Winter of our discontent" soliloquy. This is a poppy, peppy performer with hidden depths!
Denmark's act, Rasmussen, studied dramaturgy and music at Aarhus University, and currently works as a singing and drama teacher at the School of Performing Arts at Viborg Cultural School.
His students, naturally, went crazy when he told them he'd be participating in Eurovision: "They didn't expect it at all and it was fun to surprise them in that way!"
Of course, with all this theatrical training behind them, many of Eurovision's Class of 2018 are no strangers to treading the boards.
Rasmussen is one of the most experienced musical theatre performers amongst them. He told us: "My first musical was Grease - I was probably the first ever red-haired Danny."
Did he perform the role with or without his current epic Viking-esque beard? He laughs. "Without the beard! This was at high school. But it gave me the taste for musicals and I've since done Rent, Blood Brothers, Les Mis, West Side Story, Tommy and Midsummer Night's Dream - a new musical written by a famous jazz pianist in Denmark."
An impressive list of shows indeed, and a wealth of experience that's reflected in the "musicals" vibe of his song "Higher Ground". He notes: "It will divide people, no question about it. It's very dramatic, epic and movie-like. I think of Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean - that's what's going to make it stand out."
Ari played the lead in the National Theatre of Iceland's production of Oliver! aged 11, then took on a mix of roles - including flying monkeys and crows - in The Wizard of Oz.
He also loves to go to the theatre; whilst in London for his Royal Academy of Music audition, he won front row tickets to The Book of Mormon in the lottery, and says it was one of the best nights of his life. Maybe one day he could be a Mormon? "Oh my god, that would be SO amazing!" he says.
(London producers please take note: Ari has the exact right look and a great voice, as demonstrated by the two-and-a-half octave range in his Eurovision entry "Our Choice"... )
Vlado Mihailov, one of the members of Bulgaria's five-person collective Equinox, has previously played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. "That's definitely my all-time favourite role. Next I'll be Sam in Mamma Mia!, and then the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera - the director keeps telling me that I need a shave!"
SuRie is full of admiration for musical theatre performers, and for that reason will only say she's dabbled in the genre: "I can't really say I've done it - that would take away from my amazing friends who do it on a regular basis."
Meanwhile, Finland's Saara Aalto - who British readers may recognise as runner-up on The X Factor in 2016 - was the voice of Princess Anna in the Finnish version of hit movie Frozen. Another Eurovision contestant for London casting directors to consider when the Broadway show inevitably transfers to the West End, perhaps.
So how will all this theatrical training and experience help the performers at Eurovision?
Both Ari and Rasmussen point out that having experience of playing someone else on stage helps with their performance persona, even though they're not 'acting' per se at Eurovision.
Mikolas agrees: "Acting is about getting into the feeling. There's a different feeling or emotion behind each song, and knowing how to go back to a year ago when you wrote it and it was pure and original - you need to do that every time you get on stage. Acting helps a lot."
His years at stage school have also made Ryan feel at home on stage: "The musical theatre training has helped with my stage confidence. I don't really know how I'll feel there and then though - my moods can change with the weather, so we'll see how it works out. But it'll be an adrenaline rush!"
According to SuRie, "the discipline of theatre training - mental, vocal, emotional - all of that stage craft really helps.
"I think that's why Lucie Jones did such an incredible job last year," she says of the 2017 British representative, who has been in several West End shows and tours, including Les Misérables, We Will Rock You, Legally Blonde and Rent.
Ari is also keen to stress that "musical theatre people are extraordinary - you sing, dance and act and need it all in a really tight bundle. It gives you that bit of edge, the familiarity of being on stage and performing for a huge amount of people."
And also the ability to perform live with no retakes? "Absolutely!"
So when you tune in to Eurovision this year, we reckon you can feel safe in the hands of these theatre alumni: they'll no doubt be amongst the most confident and reliable performers, even in front of a global TV audience of almost 200 million!
Photo credits: RTÉ/Brigita Stankaityte, Gustav Eurén/Philippe Jessen, Íris Dögg Einarsdóttir, Marie Bartošová and Leigh Keily