'Dear Evan Hansen' star Sam Tutty on awards, Shakespeare, and surviving the pandemic
Sam Tutty was five months into his career-making star turn on the West End in Dear Evan Hansen when the pandemic shut London theatres down last March, since which time none of the big musicals has yet been able to reopen. Far from sitting idle, the industrious 22-year-old has done the odd gig here and there, including a virtual concert of Godspell and, perhaps most remarkably, playing Romeo in a technology-intensive fresh take on Shakespeare's play.
That filmed theatre production streams for two weeks from 13 February and casts Tutty opposite newcomer Emily Redpath as Juliet and the venerable Sir Derek Jacobi as the Narrator - a role we don't remember seeing in the text but hey.
"Ever since I was tiny, I've loved the idea of Shakespeare," the ever-charming Tutty told London Theatre in an interview earlier this week. "[But] performing it was a whole new thing."
So, for that matter, was winning the Olivier Award for actor in a musical in a virtual ceremony last October during which the production at the Noel Coward Theatre won two further awards, including Best Musical. For more on that and Tutty's further musings on an emotional roller-coaster of a year, read on.
Is it safe to assume that this "Romeo and Juliet" would not have happened had Covid-19 not occurred?
Absolutely. This production only came about because of lockdown, and if that hadn't been a thing, this would never have taken place. So I suppose you can think of this as a silver lining created by the pandemic: it has created opportunities that I for one would certainly never have expected, and I think we need to focus on the positives now more than ever.
Given your musical theatre background, did Shakespeare feel like a stretch?
I'd definitely studied Shakespeare's plays and seen a bunch of them, and I did English A-level so I had a familiarity with [his work], so it wasn't foreign to me. I remember, too, seeing the Leonardo DiCaprio film [of Romeo and Juliet] which sparked an interest in this play. But this is a shortened, modern-dress version of the play, spoken in traditional language and filmed from beginning to end in 12 days. I have no idea what it's going to look like and won't until I see the finished product.
What are your feelings about Romeo, who, let's be honest, can sometimes seem a bit self-absorbed?
[Laughs] You know, I loved him and loved playing him and stepping into his world. Romeo has his moments, some of which are good and some are bad. But in what felt like the 36 hours I had to deal with the character, I really thought of him as someone who's just trying to do what's best for himself.
What was it like filming under the restrictions posed by coronavirus?
The extraordinary thing is that I think I only met four or five people during the whole production. I would do scenes with people to green screen, none of whom were actually there, which meant that we all had to remember one another's blocking. That, in turn, really depended upon who got to do the scene first. If I was the first of two of us, for instance, to do a scene, I had the responsibility of figuring out where we would stand, and then it was up to Nick [Evans, the director] to make it sync up.
Where did that leave you and Juliet?
Emily [Redpath] and I got Covid tested so that we could film all the intimate scenes between Romeo and Juliet in a single day. In rehearsal we had eight-foot Perspex plastic screens between us so that we would be socially distanced and I think that helped us develop a sort of psychic camaraderie. I just remember feeling fortunate during filming to be able to get out and see the world in whatever legal way we could - no matter how diluted the experience.
This project has been one unexpected event of recent months, and so, I'm sure, was winning an Olivier Award for your West End stage debut.
[Laughs] It's incredible to think I won an Olivier the same year I had to apply for benefits, which has been a bit like finding a diamond somewhere in the belly of the beast! Obviously, I'm so so incredibly grateful. It's absolutely mindblowing to me that at the age of 22 I've already got this thing that I thought my whole career would be based on. At the same time, I admit to being disappointed that there was no actual ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall at which we could all be suited and booted. I hope when it's legal that they will do something, more just as a celebration of theatre than anything else. It's as if we were robbed of a wonderful crescendo.
How does it feel to think that it's been 11 months or so since you last played Evan Hansen on the stage of the Noel Coward Theatre?
I remember the day of the announcement of our closure [March 16, 2020] thinking in my head that it would only be like a month. I remember saying to the others, "See you guys in a couple of weeks," since no one knew this would last as long as it has. At the same time, I love [Evan Hansen] so much that this absence from it has only reignited my passion. I'm just so excited to be in an incredible show at this massive point in history, and that explosion as and when we can return to the theatre is what is keeping me going.
What is your reaction to the movie version of the stage musical now scheduled for this autumn?
I'm so excited for it! I met Kaitlyn Dever [Zoe Murphy in the movie] when she came to see our show, and she was so wonderful. I'm just really interested to see what they can do with that budget given a stage production that is all about projections and panels sliding above us. Our choreographer Danny Mefford told us that he knew he had done his job well when no one knew that he'd done his job, which makes perfect sense. I'm curious to see what sort of artistic license they take onscreen and how they blend script and song.
How are you continuing to cope as we approach the first anniversary of lockdown?
I think I've realised the extent to which time in lockdown is just a construct: I mean, people talk about stuff having happened in November but what is "November," really? [Laughs] I've been living at home just beyond Gatwick Airport with my mum and my little brother, and the only reason I know what day of the week it is, is because my brother is doing his A-levels!
Do you have any inside scoop as to when the show will be back up and running?
No more than anyone else, except to say that Dear Evan Hansen is really blessed in that it's not a matter of if we will come back, it's a matter of when. We keep hearing various dates, but the fact is, they'll do it when it's legal. I totally appreciate a lot of people may not feel comfortable being in a theatre and I get that, but for my part I find myself thinking, "Oh my God, the show did happen and it's going to happen again." It's been a weird state of limbo and now I can't wait to start rehearsals again and to finally relive my old life.
Check out our review of Romeo and Juliet starring Sam Tutty, available until 27 February.
Photo credit: Sam Tutty as Romeo in 'Romeo & Juliet' (Photo by Ryan Metcalfe)
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