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Interview with David Bedella and Summer Strallen starring in Eugenius!
The journey from page to stage for new musicals is one that's often extremely complicated and time consuming for all involved. Whilst audiences can sometimes cynically think that new musicals are often thrown together in order to ride of a current trend or niche in popular culture, the reality is actually very different. Musicals take development over time, from early table readings to private workshops, to open workshops and try-out productions – hours of pre-performances usually go into any new show before it's placed before a paying audience.
Whilst many stages in this process go unseen by average audiences, one new musical is preparing to break the barriers between rehearsal room, workshop and audience by holding a one-night concert production in order to judge audience reaction to the material ahead of an intended further run. Eugenius! the Enique New Musical will next week have a one-night only presentation at the London Palladium in front of the paying general public, featuring a host of West End stars. Written by Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins, it is described as “a classic love story between two kids” that follows Eugene and his comic book as it unexpectedly takes him to Hollywood to become the unlikely hero of his own intergalactic battle. Set in the 1980s it's said to feature “hit song after hit song and a brilliantly funny script” and is “ the musical you’ve been waiting for, even if you don’t like traditional musicals!”
Despite being a one-night only concert, the production has attracted a host of extremely talented West End names, including Warwick Davis, David Bedella, Amy Lennox, Samuel Holmes and Summer Strallen, and is directed by Ian Talbot and Michael Jibson.
We caught up with double Olivier Award-winning actor David Bedella and the immensely talented Summer Strallen mid-rehearsal for the production to hear more about their involvement in the show...
Dom O'Hanlon: Summer, you're mid-rehearsal, how are preparations for the show going?
Summer Strallen: It's going really well! Because it's at the Palladium and its a presentation there's pressure that it's supposed to be a full show, whereas it's not going to be at all. We don't have any costumes, it's so people can hear it for the first time and get the picture so to speak. We've got a great cast, so we're sort of work-shopping – it does what it says on the tin! I think people need to not expect a full show, it's slightly more than a workshop would be because we are on a stage, but it's very much a concert version of the script and the music.
DOH: How did you get involved with the show, did you know the writers before?
SS: I didn't know them at all – I was asked to have a read of the script and I actually fell in love with my character. I was completely flattered because she's called 'Super Hot Lady', so I thought that's very kind – of course I'll do it! There's not many times you'll get to play a 'super hot lady', so that was the draw for me. The final cherry on the cake was the rest of the cast – Amy Lennox, David Bedella, Sam Holmes – they really are the cream of the crop and such brilliant actors, so when you get to create a new thing with people who are that good, that's the dream really.
DOH: Tell me a little more about the show and the character you're playing?
SS: It's about a high school kid who writes a comic, he's sort of a 'geek'. Hollywood comes to town looking for a new writer and they happen to come across his comic and it starts this whirlwind of making this film out of a comic. I play a girl called Carrie who comes in for an audition and wants to be an actress and gets cast in the role of 'Super Hot Lady'. I'm kind of a cameo really which is always fun as you don't have the pressure. The comic is called Tough Man – I don't know how much I'm supposed to give away! It's set in the 80s, you have Flashdance moments, Star Trekkie moments – all the things you want from an 80s style musical.
DOH: This is billed as a 'try-out' for a new musical. What are you hoping to take away from it as a performer?
SS: Usually when you do a workshop at this stage, they go through all sorts of stages before it gets to the actual show, but I'd say I'm probably well-cast. You hope that if it works and it happens that you'd take on the role in the actual production. When I do any job I like to take away whatever I can learn from other actors. That's why you take on work where you can surround yourself with people you want to learn from. Essentially it's comedic, and Sam Holmes is a comic genius and a seasoned player – I'm learning lots from him. David is so grounded and has such a brilliant presence on stage, so it's always brilliant to be with such amazing actors.
DOH: Do you think it's important for new musicals to have this style of workshop?
SS: This is a very odd situation for a new musical, usually a workshop is just performed to seven producers or so, or investors – people that the creative team are trying to get involved, and then maybe a couple of friends of family. Having an audience of 2000 is a very new thing, but ultimately I think it will help people understand how much the audience are going to enjoy it. Ultimately the proof is in the pudding – if the audience enjoy it then you'll have a show that will work.
DOH: A vital stage in the development -
SS: The most vital stage is just before it opens with marketing and advertising. Subliminal advertising, look at things like The Book of Mormon where you can't turn a corner without seeing a poster. I think that's very clever. You have to have faith in the piece, the piece has to be good otherwise it won't sell. When people go to the theatre, if they come out with a bit of magic they will take that magic and they'll tell somebody about it. If they don't, then they won't. That's why things don't sell, if not enough people feel the magic.
DOH: What have you seen recently where you felt that magic?
SS: People Places and Things – that was an absolute master-class performance from Denise Gough and it inspired me to be a better actor. And also a brilliant message – that's another thing about theatre, having a message of humanity and love that's what the key is.
DOH: How did you first get involved with Eugenius the Musical?
DB: Kevin Woods who is the producer of this project phoned me last year and said there is a brilliant writer called Ben who has written this song for you, with you in mind, would you consider recording it. At that time I said yes, but due to so many other commitments I was never able to – so I knew flatteringly enough that the writer was writing something for me. This year, when everything fell into place, he asked me would I do it and I said yes.
DOH: Since winning your second Olivier I bet you're inundated with offers!
DB: It's all been very nice I have to say. I don't know what switches in people's minds when you win a second Olivier, but something does, it's very nice. People start offering things and there's less “can you audition” and more “can you do this” so it's all been a very nice change in the atmosphere.
DOH: Did you feel the atmosphere change at In The Heights after the show did so well at the Oliviers?
DB: I've not been there since the Oliviers, I left two months ago because one of my parents fell ill. It's kind of a wonderful thing when you can experience the highs of showbusiness – one night you can be walking the red carpet and accepting an Olivier on national television, and the next night you're home holding onto your Dad as he struggles to get through cancer. It's a real grasp on reality and I'm so grateful for it. It would have been so easy to buy into the hype and what that means for show business. I don't denigrate what it is, it's all wonderful stuff, but having a parent pass away within the same two months totally brings you back to earth.
DOH: Have you found working on this new musical to be a collaborative experience?
DB: Absolutely – they give you a sketch of who you are and they wait to see what you bring to the role. There's only been about once or twice in my life where I've been able to create a role from scratch and the first time I did it brought me my first Olivier, so I'm all for going for such things.
DOH: Can you tell me a little more about your character?
DB: He is a megalomaniac, Hollywood producer. He is very good at smoothing things with a charming smile and getting what he wants. He's all about himself and his own success. Difficult to relate to. There's quite a few songs in here that are going to almost be recognizable but also be brand new. I think that's what appeals to me, the music is very familiar yet every bit of it is brand new, it's very exciting.
DOH: Do you think this form of open workshop is a good move for new musicals?
DB: I certainly think they're helpful for getting the word out in one night that this is something that's going to be special. It's a whole lot better than holding a workshop in someone's studio – I think they've made the right choice.
DOH: How do you select what work to take as an actor, especially now you're a double-Olivier Award winner?
DB: I suppose you look to see what pulls your heart strings. It may be a couple of lines from something and you just feel that it's great. You also have to listen to the people who are leading you – I have a terrific agent at Cole Kitchen who seems to have a nose for success. Also people I've worked with before, so you've got to stick with people that you've worked with.
DB: I think it's the first time an new musical has had such good music all at once. It's like every single song in this show sounds like a hit, and you don't get that very often. Usually musicals have one or two good songs and the others get there eventually, but this is quite different.