Mega-hit musical Mamma Mia! arrived in Hong Kong on September 24 as a stop on its international tour. Young Post's junior reporters were invited to a dance session with the show's choreographer and dance captain Jamie Wilkin. This is what they learned about the musical world ...
Stress on the 'swing'
Upon arrival on the stage at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts' Lyric Theatre, we jumped straight into the dance session with barely a moment to marvel at the 1,181-seat stage.
Jamie Wilkin taught us a dance routine that was used to audition new cast members. We danced to Beyonce's Run the World (Girls), and while the upbeat tune was enjoyable to move to, it was almost too fast and quickly drained my energy. I could barely stay on my feet by the time we had repeated the mere eight-bar routine twice. As fun as it was, it was utterly exhausting.
And it made me imagine the dancers in Mamma Mia!, dancing constantly for the length of a song that was, say, three minutes. With the level of energy they injected into their performance, I couldn't help wondering how they managed to stay awake during the performance, let alone how they survived two shows a day. I have a tonne of respect for them.
I am so in awe of the performers who somehow manage to sing near flawlessly while dancing the most exhausting of routines. But there are some performers who stand out a little less than others, even if they have to do much more ...
The term "swing" is given to a performer who must know every character's lines and dance routines, and be ready to step in for whoever may be ill or injured. They often end up being in as many as three to four shows a week. Jamie is one of those swing performers.
As someone who loves to perform, I find it hard to put myself in that position, for the simple reason that it is incredibly difficult. Knowing what you yourself have to do as a regular character is difficult enough without having to know the steps for everyone else in the cast.
Finding the 'triple threats'
How do you audition for one of the most popular musicals in the world? To begin with, it is important to note that there are no "best" actors or actresses when it comes to auditions, but simply those who are seen by the casting directors as the most suitable candidates for certain roles. Even if you may be good at singing, dancing and acting, you just might not have the right "feel" of the character or the chemistry with others.
So, to find "the one", the Mamma Mia! international tour has many auditions and callbacks. They first select those who are capable artists, meaning they have to be triple threats - good at singing, acting and dancing.
Another interesting tip for actors to keep in mind while in this time-consuming process of auditioning is that, on top of being professional and giving their best performance possible, having fun and showing a positive side of their personality is also essential. As Jamie told us, they are looking for actors who are "always bubbly and can bring something special to the table".
Showbiz can often be exhausting and drain the life out of a performer, but as long as they keep a "bubbly" feeling in their heart and audition for the sake of expressing their passion for the performing arts, the whole process would definitely be a huge learning experience and also immensely pleasurable.
It's interactive: have fun!
Another important part of a musical, besides the acting, dancing and singing, is the audience's energy and their reactions. If you pull off an amazing performance but the audience doesn't react, it gets kind of awkward for the performers.
For example, Jamie told us that when they had shows in South Korea, the audience didn't react as expected. When the audience were expected to stand up, sing and dance around, they didn't respond, but that doesn't mean they disliked the show. It just depends on each country's cultural differences, as Asians tend to be more reserved than Westerners.
On the other hand, Jamie told us about a performance in Blackpool in Britain, where the audience was amazing - they jumped out of their chairs and danced and sang with the performers. A performance of Mamma Mia! is very interactive with the audience. The actors encourage you to get out your chair, and dance and sing along with them, which makes it different from other musicals. The overall mood of the musical is very bubbly, comedic and happy-go-lucky, and the actors try to convey their emotions to the audience to make them feel the same way. So when you watch Mamma Mia!, make sure you react!
Complex things behind the scenes
"I may be the director [of the show]," said Nick Evans, "but once the production starts, I just sit back and let them do their stuff."
Indeed, everybody working in the production is perfectly coordinated, like the gears of a large machine, but hidden from the audience's view.
Have you ever wondered how the musicians and performers on stage are so synchronised with one another? Perched just behind the curtains on either side are cameras so that the performers can see the conductor of the orchestra. There is another camera trained on the conductor, as well as on the pianist, for the lighting crew backstage.
The conductor and pianist raise their arms or breathe in just before starting so that the lights can be activated just as the music begins. As for the conductor, there is a mirror for him at the back of the theatre reflecting the entire stage.
In addition, while the performers make the use of props look so easy as they run around with chairs and jump on them, it's actually incredibly complicated. Backstage, there are chairs lined in columns, and there's the name of the role and its performer at the bottom of each column. Some chairs have to be used only for some scenes; for example, the chairs on which the dancers jump have a stronger base. What's more, they have to be put in exactly the right spots so their numbers match those marked on the stage.
Meanwhile, the stage manager sits at the head of this operation with multiple cameras, making sure that the props are in place, the equipment is managed safely, the lighting and sound are all perfect, and so on.
Little does the audience, sitting in their comfortable chairs and enjoying the performance, know about the painstaking efforts that ensure the production runs smoothly.
The Mamma Mia! international tour will be performing at HKAPA until November 2. For ticket information, go to www.hkticketing.com
See our junior reporters in action as they learn some dance steps from Jamie