Sam Ward seizes opportunities. He began 2017 performing in his dream show, Les Misérables. By mid-year, he had made his professional debut in the Production Company’s rock masterpiece, Jesus Christ Superstar, before rounding out the year winning the Playbill Future Prospect Award as part of the Rob Guest Endowment.
As an actor, singer and dancer, he is about to spend the next 6 months ‘shaking his groove thing’ on board a cruise ship, as part of the Priscilla Queen of the Desert cast. While the show’s destination is Alice Springs, the cast and passengers are bound for Europe and the Caribbean.
Before flying out to Florida for a month of rehearsals, Sam took some time out to share his journey so far.
A recent graduate from VCA with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music Theatre, Sam grew up a keen musician, playing piano at the age of 8, then French Horn at age 10, “…random, I know” he says. He sang in a choir and although aware of his strong voice, didn’t take singing lessons until he was 17.
Enrolling in SHOWFIT, a 1 year program at Centre Stage in Brunswick, he studied under Australia’s elite musical theatre teachers and industry professionals. The team was led by course directors Simon Gleeson, Leanne White and Matthew Frank, as Head of Music. “It was a great way to learn. Simon Gleeson was teaching while he was doing Love Never Dies and Chess. This was before he was Valjean in Les Misérables but we were in awe. He was already well regarded in the industry before he became famous.”
From SHOWFIT, he started with a one year foundation course at VCA 3 days a week which placed a strong focus on acting, and allowed him time to attend external dance classes and singing lessons, before starting his degree full time the following year.
Keen to invest in his craft, Sam spent some time in New York to train with singing teacher Andrew Byrne, who specializes in training performers to be the best vocalists they can be. Byrne applies the principles of athletic training and performance neurology to the world of singing. “He focuses on stretching muscles that help you to sing. It certainly works and I still use these techniques today.”
While on the Great White Way, Sam seized the opportunity to research what Broadway had to offer watching 26 shows in just under 4 weeks!
After graduating, Sam secured the coveted role of Marius opposite theatre and television legend Peter Cousens in the Free Rain Theatre Company’s 2017 production of Les Misérables.
Cousens, who was cast as Valjean, had played Marius for more than 2000 performances in the original Australian production. “The thing that struck me about Sam was his innate understanding of classical and romantic style. It’s hard to teach. He sings really well and well suited for that period style and he chose a really legitimate approach to the singing and bucked the trend to try to make it feel contemporary. It was a good choice for him. It is a very satisfying role to play and he mastered the singer /actor requirements beautifully.”
Local reviews highlighted Sam’s impressive performance of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’.
Jesus Christ Superstar
In his first commercial show, Superstar saw him performing as one of the high priests to audiences at Melbourne’s State Theatre. He had grown up listening to the soundtrack at home and having seen the Arena tour with Tim Minchin and Melanie C, he was keen to audition.
“We only had 2 weeks of rehearsals which means for an actor you have to make a choice, commit and remember. There is less discovery and playing around on the floor”. It also gave him the opportunity to work with acclaimed international theatre director Gale Edwards. “The creative team were great and had a strong idea of what they wanted, but with a limited enagagement you don’t get to grow into the role.”
After the close of Jesus Christ Superstar, he was approached by fellow VCA graduates Sam Hooper and Josh Robson to be the musical director on Sweet Charity, for OCPAC (Old Carey Performing Arts Club), an amateur theatre company where professionals are part of the creative team.
“It was great to be on the other side. I had to conduct the band, a new skill I had to learn quickly. As a musician, I’d been in orchestras and played in shows, but it was a steep learning curve and a very valuable experience. Although I was rushed into a big show with a complex score, I would be interested in doing it again with something simpler.”
When Sam Hooper went on to direct the Neil Simon comedy ‘They’re Playing Our Song’, Sam joined the cast playing the inner voice for one of the lead characters. With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, the show is based on the real life relationship of Hamlisch and Bayer Sager, telling the story of a neurotic composer and an eccentric lyricist as they try to build their budding professional and personal relationship.
He finished off the year as one of the Top 30 semi-finalists of the Rob Guest Endowment, was awarded the Playbill Future Prospect Award for 2017.
He welcomed 2018 with the long-awaited chance to be directed by Tyran Parke in the show, Falsettos, one of Sam’s favourite experiences to date.
“It was originally written in the late 70s and early 80s by William Finn who started to explore the themes of family and relationships. Then the AIDS crisis happened and because he was a gay man in New York, it was a big part of what was going on for him at the time”.
“William Finn’s writing is human and there is something to latch onto. The character in Falsettos was different to me as a person, so I needed to find how I could relate to him. Whizzer is very aware of how good he looks, so I had to try to find a slightly different physicality, it was about being proud and showy, like a peacock.”
Almost entirely sung through, the show is both poignant and funny and played for 10 days at Chapel off Chapel in Melbourne, taking new audiences on an emotional rollercoaster.
“It’s a cult show that people love. Over the three week rehearsal period, l learned to appreciate the writing and understood why people were obsessed with it. Tyran was a very generous director and very clear about what he wanted and very thorough. It was a happy rehearsal room. I loved working with him, he was thinking about your character as much as you were.
It certainly paid off as the show received great reviews. Weekend Notes thought it, ‘…a fabulous production and not to be missed!’, while Simon Parrish noted ‘Sam Ward brings a level of sweetness and sincerity to the caddish Whizzer’.
Bromance on the High Seas
Right now, Sam is organising visa’s and preparing to fly to Florida for a month of rehearsals before boarding a Norwegian Cruise Line bound for Europe and the Caribbean as part of the cast of Priscilla-Queen of the Desert. He is part of the ensemble and will also understudy the lead role of Tick. ‘It’s a full-scale production, 4 shows a week, playing in a 680 seat theatre.”
He will be directed by Dean Bryant (winner of the 2014 Helpmann Award for Best Director of a Musical for Sweet Charity). Over the next 6 months, the ship will to Barcelona, Florence, Naples, Rome and Cannes, then back to Florida and around the Caribbean.
He hopes to use some of his time on board to think about what he’d like to do in the next year or so. “I would love to work in London. It has a strong theatre culture and there are more shows playing there”. He mentions some typical musical roles he would like to play, such as Curly (Oklahoma), Billy Bigelow (Carousel) and Chris (Miss Saigon), but also the lesser known eponymous title role in Floyd Collins, a show based on the death of a caver who got trapped 200 feet underground in 1925.
As Sam sails across the ocean, pondering his future, these comments from Peter Cousens could help shape his thoughts. “I do hope he finds a way to go beyond the musical theatre orbit and gets in to some acting as well. We can get very boxed in as performers in Australia and the more you can think outside the box the better for making a livelihood. He is an ideal leading man… great singer, confident and intelligent and a good actor. He is the real deal and I just hope opportunities turn up and he seizes them.”