Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A Winnipegger in New York

Samantha Hill finds musical success in the Big Apple

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By night, Samantha Hill can be found dodging falling chandeliers, getting seduced by a masked composer and nailing electrifying high notes in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. By day, Samantha Hill is still a Winnipeg girl at heart, navigating the New York City subway system and finding the best fish tacos before curtain call.

The Winnipeg-born Hill moved to New York in October of 2012 to star as the alternate Christine Daaé in the longest-running Broadway show of all time. The gig is obviously going well for Hill. On March 4, the 25-year-old took over the role full-time after Sierra Boggess's stint with the show ended.

Her last role in Winnipeg was Lily St. Regis in Annie at Rainbow Stage last summer. One of her earliest roles was as the Cosette understudy in Grant Park High School's 2004 production of Les Miserables.

So how is the prairie girl adapting to the new role and life in the big city? I ventured to Manhattan to find out, as Hill also happens to be my best friend and the perfect New York tour guide.

Hill said the shift from two shows a week to six is a big adjustment both physically and mentally.

"It's a very demanding role, but I still get two days off which I definitely will need. I'm going to have to pace myself because it can really be a demanding role," Hill said. "It's a difficult sing. Your voice gets tired really easily. So I will have to be more careful."

To say the role is difficult is an understatement. The music requires Hill to sing from a low G to a high E. To keep her voice healthy, Hill uses a steam inhaler a few times a week and puts herself on strict vocal rest if she senses her voice is getting even the slightest bit tired or hoarse.

And that's just the singing. To transform the actress into the French opera star Christine, Hill wears a thick, curly brown wig and changes heavy, corsetted costumes about a dozen times during the 90-minute show. The costumes put a strain on her lower back, Hill said, and she sees a chiropractor twice weekly to keep the pain at bay.

"It's a small price to pay to wear such incredible costumes and to sing such amazing music. You need those aspects to make the show what it is."

Offstage, Hill leads a surprisingly down-to-earth life. She lives in Queens with two roommates, both in the entertainment industry -- one a dancer/chereographer and the other a cameraman on a talk show. Hill said she likes having the company in what can be such a lonely city.

"My roommates are like a built-in family unit. I don't know a lot of people in the city yet, so it's nice to have supportive, good people to come home to. It makes New York seem more like home," she said.

Hill, it seems, has become quite an adept NYC tour guide. She steered us seamlessly through the winding New York streets, and to all the best restaurants and hangouts in town.

From eating a heaping bowl of mussels at Balthazar Restaurant in Soho, to spending hours snapping photos in Central Park, to taking in an incredible performance by Light in the Piazza composer Adam Guettel at 54 Below, Hill guided me through the city like a pro. She even stopped to help a tourist buy a MetroCard from one of the automated machines.

"I used to get confused by these too," she said, smiling at him.

One night before a performance, Hill took me to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican eatery in Hell's Kitchen a few blocks from the Majestic Theater where Phantom is performed.

"I can only sometimes find this place, but it just kind of appears to me when I really, really need a good fish taco," Hill said as we searched the endless brownstones for the spot.

We found it, thank goodness, tucked away unassumingly amongst the high rises, dry cleaners and pizzerias that line the smoky streets. We gorged on some of the best nachos, burritos and tacos I've ever had.

Hill leaned back in her chair, patting her non-existent belly.

"Well this will be an interesting show tonight," she joked.

Joining her backstage at the Majestic Theater before a Monday night performance felt like my inner-musical theatre geek's dream come true. Photos and signatures from past casts, decadent costumes, and dozens of props lined the walls. Some eager fans had dropped off a doll as a gift.

"I'm just really flattered by this kind of thing. Most of the fans are really enthusiastic, a lot of them kids who just really love the show, and all the feedback has been positive so I really can't complain. Also I get sweet dolls so I'm pretty happy about that," she laughed, adding that she's also received letters, a purse and hand-made toys from other fans.

After seeing Hill in the role, it's clear why she's gained the attention of Phantom diehards. Her angelic presence and mesmerizingly pure voice are bewitching to watch. Seeing my childhood friend take the Broadway stage brought a slightly embarrassing tear to my eye. It's a rare sight to see someone you love so tangibly living out their dream in front of your very eyes.

"I'm in a city surrounded by some the greatest artists in the world. I have somehow ended up in this community of amazing composers and actors and singers and musicians and maybe I'm not in the same league as them, but at least I can perform with a few of them and watch the others from offstage," Hill said.

Sure, Broadway may seem like the pinnacle for aspiring stage actors. But Hill is remaining true to her Canadian routes with a new gig: performing as Cosette in Mirvish's restaging of Les Miserables in Toronto. She'll start rehearsals in August.

"Sometimes I kind of can't believe where I've ended up. I'm incredibly blessed. I've worked very hard, but I am still very, very blessed."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2013 A14

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