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Rigorous Grant Park High School training set students on route to Broadway shows

Stage flight

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NEW YORK CITY-- In 2003, Grant Park High School presented what was then the largest student production ever produced on a Manitoba stage.

The school's cramped gym could no longer contain the mass of electronic equipment, booming talent pool and expanding audiences required of an ambitious musical, so artistic director George Budoloski relocated to the 1,600-seat Burton Cummings Theatre. The idea was to give his triple threats, teens who could sing, dance and act, an experience they would not never forget -- the opportunity to perform one of the great theatre works on a historic stage where the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, Bob Hope and Winston Churchill had stood.

Fast forward almost a decade and a couple of those student performers are sitting in a stylish meeting room in the office of Cameron Macintosh, the man behind the international stage hits Les Miserables, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Mary Poppins.

Samantha Hill and Josh Assor remember Grant Park's Les Miz as the starting point for careers that have landed them both on Broadway. Hill, 25, is the Christine Daaé alternate in The Phantom of the Opera, while Assor, 24, plays the featured dance role Neleus in Mary Poppins.

They are the second and third local Les Miz cast members who have debuted on Broadway this year. Jaz Sealey was a member of the Jesus Christ Superstar production that came from the Stratford Festival and closed July 1.

"We were working on the assumption that if we gave them everything we can to make them great, they will rise to that," says Budoloski in a recent interview. "We wanted them to know what it's like -- whether they went off to be lawyers -- to be in as professional a show as we could create."

After Les Miz, Hill and Assor took radically different routes to the Big White Way, never really allowing themselves to boldly dream that it was even possible. Hill, content with her thriving stage life in Canada, remembers a family trip to New York City being cancelled and her father promising her they would go when she was on Broadway.

"I got angry, saying, 'Dad, people just don't go to Broadway,' and told him I'm not going to be on Broadway," says the fresh-faced soprano from River Heights, "He said, 'Yes you will.'"

The Hill family will join her for Christmas in New York City this weekend.


Assor, who grew up in Garden City and Tuxedo, was a world champion tap dancer and was the only Canadian to win a scholarship to train in Los Angeles with top choreographers. In 2008, he left Winnipeg for Toronto and the following year scored parts in West Side Story and Cyrano de Bergerac at Stratford Festival, before returning home in 2010 to play Benjamin in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Rainbow Stage. In 2011 he won the part of Neleus in the North American tour of Mary Poppins.

"Broadway was never really part of the plan," says the diminutive, dark-haired Assor, who originally thought of a future in architecture. "It was too far-fetched."

While on the road as far south as Mexico, Assor began to contemplate the possibility, because the dancer he was replacing on tour had been promoted to Broadway. When he heard his predecessor was leaving the New York production, he knew the Mary Poppins producers might come calling. They did and six days later last February he was making his Broadway debut at the new Amsterdam Theatre.

"Opening night was a crazy blur," says Assor. "It was the most surreal moment ever, but it wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. Getting the big tour in the United States was where the pressure was. The transition to Broadway was easy. They hired me to do what I had been doing."

Hill made her Broadway debut Nov. 12 as the innocent chorus girl who becomes the obsession of a mysterious disfigured musical genius in The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre.

"I was prepared but every time I stumbled, I was thinking, 'This is Broadway, people don't make mistakes,'" says Hill, who last season appeared in August: Osage Country (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre), Annie (Rainbow Stage) and Spring Awakening (Winnipeg Studio Theatre). "I'm told that's definitely not true. It was crazy, but the bow was one of the biggest thrills I'll ever get."

Hill regularly performs twice a week but has performed as many as five days in a row when needed. She is contracted through February in Broadway's longest-running show but her stay could be extended now that she has recently received the endorsement of Phantom's original director Harold Prince, a towering figure in American theatre and winner of 21 Tony Awards. Earlier this month he came to see Hill perform.

"Hal Prince came at intermission to tell us all we had done a great show," says Hill, a graduate of the universities of Winnipeg and Alberta. "Then he turned to me, kissed my hand and said I was marvellous and that he wanted the whole cast to hear it. I feel very relieved and honoured that the original director has given me his blessing so graciously."

Assor is on an open-ended contract that sees him performing eight shows a week as a statue that comes to life with a major dance routine. He needs 20 minutes in the makeup chair to get his body painted silver and his face painted with tiny cracks. The physical demands are a continuing challenge.

"It requires constant maintenance for your body," says Assor. "You have to be on top of it; you never can be lazy. You have to stay in shape because you never know when you will be out of a job and have to start auditions again."

The pair is ever grateful for the training they received from Budoloski, his wife Robin Dow, Kimberley Rampersad and others. They set the standards that students like Assor and Hill have built their careers upon.

"We had dance in the morning, singing after school," says Hill. "I worked harder in high school. It set me up for the hard work that's required in my career."

Assor dedicates a lot of his success to the teaching of Rampersad, a dance instructor who also often performs at Rainbow Stage and RMTC.

"That they are on Broadway at the same time is the fun thing, but I'm not surprised," says a proud Rampersad. "We are a city of 700,000 and I could name half a dozen people off the top of my head who are on Broadway."

Besides Hill and Assor, Jeremy Kushnier, one of Winnipeg's most successful Broadway stars, is back there in Jersey Boys. Another Grant Park performing arts grad, Sam Strasfeld, was in Mary Poppins before moving on to the Kathie Lee Gifford musical Scandalous, which closed abruptly Dec. 9 after running less than four weeks. Former Winnipegger Jayne Paterson was also a replacement in Mary Poppins.

What Assor and Hill have learned is that Broadway is just another stage, not all that different from the ones back home.

"I've tried to bring a Broadway performance to every show I've done," says Hill. "It's not like I've got to Broadway and now I'm going to work so much harder.

"I've worked with some amazing people in Winnipeg who have never been on Broadway."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2012 C1

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