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Friday, May 13, 2011

First Person: Stephen Pietrantonio on Le Spotlight

Contestants onstage, 2008 (photo: Andrew Oster)

by Stephen Pietrantonio

Every year, something very odd happens to me when we present Le Spotlight, Montreal’s musical theatre challenge. It usually occurs during dress rehearsal, when I hear a few notes from the orchestra playing together for the first time. I might be backstage or in the lighting booth or in the lobby, taking care of some minor (or major) crisis. Suddenly, it’s as if I’ve been plugged directly into an electrical socket. The jolt is overwhelming, intense and utterly satisfying.  I instantly become completely engaged and incredibly energized.  “Oh my God,” I think to myself, “it’s really happening!”

Contestants backstage, 2008

The thing that’s “happening” is an evening of musical theatre performances presented entirely by emerging Montreal artists.  A live orchestra accompanies the participants, and the performers are evaluated both by professional judges and the general public.  It is always a thrill to see these talents shine, especially since we don’t have a lot of occasions when we can do that in our own city.

When we launched Le Spotlight for the first time, the idea was to offer some kind of local platform for Montreal’s English-language musical theatre performers. The unwritten rule seemed to be that you had to leave town in order to gain recognition and develop as a musical artist. Toronto, New York, London and other places seemed to be the only way for Montrealers to gain experience and exposure.  

Why couldn’t one of these opportunities happen right here at home?

So we set out to do Le Spotlight. The first year, we were at the Centre Calixa-Lavallée in Parc Lafontaine. The space is welcoming and intimate, but it is not air-conditioned.  In the summertime it becomes almost unbearably hot, and our show date was in the middle of one of the first heat waves of the season.  

I can’t ever remember seeing so many happy, sweaty faces as I did that night.  Had it not been so stiflingly hot, it might have been one of the most perfect nights I ever experienced.  Our finalists were all in fine form, and the positive energy in the room was simply overflowing. The feeling I experienced when I heard Stephanie Pitsiladis sing “The Wizard and I” from “Wicked”, and the brilliant Patrick Olafson perform “Maria” from “West Side Story”, was indescribable. It reminded me that we didn’t have to go to New York or anywhere else to have a wonderful musical theatre experience. The audience hung around in the sweltering heat for over an hour after the performance ended, just to talk among themselves about what they had just seen and heard.  

From that very first year, we have always had a significant francophone presence at Le Spotlight.  I’ve always thought it was great that the Two Solitudes could come together based on a shared appreciation of this unique and exciting performing art form.   

It’s also been interesting to see the quality of contestants improve from year to year.  Frankly, some of the auditions by our first year’s crop were a bit painful to endure. Since then, they have gotten better and better. I like to think that Le Spotlight is helping to make people strive for excellence and to achieve their personal best. I hope it makes contestants feel empowered and that they realize just how much they can accomplish when they apply themselves. It’s even better since the general public can share in this experience right along with them.

A lot of funny things happen as part of Le Spotlight. One of the funniest was during auditions a couple of years ago when, without warning, a performer raced across the room at the end of his song and made a flying leap into the lap of one of the preliminary round judges.  Once he climbed out of her lap, we took him aside and politely but firmly suggested that, in the future, he might want to let people know if he was planning to perform such a stunt. There are, after all, a few limits to dramatic license and audience involvement!  Fortunately there were just a few momentary frazzled nerves stemming from this incident.

Nothing irks me more than when Le Spotlight is compared to Canadian Idol and other TV celebrity factories. Our main concern is not who’s got the most outrageous appearance or the most shocking personal history. Our goal is to show what Montreal’s emerging musical theatre performers can do when they put their minds to it.

People often ask me what happens to the Spotlight winners after the competition.  Well, if you wanted to enjoy a performance by Gabrielle Maes after her Spotlight win in 2007, you had to go to Malaysia. Gabrielle’s performance there in “Souvenir” made her the first non-Asian woman to win a Cameroonian award for excellence.  Braulio Elicer, our 2009 winner and this year’s host of Le Spotlight, has become one of Montreal’s most prolific young actors, with numerous appearances on stage and TV.  

This summer, our most recent winner, 2010’s Tina Mancini, will attend the prestigious Circle in the Square musical theatre program.  She will also have her Big Apple debut in October at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in our own French-language adaptation of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical”. Like I said earlier, you never know what can happen until you try.

Marien of “Les Misérables” fame and the pop group “Tocadéo” before they went on to international success.  The cross-pollination of young artists working side by side with the more experienced performers has always been my favourite side effect of the overall Le Spotlight experience.  Invariably, everybody learns something they didn’t know before they came.  How many experiences in life can guarantee you that? 

Perhaps the most important thing we re-learn each year is: It can be done.  It can be done here.  Everyone is waiting for the next big gigantic musical to sweep into town to magically employ large numbers of Montrealers.  Contrary to popular belief, I feel it will only come if we take small, regular steps to make such things happen.   

In the end, I never care who wins Le Spotlight. In fact, I’m not generally in agreement with the professional judges’ choice.  Le Spotlight is about all the participants, not just one of them.  During the preparation for Le Spotlight, I often ask contestants: “Are you a worthy contender?”  To me, it is the only question that matters.  Who cares about where you went to school, the last show you were in, or what language you speak?  I just want to know, right here and now, if you are ready to share the best you can bring to musical theatre with Montreal and the world.  

If I say to a Le Spotlight contestant “You are a worthy contender,” it is the highest compliment I know how to give. 

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