Have you ever heard Hailey Gillis sing? It’s one of the great privileges in Canadian theatre, getting to listen to Hailey Gillis sing. Watching Hailey Gillis act is also pretty swell (as is talking to Hailey Gillis, she’s just generally pretty great). She’s nominated this year for Outstanding Performance in a Musical for the role of Tatyana in Onegin with the Musical Stage Company. From poetry to opera to ballet and now to musical theatre, Pushkin’s Tatyana Larina is one of the most compelling heroines of the last two centuries and Hailey brought her to life with vivid emotion in the Toronto premiere of the hit Vancouver musical.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
I remember I was in this choir. The Hamilton Children’s Choir. I was very distractible, and I couldn’t stand still, so I wasn’t fired from the Hamilton Children’s Choir, but I was generously let go at 9.
My parents were like, “What the heck do we do with this kid?”, and so they put me into the only theatre class that was around – Theatre Aquarius, their youth programme. That was the first time I remember actually being allowed to run around and talk a lot, and be distractible. We did some sort of presentation or something. I think it was scenes from The Stinky Cheese Man. It was my first time.
If you were kicked out of choir, how did you find your way back to singing?
My family is very musical on my father’s side. We’re all from the East Coast. It was always an instrument around a circle, and you had to sing, and that was how I grew up with my family, so that’s how I started singing. It was just where I was put, and I had to stand still, but that didn’t really work out.
When did I start singing again? Probably [with] Theatre Aquarius stuff. And I write music. I have been writing music for a long time. I found my songwriting books from when I was about 13, and my problems were hilarious. They were really angsty, when I really had nothing to be angsty about. I grew up in Grimsby, Ontario, and there was really nothing happening.
You first came onto my radar on the best reality show of all time. What stands out in your memory about your Triple Sensation experience?
First of all, I’ll tell you a funny story. I was actually talking to Mikaela [Davies] about this today. I have so many beautiful memories from that time. One of them was not so beautiful. In one of the challenges, we had to choreograph a solo dance, and I wasn’t a dancer. I knew how to sing, and I kind of knew how to act. We had this solo dance that we had to choreograph, and I did. And it was three minutes long. And after two moves, I forgot the whole thing and, on national television, I ran around in a circle for three minutes in front of all the judges. And I heard Garth Drabinsky turn to Sergio [Trujillo] and say, “Is that even a dance move?” And every time I went around, I did a new smile, so that was really embarrassing.
But what I do remember from that show was that I was 16, and I didn’t super know what was going on. A lot of the people had all almost graduated from theatre school, or they were in theatre school. So they knew who these judges were, and who the teachers were, and I didn’t. That was such a gift, because I just went in and said “Okay, okay, whatever you want. Oh, this is exciting, this is fun.” I didn’t go, “It’s Larry Moss, oh my God. This vocal coach of the stars”, or whatever.
I think of that now, and I think of taking on that mentality in everything I do. Just going in without any expectations. The attitude you have when you’re 16 when you grow up in a small town, and you’re like, “This is really exciting. I get to live in Toronto for two months.” That’s what I remember. Now I look back, and I’m like, “I was working with Patsy Rodenburg? If I was working with Patsy Rodenburg now, I’d be a mess.” I’d be so nervous. I’d love to do it again, though. That’d be fun.
They should bring it back. CBC, if you’re paying attention: Bring Back Triple Sensation!
They should bring it back! I was thinking about that. What is there like that now?
Nothing. They did the casting Dorothy-type things for awhile but, other than that, musical theatre just doesn’t exist on TV.
That felt different to me a little bit, because Triple Sensation felt like a teaching workshop filmed and judged. I felt like it was less about performance and more about process.
You’ve been nominated for two past awards for us: 2014 for The Crucible and 2016 for Manhattan Concert Cycle. Tell us a little bit about working on those shows.
Well, the Crucible was really interesting because it was the remount, so I had seen the original. And I saw Hannah Miller play Abigail, which I played, and I thought she was extraordinary. So we were coming into that. I’d never been part of a remount before, which is a crazy experience, because everyone else had done the show, except me and Mikaela, who was playing Mary Warren. Everyone else had done the show, and they knew exactly what they were doing, and they had a process and a rhythm. We were just dropped into that process and rhythm and expected to catch up as fast, even though we hadn’t had two years’ experience. So that was the first kick of the can, first big professional part onstage with this crazy pressure of “Get it right, fast”.
But Stu Hughes who I acted with, was so amazing at taking time with me. Laura Condlln, who’s a friend and a great mentor, was in that show as well, and she was so wonderful in mentoring me through that. She was also taking over the part.
It’s one of my favourite plays of all time. I think it’s an incredible play. I love Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller’s an extraordinary playwright. Anytime I see anything he does, I’m like, “I don’t know if we can get better than this. I honestly don’t.”
Playing the villain was really exciting. I remember doing a talkback – people hated me in the talkbacks. I’d try not to defend my character, but just speak to her thought process and her action process. Like, if you’re a young woman, and you don’t have anything to your name, you’re trying to find a path for yourself, and you’ve been abused – and they wanted nothing to do with it. It’s so interesting to play that kind of part, and try to have to defend her. So that was really beneficial to learn how to do that.
The Manhattan Concert is a very different kind of show, so it wasn’t as challenging, but working with Mike Ross is one of my greatest pleasures and I learned so much trying to create these with him, because he’s also a friend and a mentor. This hybrid concert lecture – I’ve just been there with him as he tries to figure out what that even is, and I think that’s useful to figure out what that form is. So that was really interesting. I’d try to understand what that even means, when all of those things come together.
Speaking of that form, my favourite thing I’ve ever seen you do was the Janis Joplin/Leonard Cohen duet in the American Pie Songbook. I don’t actually have a question about it, I just wanted to bring it up.
Oh, that was really cool. I’m really into mashups. It was Frank [Cox-O’Connell] and Mike and I that came up with that mashup, actually. I’m glad you liked that. That was really fun.
How did you get involved with Onegin?
I remember hearing about Onegin because I was playing Juliet out with Bard on the Beach in Vancouver. I went to the Jessies- which are like the Vancouver Doras- with a friend; I’d never been before. And Onegin was winning every award. I was like, “What is this show? What does it mean?”
Meg Roe, who I think is an incredible director, originally played the part of Tatyana in Vancouver. She got up onstage, and I knew about her already, and she won the award for Best Actress, I think, at the Jessies. Then it went away for a while, in my brain, and then I found out they were coming to Toronto and they were having auditions.
Peter Fernandes and I were working on a project at that time, and he was also auditioning for the show, and we both stayed in the rehearsal hall till 2 in the morning practising our songs, because they were so hard. They were so complicated, and we were both like, “We can’t go. We can’t go, we can’t do this audition.” Then we were like, “No, we can!” and we psyched ourselves up for it. And we both booked it, but I remember getting that music for Tatyana, and I auditioned with “Let Me Die”, which is her main song in that show, and it was 26 pages long or something. I was like, “This is my audition? Oh my God. I’m not going to be able to do this!”
Then I met [Amiel Gladstone], who’s the director and writer and Veda Hille who wrote the music, and they were so generous and beautiful. It was really cool to be in the audition with them, and be in the room with them- very Vancouver, very West Coast chilled out but still really focused vibe, which I appreciated so much.
The score blends traditional musical theatre styles with Russian influences and contemporary rock sounds. How did the musical style of the songs influence your acting choices for the character?
That’s a really good question. I think Veda has a genius way of moving melody based on thought, so she did a lot of the work for me, I think. I remember learning the songs, and the movement is so clear in the way that she writes. She’s an actor’s writer. She’s a storytelling writer, which is so big, because that doesn’t always happen.
I have this pet peeve with musical theatre, when songs are just sung because it’s a musical, and not because they actually have a purpose. And I feel like she bridges that gap well, because she actually uses it to explore types of thought. When Josh [Epstein] is doing his thing in that show – he played Lenski, the poet – his range, and his type of vocal quality lends itself to the character, versus Onegin, who’s lower. Daren [Herbert] did some funky, awesome notes, because Daren can just do that. [Veda] has folk influences in her own life. She was a singer-songwriter to begin with.
I’m questioning what the point of musical theatre is a lot, because there are so many musicals that I find so powerful, and I was drawn to, but there is a lot of contemporary musical theatre that I feel isn’t using the form, and is just writing a musical because it makes more money, and they can call it a musical. There has to be a reason you’re singing this, or you would just speak this. There has to be a higher calling for the music. I felt vindicated in that when I did Onegin, because I feel like they did that.
When Polly Phokeev and Mikaela Davies were in here, they talked about you working on a musical now. Is that something really in your mind?
So much. It’s so much in my mind that sometimes I have to make sure it doesn’t block my creativity, because I’m like, “I know all the things I don’t want a musical to be,” and I’m trying to write a musical. Polly and Mikaela have been so great in that sometimes you need to fail, and sometimes you need to fail big, and it’s okay, because we’re all just three of us in a room together. So, “be all the things you’re worried about, and we’ll figure it out”. That’s been so eye-opening, being forced to even perform stuff for them.
Writing this show has been hard. Really hard, and really good, because I have so many expectations for what I think the form of music and theatre can do together. And I’m just trying to find out what that formula is, and it’s really hard to know.
What else are you working on right now, or what do you have coming up?
I’ve been doing a lot of concerts with Soulpepper, so I’m doing that. Then we’re working on this thing with Mikaela and Polly, and then I go out east and do a whole season. Then when I come back, there’s some things in the works. But they’re not a thing yet, so I can’t really talk about them.