So So Gay recently got the chance to catch up with David Hunter, Niall Sheehy and Afnan Iftikhar, three finalists from the ITV1 talent show Superstar. This was the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber TV show which sought to find a performer to play Jesus in a new arena tour of the rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.
So So Gay: What was your experience like on Superstar?
David: It was an incredible experience. At the time, it was extremely stressful and the pressure was intense, but now the dust has settled, I look back at the entire journey with a lot of pride and happiness.
Niall: I had an absolutely amazing time on the show. I had steeled myself for an X Factor type of show where it would be full of arguing and one-upmanship, but we all got on so well as a group, it really felt like a mates’ holiday, and I mean that from the Bootcamp stage with the 41 of us. That’s not a sound byte – we just hung out together, and then, when it was time to work, we did our job.
Afnan: My experience on superstar was amazing. From the very first audition to my exit from the competition I loved every second. We were challenged mentally, physically, technically and emotionally. Some days were harder than others and those were the days me and the boys really bonded. It was a case of coming together in an alien situation. We all had our goal in mind, but it was a healthy environment. We looked after each other and that made the experience all the more incredible.
Do you feel Ben Forster [the winner] was really the best man for the job?
Niall: That’s an impossible question for me to answer. I could give you a handful of reasons why each of the finalists should have won. What I would say about Ben is that he conducted himself with such dignity and professionalism, not to mention the fact that his voice is incredible, so he is without a doubt a worthy winner.
David: I think Ben has an exceptional voice and, for me, he gives off that calm, serene energy that I associate with the the other stars who have played the role. I just wish I could see everyone in the role and see their take on it.
Afnan: Ben is a supremely talented, humble guy with a ton of experience. He was very much the right man for the role, although I would have liked a crack at it as I’m sure we all would have!
Some people think that finalist, Nathan James, was treated unfairly on the show. He was clearly unliked by judges Jason Donovan and Lord Webber, do you think as a TV audience we got an accurate portrayal of what happened?
Niall: It’s tough to be subjective when you’re part of the show. The public only see one side of things, and we are then privy to the rest. I mean, a lot of people have said that the judges had it in for me too, but I think the thing to remember is that they are making a TV show and if every comment was positive, the audience would get bored. Everyone watching could see and hear how unbelievable Nathan’s vocals were, and he’s a larger-than-life character, so I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that this gave them an opportunity to pick holes in his performance.
Afnan: I personally didn’t agree with the way Nathan was addressed in the infamous episode which lead to his exit, but equally the judges may have had their reasons to bring personal issues into the comments. Nathan’s an incredibly talented guy, with a great gift. He’s gonna do well no matter what.
What do you say to the criticism that these TV talent show searches are taking away roles from actors who have trained and auditioned hard all of their life?
Afnan: It always makes me laugh when people say this. The fact is, every single one of us had and have been working hard all our lives. The talent we were surrounded by consisted of West End professionals. We’re no different to anyone who’s come out of drama school. It was just another audition, all be it a nationally televised one. When else would you get a chance to audition for the lord and his team?
David: I think Andrew’s shows are unique in attracting trained, professional actors and performers to his auditions. It’s the success of his former contestants that attracted me. The final forty in Superstar were made up predominantly of professionals already working in the industry. I trained at drama school and have been working in music or acting for years now, but like many others, I saw this as a unique opportunity to raise my profile and perhaps be considered for bigger and better work. I wouldn’t have entered any other reality TV show because I’m not sure they support their contestants in the same way. I’d be extremely nervous for anyone entering some of the huge TV shows, because we see so many promising performers thrust into fame, only to have it taken away moments later. I feel, in Andrew’s shows, the focus in very much on the talent of the performers on show and not their ‘stories’ and that helps create a more lasting career.
Niall: I don’t really agree with the notion that these shows are taking roles away from people. At the end of the day, this career is all about bravery – you’ve either got the confidence to get up there and perform/audition, or you don’t. All these shows are are televised auditions. Yes, they’re for entertainment purposes, but the principle remains: if you do well, you’ll move on. I was never pushed for the classic ‘sob story’, and I felt throughout the process that if I performed well I’d progress without the need for one. Perhaps this makes for less interesting TV, but I’m thrilled with the way the process was carried out.
What’s it like standing THAT close to Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber?
Niall: It’s incredible. There’s no debating the fact that the man is a genuine genius, and when you’re standing there and he’s addressing us all, you can see that creative spark in his eye.
Afnan: Honestly? The first time it was terrifying! He’s a God in our industry and to perform in front of him was a dream. In fact that’s how I got through my first audition in front of him – I pretended I was dreaming to relieve some of the pressure from the situation!
David: It’s brilliant. I never expected him to work so closely with us. He was at every rehearsal with notes and advice, and he guided us through the whole process excellently. He’s so well-known as a personality now that you forget that he is responsible for writing some of the biggest musicals of all time. When that hits you, his notes carry even more weight.
For the first time, the show aired nightly over two weeks, rather than the usual weekly Saturday night format. Critics said this lead to the show being rushed. Did you feel a massive pressure every night to get it right?
Niall: God, you’re not letting me sit on the fence, are you? Of course there was more pressure on us by performing nightly. We had to learn all of our songs in advance, before we had even performed for the first time, so you had so many songs rattling around in your brain, which was a bit tricky. Having said that, we all knew what we had signed up for, and we also knew the Olympics were coming up, so I don’t think I’m the only one who would choose the 100m final over me singing a U2 song!
David: The stripped format made for an incredibly pressured experience for everyone involved, from the performers, to the production team and the crew, but it offered a test to us as performers that has never been seen on these shows before. It’s amazing that nobody crumbled under that pressure. The performances got stronger and stronger every night and I believe it made for excellent TV.
Afnan: It would have been a much more relaxed experience to have done the show in a traditional format. Having the show over a couple of months would have also allowed for the audience to get to know us better as performers and people, which I believe would have been better.
What’s the most valuable thing you took away from the whole experience?
Niall: My costumes! No, I think the entire experience was valuable. I got to work one-on-one with some of the best coaches in the industry, not to mention Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ve also made some true friends, and as cliché as it sounds, happiness is more important than work.
David: The experience as a whole! It’s something that I will look back on for the rest of my life as a truly extraordinary adventure. It was an emotional roller coaster each and every day, and returning to real life has been a strange transition, but I’m getting there.
So what did you think of the actual production itself at the 02? Was Ben a worthy Jesus in the end?
David: The show is unique. Watching Musical Theatre in an arena setting is a totally new experience. Ben was fantastic. And Melanie C was great [as Mary]. Any doubters will be instantly converted when they see her performing ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’. It’s brilliant.
And what was Chris Moyles like as Herod? Do you think a career change is in the pipeline?
David: I think he’d be the first to admit he isn’t a musical theatre man, but he did a great job and the audience loved him. Herod has to be one of the strangest roles in musical theatre history, because it’s such a short cameo. He pops up, steals the show and gets back to his dressing room before his brew gets cold.
What’s next for you in the future?
Afnan: The show has been extremely beneficial for my career. Having had that sort of exposure has elevated me further up the ladder and has opened doors in music, theatre and film and television which is exactly what I wanted. My next theatre outing will be as Dandini in Cinderella, at the Alhambra theatre.
Niall: This is always the awkward bit. The cynics reckon I’ll walk into a part or onto the telly or something. The truth is, I’m back harassing my agent, asking for auditions just like every other actor in the city. I never expected someone to wave a magic wand and just hand me a career, I just hoped that the next time I walk into an audition, they know who I am and liked what I tried to do on the show. I’d love to look down the road of television, but then so would everyone. We’ll just have to wait and see what opportunities arise.
David: Plenty of things are being talked about and I hope opportunities come my way, but I entered the show with the sole intention of taking a significant step forward in my career and I hope that’s the case. I didn’t expect things to fall on my lap the moment I left the show, and I think working in acting all these years has prepared me for that reality. I want to perform great roles in great work and I’m happy to be patient in that regard.
Jesus Christ Superstar is touring arenas across the country from now until 21 October 2012. Click here to book tickets, and below you can watch a preview of the show itself.
Featured image courtesy of ITV.