Strike up the Band! It’s Michael Hughes and Callandra Dendias!

michael hughes and callandra dendias
Last year I had the privilege of attending Michael Hughes’ cabaret at Statler’s How Long Has This Been Going On and I watched as he blew the roof off the joint with his incredibly smooth and utterly divine voice and as the audience melted in the palm of his hand with one flash of his sheepish- yet continually delighted- grin. His self-titled album (available at ITunes, CD Baby and at HMV) is one of the first ones that I recommend to friends in search of new music and is a constant in my stereo and on my iPod. Michael Hughes, joined by his best friend Callandra Dendias (best known from Toronto’s production of Mamma Mia!), is back and you will want to join them for their Cabaret Unexpressed: An Evening of Songs from the Heart on February 2nd, 2010 at the Berkeley Street Theatre produced by Mitchell Marcus as part of Acting Upstage Theatre’s Dark Night Cabaret Series. I conducted a very fun telephone interview with Hughes and Dendias in Toronto this evening to chat about the show. Here is what they had to say:
Amanda Campbell (AC): I’ll start by asking what I ask everyone: Who are you? Where are you from and how did you get so talented?
Callandra Dendias (CD): My name’s Callandra and I’m from London, Ontario. I think I got talented from listening to the Les Misèrables soundtrack 30,000 times growing up, and then Les Mis turned into Miss Saigon, which I then listened to 30,000 times. I basically tried to sound like the people on the record and I think that’s where that talent came from and then I went to school to become more talented and to actually get training.
Michael Hughes (MH): I’m Michael Hughes. I’m from Toronto. From the Beaches Neighbourhood: Born and Raised. It was probably the same for me as for Callandra, listening to all those old records on the record player and watching old movies and basically I grew up copying the voices of the people I heard on there. Actually, even still sometimes when I hear myself I think, “oh god, I sound just like [insert name of actor from an old movie]” or “these vowels sound just like how Julie Andrews would sing them” because I was so used to trying to sing like these people as a kid. And then, because I was crazy, I got enrolled in a lot of arts programs growing up and it all sort of snowballed from there. Oh, did it ever.
AC: What was your favourite old movie as a kid?
MH: Anything with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland where they would get together and put on a show, so, Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway and Love Finds Andy Hardy, which I produced in Junior Kindergarten. I should actually dig up some pictures from that because there were some in the yearbook. I also produced The Wizard of Oz that year and I was in charge of getting all the costumes, and the lion wore a pompom on his head—like a cheerleader’s pompom. And I cast my friend Mary Catherine, who I still sleep on her couch when I go to New York, as the Wicked Witch and she still whines about the fact that I cast her as a witch when we were four. And I cast Tae Kohara as Dorothy because I was playing the Scarecrow and at the end Dorothy kisses the Scarecrow on the cheek. So, basically, I got into theatre to pick up chicks.
CD: Not much has changed.
AC: What was your first experience doing musical theatre where you realized that this was what you wanted to do with your life?
CD: Well I know for me it came growing up in London, Ontario there was this thing called the High School Project where kids in the neighbouring districts had the opportunity to put on shows through the Grand Theatre. When I was in grade twelve I was cast as Irene Molloy in Hello Dolly and I got to work with a professional director, with professional sets, and they didn’t scrimp on anything because it was High School kids, because it was a part of the theatre’s season. We got to work with a real orchestra behind us, and that was the moment that I went, “Okay. This is what it feels like to really be onstage.” You know? That was the moment for me.
MH: I started so early, like, my first professional theatre gig, I was nine. I guess, I think, I don’t know. Those old movies were really important I think for me, because I just knew that I wanted to do what they were doing. I didn’t really grasp the concept that it was different because they were on film. I thought that every time I turned them on, they were performing these shows just for me. Gavroche from Les Mis was my first professional audition and that was the first time that I got the idea that I was able to perform like the people in those old movies. That audition was how I got my first agent.
CD: I begged my parents to let me audition for Cosette and they didn’t let me. But I was obsessive with Les Mis as a kid. I am the girl who once got in fights with the other girls on the playground over who was cooler, Ariel (from The Little Mermaid) or Cosette. And of course none of the other girls knew who Cosette was. In my after school program we would do arts and crafts and every day I would do some sort of Les Mis inspired art project. I made this Les Mis costume catalogue and drew all the costumes for all the characters and then used to pretend that you could order them from the catalogue. I made this Les Mis poster, and at the time when Les Mis was in Toronto it was playing at the Royal Alex so on my poster I wrote “There’s Only One Way to the Royal Alex” because that’s what it said on the posters in Toronto. And then later when I did Mamma Mia we were at the Royal Alex and my mom found the Les Mis poster that I had made and brought it to my dressing room and we hung it up in there because we thought it was so hilarious.
MH: You were insane. *laughs*
CD: That’s not even the half of it! *laughs* When I was in grade three I went to a new school and apparently this girl had sung “Castle on A Cloud” in front of the whole school, and I had sung “Castle on A Cloud” in front of my old school and I had gone as Cosette one Halloween and had a whole costume, so me and this girl used to have singing contests at the back of our classroom and get our friends to vote on who was the better Cosette. I even made a Cosette hand puppet out of a paper bag! It had yarn for hair and beads for eyes! It’s still somewhere under my bed in London!
MH: That’s like me, when I was a kid I kept this audition journal where I would write about my experiences and my memories and which directors I saw… my agent told me to do it so that I could read it over and it would help me. Anyway, I was reading it recently and I couldn’t believe it. I was such a little bitch! I’m this little eleven year old diva. I think I wrote on Twitter calling myself a “sassy bitch.” I can’t believe how bold I was. *laughs*. We were psychotic.
AC: How did you two meet?
MH: We met at Sheridan (College, Music Theatre: Performance Program) and it was like the first or second day and they had taken about forty of us and put us in a circle and we had to go around and answer the question “who are you and why are you here?” Kind of like what we did earlier in this interview… I had decided to take notes because I thought that it would help me to remember details about people later, and provide me with blackmail opportunities… So, when it was Callandra’s turn I wrote “country” because either she was wearing a cowboy hat—
CD: I was not!
MH: Or she was wearing her Eponine hat. You know, like one of those caps?
CD: No, because I didn’t get that hat until that summer.
MH: ANYWAY, it was something ridiculous, so I wrote “country” and then I wrote “Eponine is my life” because that was how she introduced herself, and why she said she was there. “I’m Callandra and Eponine in my life” and I was like, “Lordy, here we go with this girl!” But she was so open about how nutso she was about Les Mis and I could get that. And we’ve been best friends ever since. And we would always do school projects together and we could always add these ridiculous elements to our scenes. Like, this one time we were doing a scene from… was it As You Like It?
CD: I can’t remember. Something like that.
MH: Anyway, it was some Shakespeare scene and we decided to set it in 2005 and have Kelly Clarkson play in the background and we changed it because we decided that we should kiss, because we’re ridiculous.
CD: We always added a kiss to every scene we did!
MH: We both like to have fun, good natured fun. Even at, like, school parties and stuff, when everyone else was about to get themselves into some late night mischief we would go home and sing karaoke by ourselves!
CD: And sometimes we would record it!
MH: Cause we are nerdy, but we always like having fun together and I think that’s why we keep getting drawn into working and spending time together.
AC: How did you decide that you wanted to do a Cabaret together?
CD: At Sheridan our ultimate dream was to someday do a show together, but now so many people are focusing on this Cabaret thing and producing their own work in the city, and we thought that it would be so much fun for the two of us to do a Cabaret show together. We originally tried to get a show ready in time for Christmas, we had this lofty dream of having this huge Christmas Party where we would sing, but then we realized that we had no money.
MH: And that I was gone.
CD: Yeah, Michael was doing All Shook Up and then we realized that if we did the Christmas Party the way we wanted it there would only be one day in between when he came home from BC and when we did the show. And we thought that maybe that wouldn’t make the best impression on our audience. And then we talked about doing a Valentine’s Day Cabaret, but then over Christmas, Michael called me up and he was like, “Oh, by the way, we’re doing a Cabaret together at the Berkeley Street Theatre! Call you later!” So, that was that.
MH: Yeah, I was so busy with All Shook Up and Christmas when Mitchell called me and asked if I would do a Cabaret for the Dark Nights Series I immediately said yes and I also signed up Callandra to be in it with me. Our ultimate goal was to build up the show to eventually be able to play with the London Orchestra, but then Callandra got married and then she got pregnant and the idea sort of got pushed aside as other things happened. But we would like to build something that we could book into the dark nights of summer stock theatres. At least until someone casts us in (Thoroughly Modern) Millie.
AC: Someone needs to. Do you have other specific dreams for shows that you’d like to do together?
MH: Umm, honestly, when we at Sheridan at McDonald’s planning our lives it was Mamma Mia and Les Mis. I would be Marius, she would be Eponine. I dunno. We should be in Wicked too. *laughs*
CD: I would like to do Once Upon a Mattress.
MH: Except the Prince doesn’t get to sing at all in that!
CD: I don’t think that we ever talked about shows with this much specificity when we were at Sheridan. We just knew that we wanted to work together. Although, we have recently talked about being cast as the most miscast pair in Rocky Horror ever.
MH: We’re still holding out for that! We just want to work together so badly, we’d do the completely wrong roles for us as long as we were working together.
CD: Oh! And we want to do Little Shop (of Horrors).
MH: Yeah. I can be a nerd. … And Millie.
AC: Michael, after your experience with Statler’s last year, is it a lot different having someone to collaborate with on this Cabaret?
MH: I keep saying, “Thank you so much for getting through this with me” to her. Planning a cabaret has its ups and its down and the more that I do it, I tend to want to go bigger and better and so it is nice to have Callandra here. It takes the pressure off me. She can do her own thing and I can hand it off to her sometimes. It’s not so scary being onstage that way, it is nice to have someone else out there and it changes the dynamic, hopefully for the better. We’re good friends and I tend to have lots of ideas and she is great at weeding out the crazy ones. She is also organized and she has her own ideas. I mean, she got to help me with my last (cabaret) too; she just didn’t get any of the credit! *laughs* We want to build a show that people will like, so it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of. I find that this cabaret is… well, it’s more stressful than the last one, but also it has been more fun so far. And stress happens in this situation because people are constantly supporting you and you want to create something for them that will be different and exciting and you want them to come back. You want to take care of your audience so that they keep coming back and they tell their friends about your shows and in that way, they take care of you. It makes it so that we can keep doing stuff like this for years and years.
AC: Callandra, you’ve got a six month old son, what sorts of new adventures does being a mom present when you’re working on a Cabaret like this?
CD: Just being a mom has changed the way I think about multitasking and doing a new show is just the same sort of thing. I mean, Michael was over here for a rehearsal and I had Kaden on my lap the whole time and I was feeding him and he was crying and we were trying to keep our focus, but obviously I always have to have one ear open to him. He’s coming to our music rehearsal, I hope he’s good. He should be, he likes listening to singing.
MH: He’s more a fan of Golden Age Broadway though.
CD: He’s coming to the show. I’m not sure how that will go. We took him to church once and he sort of caused a ruckus, but my husband got a seat on the aisle at the back so that he can duck out with him if Kaden starts crying. But in his swimming lessons, whenever they do the singing, he’s always the only baby who isn’t crying.
MH: If he cries that we’ll just talk about it.
CD: Yeah, we’ll be like “There he is!”
MH: He’s always trying to upstage me, God!
AC: How did you come up with the title and the theme for this Cabaret?
MH: Lord have Mercy. Well, I was doing All Shook Up in British Columbia and it was sold out and it got extended and it was almost Christmas, but Mitchell wanted to know the title of my show and to have a short blurb about it so that he could start advertising for the Dark Night Series before Christmas. And I hadn’t really given it a whole lot of thought. I just knew that I was going to, for sure, sing the song “Unexpressed” by John Bucchino. So, according to the rules of Cabaret, I named it after the one song that I knew I was going to sing. And from there, the theme sort of fell into place. And the song is a beautiful one and it made me think about the fact that in musical theatre music expresses an emotion that words don’t do justice to. You can’t say it, so you have to sing it. So, our Cabaret became a series of songs that characters *needed* to sing, not the fluffier songs, but ones that dealt with unexpressed love, the realization of love and declaring words that haven’t been spoken before. That is a long and convoluted answer to your question. And also, my “party piece” “Maria” (from West Side Story) is a great example. When (Tony) speaks that word at the beginning of the song he has never said that word “Maria” before and all of a sudden he is experiencing emotions that he didn’t know he could have. He needs to sing that song because that is how he falls in love with Maria.
CD: We knew that with this theme we wanted to sing pieces that would not only be more challenging, but also ones that would be more personal for us, rather than just singing the songs that we liked or the ones that we knew we sounded good singing *laughs*. I really wanted to sing a song about the love between a mother and her child because having Kaden, it obviously spoke to me. So I am singing “Poor Sweet Baby” from Snoopy and at first when I was listening to it I thought it was a cute song, but the more I sang along with it the more it spoke to me, and I like that I’m singing about a less obvious type of love. It’s really cool.
MH: And it’s fun. It’s not just a bunch of desperate songs because love is happy as well as being sad and it is also confusing and hilarious. I mean, we’re doing a Cabaret, so there are going to be jokes. You can’t put a microphone in front of me without me saying something embarrassing about myself.
AC: If you had to plug your show using only five words what would you say?
MH: “Michael and Callandra: BeltFest 2010.” …Callandra, come up with something funny.
CD: There is a lot of belting in our show.
MH: I don’t know how I’m going to sing it all! It’s so high and loud. Callandra brings that out in me. I feel like, was it George Abbott or Gower Champion who used to go through the phone book in New York and find people who had the same name as the big New York theatre critics and then wined and dined them, bought them tickets to his show and then got them to write a quote he could use for his ads? So, it would be like if we found another R. Ouzounian and got him to write “Spectacular!” “Amazing!” “Fantastic!” and we put them on the marquee of the theatre. I’m going to find another R. Ouzounian and do that. … …. What did you come up with Callandra?
CD: I keep thinking of, “Big voices you won’t forget”
MH: Callandra, you can be in charge of the promotions for the next one.
Big Voice You Won’t Forget: Michael Hughes. Callandra Dendias. Unexpressed: An Evening of Songs from the Heart plays February 2nd, 2010 at the Berkeley Downstairs Theatre. 26 Berkeley Street. 8:00pm. Tickets are $15 and available here or by calling 416-368-3110. You won’t want to miss the Beltfest.

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