When we first meet Raven, the protagonist of Bat Out of Hell, she is trapped. Living with her parents atop a skyscraper in Obsidian, a post-apocalyptic Manhattan, where she’s not allowed to go out in fear of being corrupted, she spends her days dreaming of what lies beyond her luxurious walls. Things change when she gets a glimpse of Strat (Andrew Polec) a rebellious youth who is first seen protesting outside Falco Towers, where Raven lives. Strat’s DNA froze, leading him to remain 18 forever. Excited by the prospect of a life of freedom and eternal youth, Raven falls in love with Strat, setting the scene for a thrilling rock music reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story.
As played by Northern Irish actor Christina Bennington, Raven contains a multitude of women. Not only is she the Wendy in this tale, she also evokes Dracula’s Mina, Rapunzel, and Rooney Mara’s take on Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She’s a no-nonsense warrior in the clothes of a princess.
Before being cast as the lead in Jim Steinman’s rock musical, Bennington was best known for playing classic musical ingenues, such as Laurey in Oklahoma! And Kim in Show Boat. Her show-stopping voice allows her to color Raven with equal parts musical heroine and rock goddess. After originating the part in the British production, she’s playing Raven in New York, where the musical is currently running through September 8. We spoke to her about her work, the show’s inventive staging, and getting to sing some of the most beloved rock songs of the twentieth century.
How do you and the ensemble keep up those amazing energy levels for almost three hours?
It’s funny, I think it’s a stamina thing. When we started doing the show we’d do one and were absolutely exhausted, but any muscle, physical and vocal, the more you use it the stronger it gets, so now not only can I do eight shows a week, but I can give every single show more than I did right at the beginning.
When you first hear the premise of the musical it seems absolutely bonkers. Can you recall what was your reaction upon reading the script for the first time?
I didn’t actually read the script until the very first day of rehearsal. I think in my audition I did the bedroom scene, so I knew it was a bit bonkers, and then you see the full thing after you’ve accepted the role because you think well it’s going to be exciting one way or another, and then you read the whole script and it’s even more bonkers than you thought. It’s kind of amazing, you don’t often get to be in something so bombastic and larger-than-life, it’s a show full of imagination. I feel there are shows where someone asked “wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?” and someone said “nah, it’s not in the budget,” or “we can’t do that,” but this is a show where everyone said yes to everything. So it’s full of absolutely everything, every kind of spectacle, trick, and song. It’s a real gift for an actor to be a part of this.
When we first meet Raven she’s just turned 18. How much of your own teenage experience did you borrow to include in the character?
The thing about Raven that I wanted to be really apparent is that she’s this mixture between a typical, difficult teen, and also this weird kid who’s never been outside. There’s this side of her most teenagers wish they’d had, which is that in some ways although she’s very vulnerable, she’s not self-conscious, so when she feels an impulse she goes for it because she’s been taught not to do that. So she’s quite odd physically and emotionally, she rolls with whatever feeling she’s having. Even I wish I’d had her courage when I was her age.
She’s also often unlikable, a lot of time young, ingenue, teenage leads are presented as perfect princess-y types, I know most teenagers, including myself, had an annoying, dark side. So it was really important to me that she could be super annoying and difficult, as well as wonderful and loving.
Can you talk about how you developed the chemistry with Andrew Polec? The two of you together seem like you can set anything on fire.
[Laughs] Thanks! We never auditioned together because he’d already been cast from the initial New York workshop. I was very nervous when we first met, because usually you have chemistry auditions in the final stages to see if it’ll work, and we went into it blind. We met in a photoshoot a month before rehearsals started, we got into costume, said hello, and were thrown into a series of photos where we were asked to pretend we’d known each other for a very long time and loved each other. Obviously we’d never met, so this was a very intimate situation, and yet we knew immediately that this was going to work. Everyone on set commented how intense it was. We were staring each other down for a whole afternoon. We’re lucky we got on straight away, we have similar creative impulses, especially physically, we both have an intuitive way of moving. That’s why Raven and Strat both have a very odd, but similar physical life, by the time we get to “For Crying Out Loud” and we’re both jump squatting the whole way across the stage, it’s just the way Andrew and I happen to move, and why Raven and Strat ended up with an animalistic, primal attitude to one another. Over the years, Andrew and I have become very close, so it’s apparent how much we love working together.
How was the process of getting to work with new cast members when you brought the show to New York?
It’s really fun, as a British/Northern Irish actor, it’s really interesting to be working with a full cast of Americans in an American show. All of a sudden you go “oh gosh, I hope my American accent’s alright.” It’s a different culture in terms of the delivery of the script, as well as a different sense of humor, which makes the whole world feel fresh. Both casts were wonderful, but this cast is perfect for this city, which is really important because the show is set in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan. It’s fun to work with people like Lena Hall and Bradley Dean, who play my parents, and with whom I’ve developed an interesting new relationship, which we’re having a lot of fun with.
It’s scary to think that in a few decades Manhattan might look like the post-apocalyptic landscape of the musical. Do you think about that as you do the show here?
It’s kind of scary to think it could almost be a possibility. Although to be honest, if Manhattan in 30 years looks like Obsidian, there’ll be a lot of sequins and some really great music, so it should all be OK. A lot of bouncing, partying and having a good time [laughs] But no, genuinely, yeah, I like to think of the city in our show as an alternate universe where everything’s become rock-and-roll and sexy, rather than a genuine future of our world.
You’re no stranger to being in classic American musicals like Oklahoma! And Sweeney Todd, but watching Bat Out of Hell, which is an American musical, I got a sense of a more British, almost Australian aesthetic a la Baz Luhrmann. It’s bonkers in the way George Miller’s Mad Max is, rather than more safe Rodgers and Hammerstein fare.
A lot of that comes from Jim Steinman himself, Bat Out of Hell is like a peek inside his brain and how he works. It is larger than life and really out there, it comes from the school of thought of: why not? Why can’t musicals do this? Does it have completely logical? No. Are people completely logical? No. Raven does completely crazy stuff, but so do many people I know. You’re just not used to seeing people do these kinds of inexplicable things onstage.
I know what you mean about Baz Luhrmann, a lot of it comes from our British set designer Jon Bausor, his brain is full of these epic pictures, and teamed with Jay Scheib, our American director, filled the show with ideas like the camerawork and things that are more avant-garde theatre not done in classic musicals. So it’s really interesting to see we’ve mixed a more commercial rock sensibility with these avant-garde crazy, concept musical elements.
You spend a lot of time with the camera in your face. In musicals not even the people in the front row get to see the actors’ facial expressions up close, how did the camerawork affect your performance?
It’s definitely a challenge and it’s scary, but it’s also a huge opportunity as an actor because when you’re in a large scale musical often you sacrifice detail because you’re playing to the back row and because things are required to be so large. It’s really amazing to have these really small intimate moments and the audience can choose whether they want to watch the full scene from upfront or whether they want to see your close up reactions to everything.
The hardest part for me learning the show was those quick transitions between those upstairs very intimate small camera scenes, and then running downstairs and throwing myself over the stage. In the opening of the show it happens multiple times, I go up and down several times. It’s quite exciting though, I think it’s a comment on our current reality TV culture, with the Kardashians and the Real Housewives, we are in an age of social media and reality TV where we wanna broadcast every single part of our lives, whether that’s pretty or ugly. So we see these hugely dysfunctional family scenes blown up on a billboard and presented in a way that might seem like a beautiful film, but what you’re watching is quite unpleasant.
When you signed up to do the musical were you completely familiar with Steinman and Meat Loaf’s work? And most of all, I’m dying to know what your parents said when you got the part.
I’d listen to their music a lot as a kid in the car. A lot of my musical taste comes from my dad, I listen to a lot of 70s rock because of him. I remember I got the call very late at night around 11PM, and I called my parents to say “I think I’ve got it, my agent says there’s an offer coming tomorrow for the lead in the Meat Loaf show.” I was doing Show Boat at the time in the West End, and I remember my mom going “oh that’s nice, how was the show tonight?” I said, “mom I don’t think you quite understand, this might be a big deal, I’m not sure.” She was like “oh great, was there anyone in that you knew tonight at Show Boat?”
I don’t think any of us realized the kind of journey I was about to go on, I was mostly amazed someone had given me the part after I’d done so many classical, soprano parts. When I read it I realized I was perfect for it because the thing about Raven is she looks like a classic, soprano ingenue, but there’s a complete dark side to her and she can belt like a crazy lady, which is unexpected.
What’s one moment in the show that keeps taking your breath away every single night?
Oh gosh, a couple of things. One moment that’s amazing is when I run out during “Bat Out of Hell” I get to my dressing room and I listen to Andrew doing the end of the song, and night after night he gives that a thousand percent. I only ever get to catch the end with the visuals and the whole ensemble backing, and I think that moment is super powerful. I can’t believe the impact it has, because it’s the end of Act One and you just think: where are they going to go from here? As a cast member and audience member that moment is super exciting.
Something I’m in, is every time the introduction starts for “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” I feel quite emotional because it’s a piece of music that’s so important and nostalgic for so many people. As soon as that starts you’re ramping up for this ten-minute epic finale and you know you’re about to bring the house down. I know this might be impossible to write down, but when it goes [sings] “anything for love…dun duuun!” That big moment, every time that hits I’m like wow!
Seeing people get on their feet mid-number at City Center was not something I ever expected to see.
That music grabs you by the gut and people feel the need to get up and join in.
Even before the show opened in New York, people could listen to you in the cast recording. Was that surreal?
That in itself is almost a time capsule. We recorded that in February 2017 at the very beginning of the show’s life in Manchester, so when I listen to that now and how I’ve built stamina it’s amazing to me to think how the versions in the cast recording feel so small compared to what I do now. It’s almost like baby Raven to me. I have a lot of love for that time in the show and creating what it became. It’s surreal because I think of when I was growing up and doing auditions I did songs I’d listen to in cast albums, and I’d sing them like that person. That became part of your interpretation and now I get messages from musical directors who tell me people are doing little bits I do in songs from the show. People doing my little vocal twists, and now that is surreal.
Having played Laurey in Oklahoma! Have you had a chance to see the current Broadway revival?
I haven’t yet but I’m desperate to, Oklahoma! Is one of my favorite shows, and it’s so important in the musical theatre canon. “People Will Say We’re In Love” is one of my favorite songs of all time. I’ll definitely be seeing that before I leave.
“People” is almost a perfect Strat and Raven song.
If someone ever does an Outlander musical you’d be perfect for the lead.
I would love that! [Laughs]
Which properties would you want to turn into musicals and be a part of?
I love period dramas, all those epic, big stories. But for a long time I’ve been waiting for someone to do an Avril Lavigne musical because I loved her music as a kid so much, and she has a really similar style to mine when it comes to singing. My favorite TV show growing up was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I did a lot of stage combat, I love fitness and I have a lot of qualifications, so playing Buffy is my dream.
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