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Curly in Oklahoma!, Tony in West Side Story, Rapunzel’s Prince in Into the Woods — there’s no role too big or song too tough for Sam Simahk, who has wowed audiences across the country over the past decade from Broadway to Houston, Texas to Fenway Park. Even at SpeakEasy, audiences have seen Sam command the stage with his powerful voice in Big Fish, and with no words at all in Small Mouth Sounds. With Sam back with us virtually for our 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert, we thought we’d ask him a few questions about his one-of-a-kind career – and if he has any advice for SpeakEasy on turning 30.
Back in 2015, you were part of an amazing cast for SpeakEasy’s Boston premiere production of the Tony-nominated musical Big Fish. What do you remember most about that time and the production?
I remember so much from that production, from working with Aimee Doherty and Steven Goldstein (the best fake parents a guy could have) to sharing a rehearsal room with Andrew Lippa and John August. I was blown away by the Wimberley Theater and the Calderwood spaces in general; it was fairly early in my career and I was thrilled to have been given such an amazing opportunity.
Remind folks who might not be familiar with the show what Big Fish is all about.
The musical is based on the film of the same name—directed by Tim Burton and written by John August (who, again, was with us for the rehearsal process!) In a nutshell, it’s about a larger-than-life man named Edward Bloom, who spends his life engrossed in the tall tales he tells, and his relationship with his grounded, serious son, Will, who is determined to find out how much of what his father has told him is true…before it’s too late.
While you were rehearsing, the show’s composer – Andrew Lippa – was in the room, working to adapt the show for a smaller cast. What was that experience like for you?
That was very cool. I had come up listening to the revival recording of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (which he had written supplementary music for), so I was something of a fan—but he’s a cool guy, and I found him much more fun than intimidating. I remember one rehearsal, on a break, I was in the green room getting coffee and could hear Andrew down the hall, dramatically singing the new ending of “This River Between Us” (which he had just finished writing)…he charged into the green room and serenaded me, then excitedly told me the ending he had envisioned. It was a “did that really just happen?” moment, and I’ll never forget it.
Tell us about growing up in central Massachusetts and your first experiences in theater.
I grew up in Ashburnham—and in community theatre, at Theatre at the Mount in Gardner. It’s an excellent community theatre (and a wonderful community) and I got all my pre-college “training” by performing in shows there. I had started at their summer drama camp and was hooked—it was all over for me. Besides the performance opportunities in Gardner, TAM also opened up professional doors for me; I auditioned for (and booked!) a Disney/MTI workshop in NYC because of our producer’s urging, and got my first professional gig—a production of Grease—because the music director was an old friend from community theatre.
What do you remember most about your time as a student at Emerson College?
Oh, so much. I made amazing friends, who are still some of my best friends, and I was a proud member of Noteworthy (“Emerson’s premier a cappella group”). I was also very fortunate theatrically and got to work with a lot of great directors in main stage shows—one of my favorite productions was Illyria, a musical version of Twelfth Night, directed by the late Stephen Terrell, then the head of the musical theatre program. He was a real joy to work with, and just a delight of a man.
You had quite a career in Boston before heading off to New York. What do you see as your first big break in both cities?
While my first Boston gig was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I think my big Boston break was The Lyric Stage Company’s production of Into the Woods—I played Rapunzel’s Prince, which is this gem of a comedic role, and I had a blast doing it. I got a lot of positive mentions in the press, but the best thing about it was working with some of Boston’s finest theatre professionals. That’s where I met my buddy, Erica Spyres, who helped me book my Broadway debut! My New York break actually took place in Chicago, in a production of The King and I at the Lyric Opera…and I had actually met the director in Boston, while performing in the Huntington’s production of A Little Night Music… and I had met Bevin O’Gara (then the Huntington’s associate artistic director, who I would later work with in SpeakEasy’s Small Mouth Sounds) because of my work in Into the Woods! So, in a roundabout way, Boston theatre was truly my big break.
You made your Broadway debut in the 2018 revival of Carousel. What do you remember about that night?
I remember the adrenaline-filled moments before going onstage. I remember singing a tiny ensemble feature to Renée Fleming (!!!). I remember seeing my mom’s face in the balcony as I bowed, and I remember bowing next to my friend (and informal agent) Erica Spyres. I remember the intense feeling of accomplishment—that I had made it—and also a sense that I had just gotten started.
You were just getting started on a national tour of My Fair Lady directed by Bartlett Sher, when the pandemic struck. Tell us about that experience and what it was like to be on the road as COVID-19 was shutting theaters down.
That show was a dream (and it still is, technically—we’re slated to reopen at some point in 2021). I had worked with Bart on the King and I national tour a couple of years prior, and was thrilled to get to work with him again—and as a principal. Freddy’s such a fun character, and I loved every second that I spent in his shoes.
We were in Columbus, Ohio, when things shut down. We had been notified before our first performance there that governor Mike DeWine would be making an announcement the next day regarding large gatherings, and we knew going into the show that we might not finish out the week. I couldn’t focus onstage; I performed my show the way I always had, but the whole time I couldn’t help thinking, “is this the last time I get to do this?”
How have you been filling your days during the pandemic?
I spent the first six months at my childhood home in Ashburnham; I hung out with family, played A LOT of video games, and learned how to bake sourdough bread (like everybody else). I also planted a vegetable garden, thinking I wouldn’t be around for harvest…and yet, I was. The cucumbers were just okay, but the tomatoes were fantastic and I had great luck with the Japanese eggplant! Lately, I’ve been back in New York, working on my writing in hopes of finding some non-theatrical survival work to help me wait out the storm. If you know of anybody looking for an affordable copywriter…
What do you miss most about live theatre?
Everything. The backstage antics, the small talk at the sign-in sheet, the exploration of new cities with new friends. The connection—with scene partners, with the orchestra, with the audience. The feeling of landing a joke or delivering a line just right and hearing the audience laugh, or gasp, and knowing that they’re right there with me. I miss it all.
Any advice for SpeakEasy on turning 30?
There’s no denying it, SpeakEasy: you’re not a kid anymore. You can fool around in your 20s, but if you haven’t thought much about your career trajectory, now might be a good time to start.
And maybe lay off the sweets—your metabolism’s gonna slow down any second.
But seriously, it’s your party and you can cry if you want to, but I think we should all be smiling at the news of an effective vaccine—and the prospect of getting back to work.