Behind the Scenes at Norwegian Creative Studios
PHOTO: Richard Ambrose, the vice president of entertainment for Norwegian Cruise Lines. (photos by Michael Schottey)
What does it take to put a Broadway show on a cruise ship?
Over at Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Creative Studios in Riverview, Florida (near Tampa), TravelPulse got a behind-the-scenes look at just how much it takes. In short, the answer is that it takes a world-class team of entertainment professionals and a state-of-the-art facility that is absolutely singular and unique to the travel industry.
Picture taking all of Broadway, London’s West End, a splash of Hollywood and a little Las Vegas garnish and packing it into a nondescript shell in the Warehouse District near the Cruiseport in Tampa and running the whole enterprise with a Henry Ford level of assembly line efficiency and the highest standards imaginable.
Our tour started in the casting room, where the level of detail in this operation begins to unfold. To staff nearly 270 performers three to four months before any of them ever see a cruise ship, the casting team scours the globe and even takes video auditions. One of the descriptions even described as: ”A male lead who can tap at a high level ... and who can play piano at a high level.”
A lead-quality actor and singer who can do two other coveted entertainment industry skills at a high level? What production needs that? The answer, of course, is any cruise ship that wants to maintain the high-caliber entertainment Norwegian has come to be known by.
Think about it: 12 actors and actresses board a ship for six-month stints. They’re performing four shows on that ship. That alone — the preparation for four concurrent and widely different musical shows — would be insanity for many within the industry. Now, also remember that each member of the cast also needs to be able to provide other entertainment options on the ship as well — one-person cabarets, concerts, sing-a-longs, etc.
It doesn’t stop there!
The cast members also need to be highly social and service oriented. This is a cruise ship! Every single person on that ship has to be ready to host a dinner party, be cheery as they help lead a yoga class or teach someone shuffleboard. Being socially adept and cheery can become the biggest part of what the casting team looks for and can often be the most important and memorable part of the job for both cast and audience alike.
Oh, and by the way, before boarding, there is a rigorous medical screening process, background checks and... oh yeah, the same kind of marine training that all crew members have to complete. Sure you’re an excellent ballroom dancer, but can you put out a fire on the lower deck while treading water? Talk about your cast bonding experiences! A night out bowling has nothing on what the cast at Norwegian goes through!
Down the hallway at the studio — a building so large that it could probably serve as a Boeing factory in another life — it is not out of place to see a grown man doing the splits (while also doing a handstand) as part of his stretching routine. Groups large and small of some of the most talented and beautiful people on the planet just mill around, preparing before they enter the studios.
Days begin at 7 a.m. when rehearsal begins and will last until 2 or 3 in the afternoon when another shift of talent is bused over from the dormitory housing. Everything in their lives — from where they sleep to where they practice — is based around the idea of getting them ready for cruise life.
There’s a potentially head injury-causing pipe in one of the doorways of a certain ship in the fleet? Guess what, there’s a beam in the doorway of the corresponding studio in the facility. You’d rather find out about it in the first day of rehearsal than on opening night! The team ends up choreographing not only what happens on the stage, but what happens backstage as well, because doing quick changes in eight inches of space needs to be practiced just as much as a kick ball change.
The facility is also responsible for the 60,000 pieces of costuming within the fleet, which are taken to and from the ships in massive road cases. Because of the rigors of life out on the open water, the designers have to acquire near-chemist levels of understanding of how materials will respond. From the water used to launder on the ship to the humidity and salt water air of life on the ocean — not to mention the different climates they deal with on various boats and destinations — nothing is like it is on land.
On board the ship, one costuming professional will be responsible for around 12 performers, four shows and around 300 costumes, but the whole process starts in the massive Florida facility.
Even the technical aspects of the show are expertly choreographed before getting anywhere near the ship. The sound and lighting process takes a long time and involves computer animation using the same “Wysiwyg” software used to plan Super Bowl halftime shows and Olympic ceremonies.
This whole process from start to finish is worlds different than what many other brands might do. Some companies flaunt top-notch, performance-quality rehearsal spaces that aren’t analogous to what a cast will hear and experience on a ship. Others will create elaborate costuming and set pieces that work on a stage in Florida but not on a ship in the Caribbean.
Richard Ambrose, the vice president of entertainment for Norwegian Cruise Lines, noted that the goal is to hit the ship running with a cast that is ready from the moment a ship is launched: “Nothing was ready,” he said of the company’s practices when he first came on board, “they weren’t going onto those ships prepared.”
He used the analogy of his former job which involved taking touring Broadway shows out on the road and installing a show in 18 hours, when it was taking the crews on these ships two to three weeks to get ready! Now, all of that preparedness happens in the custom-built facility with Ambrose’s fingerprints both metaphorically and actually all over it.
Norwegian has set the bar high for themselves over the years and is known as the cruise line when it comes to entertainment. That is due to the hard work of Ambrose and his team of professionals who are just as talented and well-rounded as the cast members.
That team includes people like Ken Davis who serves as the install director for the soon-to-be-launched Seven Seas Explorer. Davis is a Broadway veteran who was the stage manager for the touring production of “The Lion King” before joining Ambrose at Norwegian. Pam Petcash is the director of entertainment for Regent Seven Seas, and while she hasn’t been doing Broadway as long as the others, she’s been managing first-rate entertainment on cruises and at resorts for her entire life.
A team like that sets a high standard, and is now bringing that standard to Norwegian’s sister companies Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas — acquired in 2014.
The goal is clear: From the moment a customer steps onto a ship, their entertainment options have to be high-end, fresh and incredibly varied. No one want to be anything less than wowed when they’ve paid for a cruise — whether that’s in a cabin, a dining room or in the theater. To make all that happen, the attention to detail that needs to exist within the Norwegian Creative Studios is out of this world.
More by Michael Schottey
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Recent Travel Opinions
Features & Advice
Airlines & Airports
Destination & Tourism