Two years ago, Priya Sami – singer, songwriter, musician and one third of the Sami Sisters – consulted a psychic who said she could see Sami singing in a musical.

Sami, the daughter of an Indian father and Pakeha Irish mother, scoffed.

"I was like, 'yeah, right! If they ever decide to make Pocahontas into a musical!'"

Retelling this story, she ends it by bursting into a pitch perfect rendition of the Pocahontas Disney movie theme song, Colours of the Wind. If the psychic had heard that, she may have asked, "why aren't you already doing musical theatre?"


That, says Sami, 31, would be partly because she was too scared to – until now. Sami has joined the 12-strong New Zealand cast of Once, the multi-award-winning musical which started life as a low-budget independent film before becoming a Broadway musical.

Sami was asked to audition by director Jesse Peach, the London-based West Auckland theatre-maker who is temporarily back home to stage one of his favourite musicals for local audiences. Perhaps best known for his work as a TV3 news reporter, Peach reckons Once is "achingly beautiful and joyously uplifting".

When Peach first called her, from London, and asked her to read the script and audition, Sami admits she had to ask, "what's Once?" and when she watched the film, she thought, "that's a bit depressing".

"But I kept thinking about it and it did have a certain charm to it… I thought, 'man, I wish I had seen this when it came out because, in 2006, I was just out of high school, playing my guitar and writing songs. Quite depressing songs. That's all I write about – sad stuff; it's my way of working things out.

"I started a project called Trip Pony after The Sami Sisters and I was like, 'I'm going to make happy music' and I tried to make happy music but it was still sad. The content was still sad so I figured, 'I'll just embrace it'. That's what these guys did with Once and look at how far they've come. It's a musical!"

With, she adds, a cast of ensemble characters who add sweetness, light and incredible music to make it, well, uplifting.

The Sami sisters, from left, Anji, Madeleine and Priya, back in 2011 when they released their first album. Photo/Greg Bowker.
The Sami sisters, from left, Anji, Madeleine and Priya, back in 2011 when they released their first album. Photo/Greg Bowker.

ami has wanted to give musical theatre a go but the dearth of decent roles for people of colour as well as her own fears stopped her from taking the next step. Peach sold Once to her as more like being in a band than acting because she's part of an ensemble coming in and out of music and songs.

That meant it didn't feel unfamiliar to Sami, who's performed as a solo artist and with her older sisters, Anji and Madeleine.

"I'm sweet if I'm on stage with a guitar on me but here I'm mostly playing ukelele so it's a little bit smaller and not covering as much… I am used to being on stage and playing music but not being in character as much so this is a little weird for me."


It also helped that she knew actor/musician Adam Ogle, who plays the leading man, known only as Guy, and that fellow singer Lisa Crawley, cast as "the Girl", is also making her musical theatre debut. Then there was Sami's older sister, Madeleine who's long been a theatre, television and film actor most recently seen, and laughed uproariously at, in the romantic comedy The Breaker Upperers. Yes, she might have been able to ask "Mads" for advice but, says the younger Sami, having such a successful older sister is both a blessing and a curse.

"You know, you're always kind of under your older sister's shadow. For a long time, I thought this [acting] was her thing and she's a real natural. Because Mads is so good, I'm like… I don't want to be, you know, that sister who's not quite her and people go, 'ah, they couldn't get Madeleine so they had to take the other one…"

She adds, without a hint of resentment, that's been her feeling pretty much for her whole life because Madeleine was a Shortland Street star when Priya was 12. Madeleine has told her to have fun with acting, not to take it too seriously and quoted American dancer/choreographer Martha Graham who said something which equates to keep on trying to be your best and most creative self because you won't feel satisfied if you don't.

Which is something Sami fully relates to. She can't remember a time when she didn't want to be a performer, describing herself as the loudest singer in her family who revelled in the times, on boring days, they sung music from the likes of The Sound of Music and West Side Story in the living room.

"It could go from a boring afternoon to a full on musical in the lounge, so I guess I always wanted to do it but you know, taking that kind of jump and getting the opportunity were different."

Priya Sami in rehearsals for the musical, Once which opens in Auckland later this month. Photo/Jason Oxenham.
Priya Sami in rehearsals for the musical, Once which opens in Auckland later this month. Photo/Jason Oxenham.

wo years ago, Sami went to India to find out more about her ancestral roots and to learn traditional Carnatic singing. She found a guru to teach her but says the woman taught her more about how "shitty" a musician's life can be.

" My guru is 50-something, she has been playing all her life and she still takes trains for four hours to get to a gig and sleeps on the floor, it's rough but that's the joy of doing this," says Sami. "I don't think I could do anything else. I've tried to; I've had part-time jobs at the Wine Society and I worked at the Uber offices for a bit but nothing does it for me like music and performing. I forget that some people don't like doing that and I'm like, 'really, you don't want to be on stage and sing?'"

On her Linkedin profile, Sami, who also works with young musicians as a mentor and educator, describes herself as a "great communicator with tonnes of energy and a strong personality" who can connect with a wide range of people, creatively solve problems and improve systems and is an efficient and passionate learner who loves a challenge. They might be the most important qualities for her latest role.

She plays Reza, the flatmate of "The Girl" who's fun and flirty and speaks with a Czech accent. If Sami felt relaxed about being on stage playing music, then the accent thing could have seen her abandon her guitar – or ukelele – to exit stage left. Luckily, a friend had a neighbour from the Czech Republic so Sami high-tailed it round to talk with and record the woman talking.

"I've just been listening over and over and trying to say it... It's quite beautiful, the sound… Lisa's the bomb at it and Jackie Clarke, she's got it. I'm still trying not to sound Russian…"

* Once plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre from Thursday, June 27-Sunday, July 14
Sami's new single Priya! Excitement releases on Friday, June 28 and her new album drops later this year.