The tale of a boy who won the reality show that is “American Idol” with a heart.

By Lana Lee

Photo credit: CBC News

While the U.S. has “American Idol,” our neighbor to the north can claim “American Idol” with a soul: no humiliation and cruel critiques. And while Idol rewards the singing sensation winner with a record contract, Canada’s “Triple Sensation” raises the bar in terms of talent – acting and dancing are judged as well as singing. The first prize could signal the beginning of a career: a $150,000 scholarship to study at any theatrical training institution in the world.

“Triple Sensation,” which aired for the first time in 2007, was produced by veteran Garth Drabinsky. In the small world category of coincidences, he staged “Phantom of the Opera” a decade ago. One of the theater-goers was six-year-old Montreal native John-Michael Scapin at his very first show. Fast forward ten years and when the 16-year-old Scapin stumbled across a Toronto Star article announcing Drabinksy’s show, the planets aligned for the opportunity. He felt it was “the right thing at the right time” to audition.

“I did it with an open heart,” said Scapin. “The stakes of the competition didn’t faze me because I was really young and I didn’t really think about it – I did it because I loved [theater].”

The six-episode reality show producers scoured Canada and sifted through hundreds of contestants. The reality show followed the 16-24 year olds through the auditions, the month-long Master Class – an intensive regimen of theater instruction – and a series of eliminations. Documentary meets “Inside the Actors Studio” is how Scapin describes it.

Now, at 20 years old, the 6’2 brunette with the boyish good looks, big heart and the potential remains modest and untouched by fame. One winter afternoon, he sat down in his residence hall to talk about his life-changing experience.

“It was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – we assembled some of the most sought-after performing arts teachers in the world for four weeks of rigorous morning-to-night training – from Chekov to Circus,” said producer Marni Goldman.

Triple Sensation proved to be a process for learning and growth as well as a talent competition. “It was three weeks of this perfect storm of training and teachers – almost like this bottled magic experience that I don’t think I will ever have again,” said Scapin.

For the finale, the remaining contestants were required to show off their newly polished talents. In a Calvin Klein suit, Scapin did his dance number, a monologue of Betty Jane Wylie’s “Jason,” a scene from Taming of the Shrew and a rendition of Gershwin’s “Nice Work if You Can Get it” in front of judges and a sea of anxious family members in the Rose Theater.

Third place was announced. Then second. Finally, Scapin was pronounced the winner of Triple Sensation. He was shocked. But the judges weren’t. “His performances in the finale were stunning,” said director Shelagh O’Brien. “It was emotional to see him peak at that time; he used every second of training from the master classes and from the experience as a whole, and wrapped them all up and gave them back to us as perfection in the final show.”

Scapin wasn’t expecting to win, so he didn’t have an acceptance speech prepared. “It’s very stressful rattling something off. I didn’t even thank my parents properly,” he said with a sheepish smile. “I don’t think I’m ever going to live that one down.”

Everyone signed confidentiality contracts, keeping the winning a secret until the October airdate. Then it was over. It happened so fast, there was no time to really feel anything. Scapin returned to school to start the 12th grade and apply to universities. According to Scapin, he didn’t bask in glory; it was simply back to the books.

When the show finally aired, it was a strange experience for Scapin. “Watching the show from another eye was bizarre after you’ve lived it, felt it and experienced it,” said Scapin. Another odd thing was the recognition. Sometime after the show aired, Scapin recalled going to the theater with his father. Someone asked to take a picture with him. Scapin obliged, he said, but he wasn’t sure he liked it; he’s just a person too.

Although most were pleased with Scapin’s win, the hardest part was some of the negative responses. “I felt it was like my stomach turned inside out,” said Scapin. “Because of our culture, people can hide and say whatever they want behind a computer and feel powerful. Some people had auditioned and didn’t make it. On Facebook, they said things I felt were lacking in grace, like I wasn’t qualified to win. It’s a null point now, but for a 16-year-old to be reading that after that experience? It was heartbreaking.”

Scapin says he still meets up with some of the other contestants whenever they are in Toronto. As Scapin said, they were brought together; now they’re all on their own paths.

The university he chose to use his prize money on was NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for a degree in drama. “I wanted to be in a city where I could see where the highest bar and standard of my field was. I knew what I needed to aim towards. New York is just a different rhythm and because NYU isn’t a closed campus, you feel as if you’re truly a part of the city.”

He ultimately wants to stay in New York. But at the end of the day, Scapin just wants to work in theater. He admires actors like Billy Crudup and Mary Louise Parker who are well versed in theater, film and television; “Triple Sensation was a seminal moment in life where I knew I had some sort of ability to pursue this seriously as a career,” said Scapin. “On the show was when I knew what I was meant to be doing. It flipped from being a part-time passion to a full-time passion.”

Five years ago, Scapin said he could not have imagined being where he was now. He wonders if the next milestone in his career is going to be around the corner.

“There are no limits to John Michael’s potential,” said O’Brien. “His career can be everything he wants it to be. He’s intelligent enough to know that he needs to continue to train and work extremely hard, but he’s also entertaining and has the potential to be an audience favorite. He’s bankable, and he’s talented – so I can’t imagine him not making it.”

To Scapin, his “Triple Sensation” experience went by quickly, but it’s something he still holds close.

“I met and worked with incredible people; that’s the most important part,” said Scapin. “I was awarded something that allowed me to go to an amazing school. The season was this wonderfully secret gem that came and went. But it’s like Clifford Odets’s quote: ‘you wrote on my heart with indelible ink.’ The show was like indelible ink to me. You can’t take it away.”