According to many actors who consider themselves a triple threat, “A Chorus Line” is high, if not on top of, the bucket list of musicals-to-be-in.
If you have never heard of “A Chorus Line,” or could not recognize one song from the show, it’s possible you were never exposed to music, dance, or the Tony Awards. Or perhaps you have lived in a soundproof room all of your life and never went out in public.
Last year, the Bellingham Theatre Guild announced it would produce “A Chorus Line” to close its 2013-2014 season. Fifteen women and twelve men with enough talent to carry off the show would be needed.
Publicity started early. Buzz was palpable in the musical theater community for months before the actual auditions. The rehearsal and performance dates that would conflict with high school and college finals and graduations had to be considered. The shortened rehearsal schedule itself would present a challenge for the cast to learn all of the intricate music and challenging choreography. Would there be sufficient time for the production crew to build the set and costumes?
If director Julie Zavalla-Marantette felt any of these concerns, she kept them to herself. This is not her first trip around the bases; she’s directed other big musicals and has had good success recruiting actors and crew to pull together performances more than worth the price of admission.
I got the idea it might be somewhat ironic, if not clever, to share with you the experience of community members auditioning for a musical about auditioning for a musical.
I received an email from the daughter of a friend who was looking for audition information and advice, since she knew I had experience directing community theater musicals.
Emma is 20 years old, the perfect age for this show about a bunch of 20-somethings. She had done high school theater, even understudied for Rizzo in “Grease,” but never had auditioned for community theater. She had only heard about the show a day before, and memorized a monologue from the show for the part she wanted. She told me she really wanted the part of “Val,” but would take just about anything in the ensemble.
At that point, Julie and I had already had a few conversations leading up to the first night of auditions. Julie gave me permission to attend auditions and to talk to some of the actors about their experience.
So, feeling fully confident that I am NOT a triple threat and would not get caught up in the excitement and/or feel compelled to get up on stage and audition with a song and dance, I went to observe the second night of auditions and call-backs. (Full disclosure: I did know some of those I spoke with before their audition, but I also talked to people I didn’t know.)
If you have never been to this kind of cattle call, the procedure for musical theater auditions is pretty standard. When the victim, I mean, auditioner, arrives at the theater, he or she fills out an application with contact information, the part in the play desired (if known), and theater/performing experience, if any.
Usually, a tentative rehearsal and mandatory performance schedule is posted, allowing the actors ample opportunity to communicate any potential conflicts for rehearsals, or determine that this opportunity to be in the play is going to reflect badly at future family gatherings (especially if Cousin Minnie has already sent a save-the-date for her wedding.)
As auditioners were sitting around the theater, most with friends, some alone, I went up and introduced myself, explained what I was doing, and asked them what brought them to the audition and what they hoped for.
Heather told me she had done many many shows in Mount Vernon, but had never auditioned in Bellingham before. She drove up with her friends, Glen and Susan, who were also auditioning.
Susan was also from Mt. Vernon, is a well-experienced performer, and this show was on her bucket list of musicals.
Glen had done a small piece at BTG earlier this year. He doesn’t consider himself a great singer or dancer, but it sounded like fun. He committed to “giving 125 percent.” (Personal note – He danced well. His improv dance had him jumping all over the stage.)
Taylor, a 17-year-old student from Bellingham Technical College, knows Julie’s sister, Renee, from Taekwondo. Taylor has been in many plays and sang a duet with Renee from “The Little Mermaid.”
Jaiden is a high school student from Ferndale and showed up to support his friend Taylor and try something new. He also knew Renee. This was his first time singing or performing anything like this in front of an audience. He was very nervous, he said. His audition song was “Let It Go” from “Frozen.”
Alissa is a friend of one of the choreographers. She had never auditioned for a community theater show before, but is a very experienced dancer. She performed in a flash dance, and loved it! She had only found out about the show that morning, and brought a song from “West Side Story.”
On this particular evening of auditions, each person arrived at 7:00 and was called one at a time to get on stage and sing part of a song they had prepared in front of everyone else auditioning.
Sometimes this is done in private with the stage director, music director and stage manager and other members of the production crew. At other auditions, if the person doesn’t have anything prepared, they may be given the option to run through a verse of “Happy Birthday.” The music director then ran scales to check vocal range.
When it was the choreographers’ turn, half the group went to another part of the building and everyone was taught a few measures of dance steps. After about 15 or 20 minutes, small groups danced on stage while everyone watched. This process is to see how quickly they learned and how well they could dance, or how well they could fake it.
Next each actor performed a one minute prepared monologue or unprepared cold (unrehearsed) reading. For some musicals, directors save this till call-backs, because unless the person is the most amazing singer or dancer ever seen before, it might not really matter if they are a fabulous actor when casting a show where every actor may need to sing and/or dance.
The auditioners were released at 10:30 p.m.
After the second night of auditions, all the forms are spread out over a table, and first divided into definite maybes and definite nos. Subsequent to that, every director is different: Some may already know who their “lead” possibilities are; others may only know who to cut from this first group and what other parts may be up for grabs.
An hour (or two or four) later, the stage manager posted a list on the building doors of BTG, letting people know who was “called back” to the next step, before final casting.
Alissa was called back, but withdrew her name because of conflicts with the rehearsal and performance schedule.
Jaiden was called back, but he didn’t show up. Julie said he had a conflict for that night that she knew of when he auditioned.
Glen was the only one of the three friends who was called back. The two women were apparently under the assumption that they were all-for-one-one-for-all. He was excited about call-backs, and planned to just have fun.
Emma was also called back. She felt good about her original audition. While not totally confident in her singing, she’s an excellent dancer, even though she felt out of practice. She was the only one who shook hands with Julie and TJ, the Music Director, after that first night. This was a practice she took from her dance days. Emma was the last girl to sing at call-backs. She knew she had some singing challenges, and was thinking about maybe signing up for singing lessons. (I was watching Emma as she helped the girl dancing next to her get the ballet steps and turn “just right.” I think the choreographer saw her too.)
At the end of call-backs, I asked Julie for her overall impressions of how her process went. She said she was pleased with who showed up for auditions. Some people who were not called back would be cast anyway, she knew she didn’t need to see or hear them again. She also indicated she expected there would be some shakeout after casting, and the costumer was not going to start on the closing number jackets for a week or two.
The next morning, I went to BTG and saw the cast list. Both Emma and Glen were on it. Julie cast Emma as “LaRay,” the character who is the Dance Captain. Well done, madam director, good call.
(By the way, if Cousin Minnie does schedule her wedding after you have been cast in a community theater show, it’s all on you for not broadcasting your being cast to your entire list of family and friends.)
Marla Bronstein is a playwright, director, actress and freelance writer who enjoys keeping busy and relaxing.