Saturday, May 25, 2013

AUDITIONING 101

Quite some years ago, I played auditions at everything from non-union cattle calls to invitation-only hearings on a Broadway stage. One of my most amusing jobs was accompanying all-day sessions for John Bowab, who would package a Mame or Hello, Dolly! around a single Name, to play engagements at a wheel of Texas dinner theatres--five weeks in Austin, then five in  Dallas, and so on. Monday morning: the Irene Molloys. Monday afternoon: the Barnabys. Tuesday morning...and on it went, and I was struck by how eminently castable everyone was. These were callbacks, so I expected a parade of talent--but there really wasn't an even mildly flawed candidate among the young people. (The oldsters included a few more or less feeble characters known only to Playbill's typographers, but each did claim a track record of some sort. I thought of them as would-be has-beens, since they had never attained even minor standing in the first place.) Thus, the Irenes were all cute and melodious, the Barnabys lovable and dancey. Any one of them would have distinguished the production. So how do they know whom to cast?
    
Well, there were ways to tell them apart, sort of: some actors show up ready to seize the audition as a performing spot, leaving the others to dial themselves down to about seven, as if fearing to seem too "theatrical," too brazen. It's hard to know which recommends you more efficiently to the director, especially in the drab limbo of the rehearsal hall. Then, too, some actors come prepared for anything, such as a pianist who, like me, can sight read Brahms but can neither play by ear nor transpose. One of the oldsters, up for Vandergelder, approached the piano and, with a wave of his hand, called out,  "'Walking My Baby Back Home,' in B Flat."

"This isn't a Deanna Durbin movie," I told him. "You'll have to give me the music if you want accompaniment."

(I should put in, however, that the choreographer Edie Cowan, whom you may know as "Private O'Brien from Texas" in the Funny Girl original-cast album, told me that when auditioning for a role she always asked for "Bill" in F [two-and-a-half steps below the published key], and no one ever failed her.)

Still, why take a chance? How much trouble is it to acquire the music, and, if necessary, to have someone write out--neatly!--a piano part if you need a different key? Yes, it's extra trouble; so is keeping fit and seeming happy, because directors aren't looking for dejected plops. One year, it appeared that all the young cute guys wanted to sing a certain number from The Yearling that climaxed on, I think, a top F sharp. The published sheet, however, was keyed a half-step too low, rising only to an F, which utterly lacked blitz. Naturally, they all wanted a transposition; some even wrote the higher chord symbols over the ones in the printed sheet--this in a number that restlessly prowls through Western harmony, from, like, B minor diminished curlicue 9/7 to E Major flopsy-mopsy 6/2 frammis depilatory over an M in the bass. Who's going to keep up with that?

All of which suggests Rule One: Be Ready. Bring exactly what you want the pianist to play--and don't show up with one number only. What if John Bowab says, "I'm just about to revive The Desert Song. Do you have something legit?" Wouldn't that be the moment to hand the pianist "What Good Would the Moon Be?" or the like? One of the Irene Molloys came in with a looseleaf notebook containing some dozen songs, using the commercial sheets or a transposition to a more accommodating key written out in dazzling readability. The latter were the Broadway Melody equivalent of a medieval illuminated manuscript--because, in so competitive an atmosphere, with so many potential hazards (age, looks, presence, and the usual unknown factors), why leave anything to chance? This girl and her notebook could have auditioned for anything from The Black Crook to Reuben, Reuben; she even had a country number, "Oh, Them Dudes," originally a duet for Fred Astaire and Betty Hutton in the movie Let's Dance. The word for this is "professional." Compare this with a number of the kids auditioning for the original Bye Bye Birdie who brought in "Bye Bye Blackbird," a choice that could be thought of as culturally uncluttered but must have made them look foolish. With a notebook of selections, they could have asked the usual assembled eminences what they wanted to hear.

Rule Two is Don't Sing What Everyone Else Sings. Some coaches warn that offbeat material will distract the listener, but that barrage of Yearling boys was hard to tell apart, and directors appreciate a novelty. I used to recommend "He Makes Me Feel I'm Lovely" (from Donnybrook) and "Here's To Your Illusions" (from Flahooley) for the girls and "Look Who's in Love" (from Redhead) for guys who weren't great ballad singers, because it isn't rangy and doesn't require a lot of legato. Remember, even the pros don't necessarily distinguish the singer from the song. If they like the piece--and you justify the music and lyrics--they'll like you.

Rule Three: Every Audition Matters, because one job can lead to the job that leads to  your Big Break. God, I hope I get it. Imagine, in the Hollywood version, the voiceover in the auditorium:

                         Presenting (your name here) as (Madame Rose/Harold Hill--select
                         the biologically sensible option) . . . and the crowd goes wild!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

PIPPIN

I have just returned from seeing the new Pippin revival with my friend Erick, and I am just amazed at the amount of talent on display on the Imperial stage tonight. Of course, Broadway maintains a high standard generally, but I can think of plenty of shows--Dracula was one, but there have been others--where through casting or direction the talent was unimpressive. And there are other shows where certain actors truly held the stage but the others were no more than functional. But in Diane Paulus' Pippin, the leads and ensemble all together are almost insanely spectacular in everything they do--acrobatics, dancing, acting, or simply having the stage presence that thrills and tantalizes. To pick just one example, in the original production, Fastrada's solo was a minor event, just a song and dance rather like Gwen Verdon's establishing number in Damn Yankees, "A Little Brains, a Little Talent," if less characterologically evolved. But here, Charlotte d'Amboise got a Big Number out of it, partly because the staging utilized (with a now-you-see-them-now-you-don't entrance-and-exit box) more of the magic-cum-craziness that informs this staging from first to last, but also because she just knows how to take the stage and make it hers.  The whole town is already talking about Andrea Martin's number, so I won't dwell on it here--but, really, everything in this production makes use of this extraordinary cast. The famous cliche about movies is that the camera loves certain stars. Here, the auditorium loves the players; they come alive as few ensembles do.
 
There are many changes in emphasis from the Bob Fosse original--of emphasis, not of kind. It's still the Pippin we remember. Yet isn't the episodic storyline focused as never before? The book seemed to plod once on a time; now it's intent, edging Pippin along on his strange journey to, really, nowhere. Few musicals lack, as this one does, a macguffin--Alfred Hitchcock's term for the "thing" that drives the plot. Dorothy needs to return to Kansas, or Ninotchka needs to laugh. It's difficult to keep an audience mesmerized without a kick in the plot. Yet this Pippin does exactly that, because, even more than in the Fosse original, the show is about how the work is presented rather than about what the story is about. 
 
Yes, it's another Concept Musical, as the actors address the audience or allude to the fact that, after all, they're in a show, not in real life. Andrea Martin warns us, during her singalong, that we can come in during the chorus but she gets to solo on the verses. Then, after a chorus, just before she sings again, she cries, quite tartly--because some people never pay attention--"Verse!" Meaning: lay out, guys, it's my personal space here. At the end, Patina Miller, the new Commere, gets so irritated at Pippin's refusal to play his role in her way that she strikes much of the set, pushes the players out, and shuts up the pit. No more show! It's almost as if the Concept has overwhelmed the Musical. And there's a new ending now, which closes off the narrative cyclically, a wonderful touch.
 
But where do they find the talent? How tough is it to get cast on Broadway, or in Boston, where the show originated? Matthew James Thomas is tall, handsome, fit, a fine actor, a marvelous singer, a superb dancer (when they let him, which is really only for a few moments in Act Two), and splendid company. How can one fellow pull all of that together? Many years ago, I played for auditions for shows, from Broadway to regional productions, and I was always amazed at how many of the auditioners were perfectly ready to play the parts they were up for. How can they find talent so wholly evolved? This must be why we go to the theatre: to see who the folk are who can do what we can't.