Saturday, May 25, 2013


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!