Equity Principal Auditions are amazing

So, we just got through Equity Principal Auditions (EPAs) and it was a wonderful, exhausting, thrilling experience.

What’s crazy are the numbers. We heard auditions from nearly 175 singers! We started at 9:30 am on-the-dot and ended at 5:28pm, with a 1 hour lunch break. 7 hours of music. For those of you keeping score at home, that's 2.5 minutes per audition.

The monitor (who works for Actors Equity) brings in a batch of 10 hand-outs, one for each singer, with a headshot on the front and a résumé stapled to the back. People with more experience with theater probably found the handouts useful, but honestly I had a hard time parsing them (other than checking for dance experience - which we need for a couple of our actors) and also looking at the ratio of Musical Theater experience to Theater experience (since we're casting a musical, naturally we want people who have very good pipes).

As the day unfolds, one begins to get an inkling of just how amazingly hard it is to be an actor/singer in this world. Do you present something which shows your voice and your acting at its best? Or do you show something which is closer to the show or part that you are auditioning for? It's impossible to know which will be better.

So, we're sitting there in this fairly large room, and there are two tables at the back (because two NYMF shows are doing the EPAs at the same time) with three people at each table (on our table, it was both of the writers and the director, several actors came in and said, immediately, "Wow! So many people!").

There's a piano to the left (our left, sitting at the tables) with this awesome rehearsal pianist (Michael), who I swear is a MACHINE. Like a freakin' karaoke machine, he can play anything you put in front of him, and even better he does it with style. The jazzy parts are jazzy, the delicate parts are delicate, the swung parts are swung, and a lot of it is not easy. Strange harmonic ornaments and crazy fast running figures that take your breath away.

We gave him a standing ovation at the end.

Okay, so we're sitting there, with the pianist, and a stack of 10 résumés in front of us, and a singer walks in. There is very little time, so they say a nervous "hi" (and we say an encouraging "hi there!" back - or at least I hope it's encouraging) and then they quickly walk to the pianist, open a big notebook with all of their songs in plastic sleeves, and plunk it on the piano, and then proceed to point out where the pianist should start and end, what cuts he should take, and the tempo. Sometimes there's a bit of negotiation with the pianist, as "I need the first note" or "do you want me to play this intro? how much?" things like that, as well as "wait until I nod" at this part, and so on.

None of these notes are written down by the pianist, of course. He just REMEMBERS THEM ALL, and then PLAYS THEM FLAWLESSLY (at least 174 out of 175 times!), which is just bat ass crazy, crazy, crazy.

And then the actor walks to the middle of the room, looks at us with confidence, nods, and, like magic, starts singing.

And, amazingly, every one of the performances was GREAT. I mean, really. It's crazy how good the talent is in New York. All of these people, if they said at a party or something, "hey I have a song, would you like to hear it?" and then they would sing it, you would for sure say: "Wow, that was GREAT! You're really GOOD!" and you would mean it, because they really are all really, really that good.

But...

Okay, so they are auditioning for two very different shows, and so easily 80% of the actors were simply not the right type for our show. And by that I mean, they were not the right voice for the most appropriate part, or they were not the right personality or character for the most appropriate voice. 

I mean, yes, we do our very best to imagine the best character for them, and we do our best to stretch our imagination to encompass their (obviously gifted) skills, but most of the time there's just not a good fit.

And what do they sing? EVERYTHING.

We got Sondheim (Follies, Sunday in the Park), Cole Porter (Anything Goes, Can Can), Jason Robert Brown (including a bit from the Bridges of Madison County), Elf (several), Chicago, Ryan Scott Oliver, Joe Iconis, Pajama Game, Jerome Kern, Adelaide's Lament (Guys and Dolls), Kleban, and like, literally a hundred things I had never heard of before. What's astonishing is how little repetition there was. Maybe two songs were repeated the whole time, and one was maybe repeated twice. That's it, out of 175 songs, all but 5 were UNIQUE. Crazy! Amazing!

And Mozart. YES MOZART.

My favorite moment of the day, we asked this amazing singer with this crazy big voice for something additional, more comedic.

This would happen, on occasion, if the actor did something X and either we were not sure about their voice or if we wanted to verify they were right for a particular part, we would ask for Y. Typical requests for Y included:  "Could you sing something contrasting?" or "something more in your legit voice" or "something comedic" or "could you sing that again, but more intimate" or "do you have anything that's more Evil?" (yes, that was me, to all of the singers, I apologize, asking someone to sing something evil is, in itself, evil)

NOTE TO SINGERS:  If you didn't get such a request, it did not necessarily mean you didn't make it on the 'yes' pile. It just meant that your initial presentation told us everything we needed to know.

So back to the Mozart. Yes, the singer was awesome, but we wanted something more comedic.

"Uh, I was just at opera lessons," he apologized, "so I only, uh, have my opera book with me. Maybe... something in Italian? Would that be okay?"

"Sure!" we said.

And so, there he was, singing Mozart in Italian to us, and the pianist handled it with aplomb and it was GLORIOUS.

Not the only glorious moment, of course, but one of the most unusually glorious moments in a day full of glorious moments.

And so they would sing a song. Since this is musical theater, there was always a lot of acting involved, mix of acted and belted strong notes, sometimes more acting, sometime more straight-up singing. A couple of actors started by siting down on a chair, a few did a few dance steps. Singers were dressed in jeans with T-shirts artfully tucked, or short dresses, or dress shirts, or plain black T-shirts with leather skirts. Sometimes the hair was carefully arranged, once the hair was used as a prop (for "It's Hot Up Here", from Sunday in the Park With George).

And there were moments. Tears. Goosebumps. (but then, I'm a softie, so...)

And when they were done, they would fetch their book, we'd say "thank you" about a half dozen times, and then they would be gone.

Once they were safely out of the room, we would hold up their hand-out and glance at each other and collectively make a split decision: "No", "Maybe", "Yes", sometimes with a few words of why or why not.

When all was said and done, there were probably 12-15 'yes', 10 'maybe', and all of the rest were 'no' (sadly). 

For me this is less about the quality of the group (although, there were certainly differences in quality, of course), but more about the amazingly wide variety of personalities and characters which you see on the stage and which actors inhabit and are appropriate for. The world of humans is a big, big place, and how could one expect for this random sampling of 175 actors coming in to audition for us to overlap the 11 roles we have in our show to any great degree? Considering there are billions of unique personalities in the world?

And so now the director has the 15 'yeses' in his briefcase. Next week we have two days of private auditions. It is certainly not a guarantee that our 15 yeses will all get a call back, and so the list will likely be culled even further.

This is a brutal, brutal business.

If only it weren't so amazing, then we could all give it up and be none the poorer. But because we love it all so much, and those moments when someone is auditioning for you and they look you in the eyes and it feels like they are reaching into your soul, and who cares if it's just happens to be the right song by the right person at just the right time, it's just so incredible and you think:  Wow, the world is a better place because of this.

Paul NelsonComment