Posted on September 2, 2006 at 5:16 pm

So far, every aspect of casting “13” has come with a phalanx of caveats. Casting the workshop was difficult because, we were told, many kids’ agents wouldn’t submit their clients for a theatrical workshop during “pilot season,” not surprising when a talented (or at least telegenic) kid can make more money in one day of work on even a mediocre sitcom than that kid would make over the course of the entire six-week workshop process. Furthermore, many of the junior high schools and high schools that have strong drama programs wouldn’t let their kids audition for us because it would disrupt the student productions that were going on. Then, too, the casting department at Center Theatre Group was in the middle of a huge transition and the woman in charge of our workshop was overwhelmed and understaffed. And then the more general problems: kids in L.A. don’t really sing, they don’t have stage experience, no one knows what a workshop is out here, blah blah blah. Ultimately, we got a pretty amazing group of kids, but because the pool of talent was so small, there was a “Nathan Lane as Inspector Javert” feel to the proceedings, great actors and performers who weren’t always necessarily right for the parts they were playing.
(Here’s a weird LA-is-not-NY note: while an alarming number of the kids who came in for us in January couldn’t even match pitch, those same kids could read sides with incredible dexterity, even sides they were just looking at for the first time. They knew where to find the laughs, they knew how to react to the reader, they were sharp, focussed and fast, and they were remarkably individual in their responses to the material. In New York, I’ve frequently had the exact opposite: the kids can sing anything, learn complicated harmonies at one listen, dance insanely complicated combinations, but you put scenes in front of them and they turn bland and mechanical.)
Things are supposed to be a lot different now that we’re doing the real production: agents should be much more favorably inclined to submit their kids for a real show at the Taper with a real salary and a lot of opportunities for their clients to be seen in performance; schools are being assiduously courted to provide an opportunity for us to work with their students; the casting department is larger and more able to dig all through Southern California and find us some great talent that wouldn’t otherwise be located without serious detective work.
We’ve now had one week of casting for the show, and ultimately we won’t decide on the cast until probably the first week of October, so this is just an opportunity to take note of the trends, the challenges, and the overall feel of the talent pool out here. We saw upwards of 400 young actors this week, and 280 of those were all on Monday at the open call.
To begin with, it’s clear that some things are indeed much improved; the kids we’re seeing are generally better singers than the ones we saw back in January, and the agents are submitting with much more enthusiasm and determination. But there are still caveats and footnotes: it’s before Labor Day so some kids are still on vacation with their parents or at camp, a lot of agents don’t put in the hard work in the last weeks of summer so there are entire kids’ agencies that we haven’t heard from, rehearsals are still two months away so some people are afraid to commit to anything that far in advance (there’s always a movie shooting somewhere that might need you!), and the rest of yada yada yada. It’s just something I’ll have to get used to with this show: there are a host of external limitations on a 13-year-old talent pool. I haven’t really even had to deal with the parents yet. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that basically none of the agents in Los Angeles really gives a shit about theater.
So, the good news: a lot of great girls, not just cookie-cutter blonde California chicks but a real interesting cross-section of teenage girldom. Valley Girls, theater geeks, goths, punkers, skaters, surfers, hip-hoppers, and they sing and especially dance like magic. If we had to cast the girls in this show from just this one week of auditions, we’d be in pretty good shape. And we’ve still got a month to go.
The bad news: not so much with the boys.
The biggest issues are purely numerical: we saw four girls to every boy. There are seven boys in the cast, and at least three of them inhabit vastly different worlds, physically and emotionally, from the others. One is supposed to be a “cool kid,” a serious jock with incredible magnetism who draws other kids into his orbit effortlessly. Another one is a caustically funny, aggressively well-defended geek who, on top of everything else, is afflicted with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. And finally, there’s Evan, a nice Jewish boy from New York who gets swept into the middle of Midwestern junior high school politics and finds himself completely in over his head. At the moment, we don’t have a lot of good candidates for any of those three roles.
Firstly, it’s cultural: it turns out that a “cool kid” in New York (or even in the Midwest, where “13” is set) is vastly different from a “cool kid” in Los Angeles. The boys I’m thinking of who ran my school when I was in junior high, or the “leader” kids I’ve met at the Midwestern schools when I do masterclasses, were very energetic, very forward-moving, you couldn’t help but be caught up in their enthusiasm. The cool boys in L.A. are almost pathologically laid-back. You see them on sitcoms all the time, they’re insanely beautiful boys who look like they would rather be surfing or sleeping than doing much of anything else. They have long hair, bleached and dyed, and they wear loose clothes that have been strenuously made to look like they haven’t been washed even when they just come out of the dryer. When those kids would read our sides, the scenes felt ridiculous and effortful.
And there’s also the obvious point to be made that most really cool, athletic 13-year-old boys have other interests than musical theater, particularly in Southern California. We did a reading of the first half of the show in New York two years ago, and we cast that entire reading in two calls (fourteen hours total), one at French Woods and one in Manhattan, and the boys in that cast were virtually perfect for their roles. It’s always easier to cast a musical in New York than it is in L.A., but this show makes that distinction even more obvious, not least because Dan (the bookwriter) and I are both East Coast kids and we’ve been writing with that archetype in mind.
So the casting department is on the hunt for boys, cool, cute, smart boys who can sing the kind of Jewish-rock’n’roll-Motown-showtune that I write. And here’s the most important part: they must be plausible 13-year-olds. We saw a lot of great 15- and 16- and 17-year-olds and we can’t call them back because they’re so obviously not 13 anymore. I was genuinely surprised by the number of actors in their twenties we turned away at the open call. Maybe you get cast as a kid all the time, but next to an ACTUAL kid, there’s no way to mask your age. (For balance’s sake, we saw a couple of really great 13-year-olds who just seemed impossibly small for their age.) So if you’re reading this and you know a sensational kid, tell me. You can e-mail me. I’ll pass on any likely candidates to the casting department, and believe me, they’ll be happy to hear about them.
I’m not worried that we won’t be able to cast the show, but it is amazing to me how stressful and how delicate the process is this time around.
The great part of the experience is watching the kids be kids. I pass them in the hallways, and they’re doing all the things that kids their age do, gossiping and studying and trading music and goofing off, but what’s best is when they’re all together at the dance calls and you see them form little groups, bonding like molecules to their types, watching, practicing, genuinely enjoying just being part of the process. I love that part, it’s why I wanted to write the show. And watching that happen is the thing that gets me most excited about going into rehearsal. In fact, there was a whole pile of rewrites that I just couldn’t get done this summer because I didn’t know what to do, and Dan and I burned through most of them just in this past week, so inspired were we by all that adolescent energy.
I took notes on the day of the open call about what songs got sung, and I wanted to post that list here just as a sort of measurement of the theatrical Zeitgeist. (Wow, that sounded pretentious.) Anyway, it’s a fun list; I don’t endorse or encourage any of these songs as audition material, I’m really not making any editorial point about them at all, but there are two things worth saying:
1. I like “Good Morning, Baltimore.” It’s a fun song. As you will see, five separate girls chose to sing it. The problem with that is that those auditions all seem pretty much the same in my mind. When we see a lot of auditions, the song choices become identifiers: you remember her, she’s the one who sang “Big Bottom.” But when a bunch of people sing the exact same song (in the exact same cut!), it’s not a useful identifier anymore: I don’t remember him, he was just one of the guys who sang “Corner of the Sky.” We all knew we were going to hear a lot of “Wicked” at these auditions, a lot of Alan Menken, a lot of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” but I can only write down so many reminders on my audition sheet before things recede irretrievably into my gray matter. I’m not all that visual a person anyway, so I rely a lot on non-visual cues; song choices are really good and distinctive cues for me, and it’s hard on both the auditioner and the auditionee if too many people sing the same thing.
2. There was a big sign outside the audition room that said anyone auditioning shouldn’t sing a “JRB song.” A couple of auditioners chose to ignore that. PLEASE DON’T SING ONE OF MY SONGS AT AN AUDITION FOR ME, UNLESS I EXPLICITLY ASK YOU TO. It’s just insanely distracting: I can’t concentrate on you when you’re singing one of my songs, I’m concentrating on me, because everyone in the room is concentrating on me. You’re singing this presumably for my artistic approval, the pianist is now nervous because I’m in the room listening to him sight-read it, the casting director is wondering whether I’ll get mad at you because you can’t follow directions, the director and the writer are both trying not to look at me. You really have no idea all the dynamics that come into play at that moment. Here’s the reason: I know my songs better than you do, I’ve seen the best performers in the world do them, I’ve coached those performers individually on what I want, I’ve integrated the best parts of what they do into the material, I have recordings and videos of all of that, and I remember it all and have it right at my fingertips, literally. You’re not going to improve on my impression of the song. You’re just not. You may be amazing, but you’re not going to teach me anything about my song that I didn’t know, certainly not in sixteen bars. There’s so much great repertoire in the musical theater, just pick another song when you’re coming in for me. Please, I beg you. Singing my song for me does not serve you and it does not make me happy. I’m in the audition room because I have a show to cast, I’m not there to confer my artistic benediction, it’s distracting and annoying. I know you want to impress me, just do it AFTER I cast you. (I particularly enjoyed this moment: one kid sang “Moving Too Fast” and insisted he wasn’t finished when I cut him off after sixteen bars. “No, that was only eight!” he said. I WROTE IT! I KNOW HOW MANY MEASURES IT IS!)
Bear in mind that this list is distinguished by the fact that it was a day of auditions for teenagers, all of whom were told to prepare a showtune and a rock song. I’m sure the repertoire would have been vastly different at an open call for “The Light In The Piazza.” (I certainly hope so, at any rate.)
(If there’s a number after the song title, that reflects how many times the song was sung.)
SONG CHOICES, Monday, August 28, 2006
in more or less the order in which they were sung
Out Tonight (Rent)
Popular (Wicked) 2
Home (Beauty & the Beast) 2
Not For The Life Of Me (Thoroughly Modern Millie) 5
I’m Not That Smart (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee)
Gimme Gimme (Thoroughly Modern Millie)
Heartbreaker (Pat Benatar)
Poor Sweet Baby (Snoopy!)
Meadowlark (The Baker’s Wife)
Spark of Creation (Children of Eden)
Giants In The Sky (Into the Woods)
The Kite (You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown) 2
Lost In The Wilderness (Children of Eden)
Holding Out For A Hero (Footloose) 2
Razzle-Dazzle (Chicago)
Mamma Mia (Mamma Mia!)
Seasons Of Love (Rent)
Old Time Rock & Roll (Bob Seger)
Suddenly Seymour (Little Shop of Horrors) 3
I Can’t Wait To Be King (The Lion King)
Don’t Stop Me Now (Queen)
Somebody’s Eyes (Footloose)
Orange Colored Sky (Nat King Cole)
I Wanna Be A Producer (The Producers)
Fine Fine Line (Avenue Q)
Seize The Day (Newsies)
Sun In The Mornin’ (Annie Get Your Gun) 2
Need To Know (Weird Romance)
In His Eyes (Jekyll & Hyde)
Your Song (Elton John)
Second Hand Rose (Barbra Streisand)
My Favorite Things (The Sound of Music)
I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor) 2
Freddy My Love (Grease)
Let’s Hear It For The Boy (Footloose)
Cabaret (Cabaret)
I’m Not Afraid Of Anything (Songs for a New World)
Freak Out (Avril Lavigne)
Unfaithful (Rhianna)
Mix Tape (Avenue Q)
And They’re Off (A New Brain)
Waiting For Life (Once On This Island)
Moving Too Fast (The Last Five Years)
Don’t Rain On My Parade (Funny Girl)
Learn Your Lessons Well (Godspell)
Born To Entertain (Ruthless!)
Shiksa Goddess (The Last Five Years)
Angel (Sarah Mclachlan)
Unwritten (Natasha Bedingfield)
Dancing Through Life (Wicked)
Some Things Are Meant To Be (Little Women)
It’s Possible (Seussical)
Alone In The Universe (Seussical)
He’s The Wizard (The Wiz)
Take Me Or Leave Me (Rent) 2
His Eye Is On The Sparrow (Traditional Gospel)
Fortune Favors The Brave (Aida) 2
I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You (JRB)
Life Of The Party (The Wild Party)
Unworthy Of Your Love (Assassins)
Lullaby of Broadway (42nd St.)
Crying (Aerosmith)
Hold On (The Secret Garden)
Hopelessly Devoted To You (Grease) 2
Stranger To The Rain (Children of Eden)
There Are Worse Things I Could Do (Grease)
At Last (Etta James) 2
When You Believe (The Prince of Egypt)
You Can’t Stop The Beat (Hairspray)
Shy (Once Upon A Mattress) 2
I’d Rather Be Sailing (A New Brain)
I Speak Six Languages (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) 3
I Could Have Danced All Night (My Fair Lady)
Long Time Ago (Old American Songs/Copland)
Because Of You (Kelly Clarkson)
Chain Of Fools (Aretha Franklin)
I’m The Greatest Star (Funny Girl)
Skid Row/Downtown (Little Shop of Horrors)
Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
Notice Me Horton (Seussical)
Follow Your Heart (Urinetown)
Blackbird (Beatles)
Honey Bun (South Pacific)
You Can’t Win (The Wiz)
When There Was Me And You (High School Musical)
All The Livelong Day (Working)
The Music And The Mirror (A Chorus Line)
Good Morning Baltimore (Hairspray) 5
Defying Gravity (Wicked) 3
Those Magic Changes (Grease)
The Girl In 14G (Kristin Chenoweth)
Astonishing (Little Women) 2
Dreams To Dream (American Tail II)
Broadway Baby (Follies)
On My Own (Les Miserables) 3
Maybe This Time (Cabaret)
Ribbon In The Sky (Stevie Wonder)
Your Daddy’s Son (Ragtime)
Out There (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Little People (Les Miserables)
I’m Not That Girl (Wicked)
Theme from “New York, New York” (New York, New York)
Luck Be A Lady (Guys and Dolls)
Part Of Your World (The Little Mermaid)
You’re Beautiful (James Blunt)
Show Me The Way (Styx)
At The Beginning (Anastasia)
More (Dick Tracy)
Just To Get My Name In Lights (The Boy From Oz)
Wheels of a Dream (Ragtime)
Hey Look Me Over! (Wildcat)
It Took Me A While (John & Jen)
God Help The Outcasts (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
The Past Is Another Land (Aida) 2
Jimmy (Thoroughly Modern Millie)
Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
Come To Your Senses (Tick, Tick … Boom!)
Brotherhood Of Man (How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying)
I’ll Be There (Jackson 5)
The Wizard And I (Wicked) 2
Breaking Free (High School Musical)
Cross The Line (Big)
The Boy Next Door (Meet Me In St. Louis)
Never Never Land (Peter Pan)
Take Me Back To Manhattan (The New Yorkers)
A Love That Will Last (Renee Olstead)
For Good (Wicked)
Lady (Styx)
If I Only Had A Brain (The Wizard Of Oz)
Why Was I Born? (Sweet Adeline)
It’s An Art (Working)
You Raise Me Up (Josh Groban)
Tomorrow (Annie)
Easy Street (Annie)
Who Will Love Me As I Am? (Side Show)
Crocodile Rock (Elton John)
I’m Fying (Peter Pan)
Baby Baby (Amy Grant)
Can You Feel The Love Tonight? (The Lion King)
Concrete Angel (Martina McBride)
Whistle A Happy Tune (The King and I)
Soon As I Get Home (The Wiz)
When She Loved Me (Toy Story 2)
Greased Lightning (Grease)
Home (The Wiz)
If I Can’t Love Her (Beauty & The Beast)
Don’t Know Why (Norah Jones)
Taylor The Latte Boy (Goldrich & Heisler)