28 July 2008

Friendly Neighborhood


I am straight-up terrified of musical-theatre auditions. If you gave me a choice between publicly humiliating myself in some way, or standing in a room with one other person and singing for them, I'd go with the former, nine-out-of-ten. I don't know why. I can sing. I'm not trained, but I have a natural ear and a strong, albeit somewhat limited, baritone voice. I even enjoy singing. There's just something to be overcome in my psyche when it comes to singing for an audience; particularly an audience of one. I often claim to be something less than a fan of musical theatre, and it's true for the most part. I usually find the idiom a bit too coy for my tastes and, though I'm not great fan of opera, either, prefer musical theatre that's raw, and passionate, and in which the characters are more often struggling than they are bursting with rapturous joy. The fact of the matter is, I'd love to be in a "good musical" (read: one that adheres to my personal criteria). So my policy when it comes to auditioning for musicals is, and has been since I was eleven years old, not to. I have a couple on my resume from summer stock gigs that required a full season from me, and that's about it.

A little over a week ago, a friend of mine who is in no way connected to my theatre life these days shared an item on his Google Reader account about the holding of an open call for the upcoming Spider-Man musical. Specifically, the call was to troll for actors to play Mary Jane, a high school principal character and Mr. Peter Parker. I've known about this musical for a while, marvelling at its seemingly disparate elements: Spider-Man, Broadway, Bono and The Edge doing the music and Julie Taymor directing. I was surprised to hear of open calls, because I knew it had been in development for some time now. A guy who was working with them to develop rigging looked at subletting my old apartment back in the fall. I understood rehearsals had begun July 2. And an open call? Madness. If it were just for Peter, you could chalk it up to a stunt or a Superman-The-Movie priority for a fresh face. But for Mary Jane and an anonymous adult character? Madness.

It stuck in my head. I suppose, in some ways, I had been thinking about this show with some curiosity ever since I first heard of it. When I imagine a Spider-Man musical involving aerial rigging and directed by Mz. Taymor (who is famous for, amongst other things, the Broadway production of The Lion King with all its puppetry and stilt-giraffes) I picture some wild, fairly circus-y stuff. But come on, I thought, too. It's a huge, big-budget production. It must be pre-cast within an inch of its life. It was probably cast in large part from the moment of its initial conception. So when I heard of an open call, it must have opened up that little well-spring of hope in me for a huge, circus-y, comicbook musical. Because I proceeded to do something very, very stupid. I talked to everyone about it. I even claimed to be planning on going. Because...why not? Hey: It's just talk. I can not go. They'll be staying away in hordes, the rest of my peers. It sounds terrible. Open call? Who does that anymore? And hey, here's a list of reasons I'm all wrong for Peter Parker:



  1. Too old. They extended the casting age into the "20's" (sic; somebody get a proofreader into that casting office), but come on now. Would I really be fresh-faced enough for the sweetest dork in the Marvel universe?


  2. Not pretty enough. Well, this is Broadway. You should see some of these magnificent bastards.


  3. Can't sing. Yes so I can sing. It's just that I don't. Ever. Upon threat of injury, even.


  4. Doesn't know what he's doing. In some things, sure. In a musical? It's like any other specialized field. You jump right in, and the learning curve is going to be terribly steep. Nearly everybody thinks they could be an film actor. Hardly anyone says, "Hey, I know all I need to know about Broadway from watching it."


  5. Can't dance. Oh I'll act the hell from a good bit of circus or fight choreography. I'll even make picking up a coin feel specific and significant. But a shuffle-ball-change? Next, please.


  6. Is shaking. And...sweating; profusely. And what is that smell? So scared. So very very scared.

The alarm went off at 5:30 this morning, and I shot up like a rocket. My carefully-chosen t-shirt and my carefully-chosen slacks were donned, followed up by sneakers. It took me longer than usual to get ready, but I blamed the hour and was out the door by 7:30. When I got to Leonard Street, the line hadn't quite gotten to the end of the block. I walked to a nearby bodega, grabbed a large cup of coffee, and took my place at the end of the line. It was a matter of seconds before more people joined the line behind me, and very soon the line snaked back around its first corner. It's been years since I stood in line for an open call, I thought. All this just to sign up for a time-slot. I looked around me, and wasn't surprised to see largely teens and early-twenty-somethings. I was surprised to see some of them be over six feet tall, or rather robust, or whatever other features you wouldn't expect to see on your Peter Parker or your Mary Jane. I did see some older women in line, which was a comfort, until I remembered the high-school principal role was described as older.

Crossword puzzles make for great distraction from an open call wait line, I find. I had a good book and four New York magazine crosswords to keep me from obsessing. It was hard, though, to block out the energy around me. And probably wrong, as far as choices go. Better to absorb and reflect energy than block it, in just about any situation. Maybe it was my nervousness (I doubt but that it was the main), but I was immediately turned off by the conversation around me. Directly in front of me in line was a group of three uber-musical-theatre types and they, like, were clearly very excited to be, like, there and yet somehow, like, better than a lot of the like, people there. They yammered non-stop, alternating between musical-theatre topics and gossiping, and they knew every third person who walked by, and greeted them with a stock phrase: "Oh my God!" Directly in front of them was a sixteen-year-old girl whose father had driven her in from New Jersey for the day. She sat patiently, quietly, in line while he called in regularly to tell her what he had gotten into exploring Chinatown. Behind me, a woman (one of the elder) promptly started making business calls on her Blackberry at 9:00, checking on leases and contracts and spreading little white lies about where she actually was. I tried to block it out, lose time (and thereby anxiety) and remember the damn name of the damn dog in the damn The Thin Man movies. "Asta," by the way.

I soon had reason to be grateful for my surrounding musical-theatre enthusiasts. Their support network had someone ahead in the line, who informed them via cell phone that the auditions would actually be acapella. This was very useful information, as I learned 1) I could stop sweating that the sheet music I had brought would sound as I thought it ought, and 2) I now knew the line wasn't going to just sign up for time slots. They were moving us through FAST. We'd get the name sheet, put down our information, then get ushered in pronto. It was around 10:00 when I got the vicarious news. At approximately 11:15 I was in a tiny room, taking my first breath.

The auditions were being held at The Knitting Factory, a downtown music venue I had visited once before for a reading and concert by Friend Nat. It's a dark and intricate space, with many rooms on different levels and a very rock-n-roll vibe. We were brought inside in a group of about ten, and taken downstairs. On our way we heard singing in various rooms, and passed lines of people waiting to enter one room or another to give up their sixteen bars of enticing magic. They were auditioning in no less than four rooms, simultaneously, and possibly many more. The room I was brought into to wait in line actually had people auditioning at one end, in the open. I was terrified that I was seeing where I would have to audition, in front of everyone. It took me a couple of nerve-steeling minutes to realize that, no, in fact we were in line for a teeny-tiny room with a door. I could hear the people audition on the other side, but it looked private, and the voices were somewhat muffled. Mine would be most of all, because I can't belt like the others waiting for their shot at spandex. Finally, my turn came and I stepped inside with no introduction.

The room was literally about 5x7 feet, and seated in it at a desk was a very pleasant looking woman of nondescript age. "Jeff?" "Yes." "Please step down (there was a lower section in all that space, somehow) and begin." So I stepped down, took a nice, deep breath, and began my pop selection: The theme song from The Greatest American Hero.

Should my choice of song have been reason number 7 that I'm totally wrong for the part, not to mention the entire environment? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Probably. Let me tell you how it went: Awfully. I could look on the bright side, and say it could have gone much worse. It could have. There was a very definite danger of my losing the lyrics in my panic, of my throat drying out completely in the final moments before entering, of hitting all the wrong notes in my adrenaline-fueled state, of my crashing into the door on my way out. None of these things happened, and I feel very fortunate in this regard. In some ways, even accomplished. But I was dreadfully frightened, and moved too quickly, too tensely, and my voice vibrato-ed almost into sharp-toned errors, and in no way did I act the song, I was so nervous. It didn't get a laugh, as was half my hope, either because I was too nervous or my proctor was too busy or a little of both. In a word, it was bad. A bad audition.

I am so proud to have done it. I spend so much time subconsciously defending my professionalism and experience, trying to prove myself a wise investment, an asset, to other people. At 31, I am tired of unfulfilling work, and find myself re-evaluating my choices in almost every pursuit. My life, in unexpected ways, is becoming about taking risks once again, just when it maybe ought to be simmering down to a more-settled form. It was absurd of me to go to the Spider-Man audition for numerous sensible reasons, a waste of time and effort from the perspective of supposed "adult priorities." And I rationalized it in any number of ways, to myself and others. I just want to get my circus-y resume in the door. I thought it'd be funny. I have to find out more about this show. I know it'll make for a good story. But the fact of the matter is, the real reason I subjected myself to it is, I think, that when I was very young indeed, that theme song was my favorite song in the world, and I had all the lyrics memorized. And sometimes, when I feel really good, I feel like I could fly, and when I have the means at hand it drives me to climb things and jump from tall places. Hope is a thing with wings, someone with far less opportunities than I have once wrote. I think sometimes it's the best thing one can do for oneself, to just go ahead and believe, and dream big, because...what the hell? It feels good. And who knows where it might lead?

Believe it or not, I'm walking on air,

I never thought I could feel so free!

Flying away on a wing and a prayer,

Who could it be?

Believe it or not, it's just me.

9 comments:

Maren said...

Ah, you brave, happy soul! Congratulations on taking a chance, doing something that reason told you not to but your heart knew you had to, and singing such a totally awesome song. Believe, man, believe.

What an uplifting tale!

Jeff Wills said...

Thanks so much, Maren! It IS an awesome song. Mike Post is the unheralded genius of our age. Hope you're dreaming big, too.

Anonymous said...

I am proud of you.
I love you for this adventure and this posting - brave, both.
And I think you are pretty enough to be on Broadway, too.

OTB, Ret. (Old Theatre Bitch, Retired)

Jeff Wills said...

Thanks, OTB, Ret. For all your compliments. I don't know how brave it all is; perhaps more of a making-lemonade-out-of-my-lemons post, but I appreciate your appreciation. I plan to call you after my every audition now. No good deed goes unpunished.

Patrick said...

You're my hero. Never forget. Seems like we'll have to add some songs to our two-man circus Broadway drama extravaganza. What the hell.

Jeff Wills said...

Can two people be each other's heroes? Simultaneously? Maybe we'll have to take turns. And the theme from "TGAH" was already written into my draft, P. It was one of those things I was going to introduce at tech, just to keep us alert.

Greg said...

Man, that was just beautiful. What a cool experience...and you've written about it, well, it's like I was there. Good for you.

And great song choice!

Patrick said...

Oh, and I wanted to let you know you;ve received the coveted Brillante Weblog Award. Stop over at Loose Ends for the full story.

Jeff Wills said...

Thanks so much, Greg and Patrick, for the acclaim! I think in many ways this is more rewarding than landing a role in Spider-Man.

There's still the way of MONEY, though. You think I could sell my Brilliante on the black market, or something? I keed, I keed....

But seriously: Could I?