ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Casting Leads

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Casting director Tara Rubin
Casting director Tara Rubin Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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This week's question comes from the Playbill.com staff.

Question: Several Broadway and West End musicals have been picking their lead performers through reality shows, allowing viewers at home to see the casting process up close. But on those shows, of course, the casting process is, in part, designed to create good television, and doesn't always mimic what happens in the real world. What is the normal process for casting the lead roles in a musical? Answer: For this column, we spoke with Tara Rubin, one of Broadway's top casting directors, who has cast the current musicals Young Frankenstein, Spamalot, Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins, Mamma Mia! and The Little Mermaid.

Let's say a performer wants to play Bert in Mary Poppins. He could come to the Equity Principal Audition (EPA), where he would wait in line with lots of other performers, and eventually perform a song of his choosing, in front of Rubin or one of the associates at her casting agency. "He could sing any song, but if he's wise he'll sing something in the style that Bert sings," she says. (Non-Equity members can also show up to EPAs and sign up to audition, but there's no guarantee the casting directors will have time to see them.)

If the casting people in the room think the performer is good enough, they'll send him a song from the show and sides — bits of scenes from the show — which he has to prepare for another audition. Sometimes that's the ultimate audition, in front of the director and maybe the music director, choreographer, producers and writers.

Other times, it's just an intermediate step, in front of what Rubin calls the "associate team," which may include the associate director, associate choreographer and others. Then, if the performer passes that filter, he goes on to have his final audition. On occasion, before the final audition, the performer will have a work session with the director, associate director or a music director, where he can ask questions and get coaching. Also, if dancing is a big part of the role, a dance audition will be required at some point.

Does a role always get cast this way, where someone works his way up from the EPA? Not at all. But it does happen, Rubin says. She especially remembers it happening for Les Misérables.

There are all sorts of variations on this process. For instance, let's go to the top: Some of the top performers on Broadway, Rubin says, are purely offer only — they will only consider a role if offered it, and won't agree to audition. This is the case certainly with many movie stars, but also some purely Broadway stars as well. Some won't audition but will agree to take a meeting with the creative team so that the team can assess the performer's thoughts on the role, and decide whether to make the offer.

While this may sound high and mighty, note that stars of this stature have been seen onstage in lead roles multiple times by everyone in the theatre community, and so an audition would probably be unnecessary anyway. Plus, these performers might have past working relationships with the musical's director, producers or writers, who know the performer's abilities and process. Sometimes, the performer has even helped shape the role itself by appearing in a developmental reading or workshop of the musical.

In other cases, Rubin says, top Broadway performers will audition. "There would only be one meeting, and we would make it as private and low pressure as possible," Rubin says. "We might sit around the piano and sing through the music. The artist might prepare the music [ahead of time] but still present it in the room in a very casual way." The director will be there, and probably the music director and choreographer (even if there's no dancing to be done), and perhaps a producer and the writers. Since the performer's acting ability is well-known, Rubin says, "the purpose of the audition is to find out what the actor will be like in the world of the play."

Sometimes the process is a legendary, months-long, transcontinental affair, as was the case with the new revival of South Pacific. Sometimes an understudy to the lead gets offered the job when the lead leaves the show.

And, sometimes a particular role calls for a particular process. For instance, the performers who play Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys have to be able to dance, act in a convincing Jersey accent and sing in Valli's unique falsetto style. And, they have to look like the guy. It's tough to find someone with the whole package. After a series of auditions, the casting directors and the associate team narrow down the field to six to eight-or-so performers who get sent to what Rubin calls "Frankie Camp." For a week in New York, performers go through workshops where they can work on any aspect of the performance. After that they have a final audition in front of the director, choreographer, perhaps the writers and producers, and sometimes even the real-life Valli and fellow band member Bob Gaudio.

Since Rubin has been in the business for so long and knows the pool so well, doesn't she spend a lot of time seeing the same people over and over again? "Sometimes you see someone you've seen so many times, but that particular day, they do something that you've never imagined them doing," she says.

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