Behind the Scenes (and On the Line) at the Hairspray Live! Open Call

Special Features   Behind the Scenes (and On the Line) at the Hairspray Live! Open Call Over 1,000 girls lined up in hopes to be television’s Tracy Turnblad. We spoke to the musical’s casting director and a few of the hopefuls about what it would be like to be the next Nicest Kid in Town.

“Girls like Tracy don’t get a chance to audition for lead roles every day,” explained Bernard Telsey from his casting office at the April 24 audition for NBC’s upcoming Hairspray Live! “Having an open call like this is a great way to meet new talent [when casting a young character].”

Hopefuls lined the block
Hopefuls lined the block Joe Gambino

The search for Tracy Turnblad, the outgoing and outspoken teen destined to dance on her favorite television show, began at 9 AM April 24 at Telsey + Co. in New York City. Over 1,000 hopefuls began lining up at 5 PM the night before, and by 7 AM the line was circling the block. Girls of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities stood on West 43rd Street for their chance to sing “Good Morning Baltimore,” Tracy’s iconic opening number.

Telsey explained that open casting calls are important when directors are looking for fresh-faced actresses. (Shanice Williams, the breakout star from The Wiz Live!, was discovered at last year’s open call for the NBC live musical event). According to Telsey, the next Tracy needs to have a lot of “chutzpah.” “She really is the champion of the show,” he said. “She fights against all odds when everyone is shutting the door on her. You, as the audience, have to keep rooting for her because you know she’s talented. What makes you sort of forget that she’s…not skinny is that she’s great, and that’s what rides you through the show.”

According to casting notes, Tracy is described as “outgoing, unstoppable, [and] good-hearted with a vibrant, lovable spirited personality.” The character was created by Ricki Lake in the 1988 John Waters film that inspired the musical. Marissa Jaret Winokur originated the role on Broadway in 2002 and received the 2003 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance.

Performers from all over the world showed up to make sure they wouldn’t miss their chance to dance on the “Corny Collins Show.” Some flew in from Ireland, while others drove in from New Jersey. Erin Walker, a performer from Seattle, WA, raised the money for a flight into New York within 24 hours through an Indiegogo campaign. “It was so touching,” she said of being able to raise $1,395. “Another girl here is a dance teacher, and her students raised all the money for her to come as well. It’s great for girls who look a little different to have a chance, and it’s nice to know that people really believe in us!”

Auditionees Autumn Jackson, Sunshine Marie Smith and Danielle Kleinman
Auditionees Autumn Jackson, Sunshine Marie Smith and Danielle Kleinman Joe Gambino

Some girls elected to dress in full Tracy regalia for their auditions. Sunshine Marie Smith, an actress from Los Angeles, CA, arrived at the Telsey offices fully decked out in a bouffant wig of her own design and a Tracy-inspired outfit. She and her newfound friends, Autumn Jackson of West Tennessee and Danielle Kleinman of Freehold, NJ, explained that camping out on the sidewalk had brought them close together.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie,” said Jackson. “We’ve been out here for so long, and we made a lot of great friendships. They’re something we plan on carrying on.” Smith even created a Facebook group (“Tracebook”) to ensure that the actresses would continue to keep in contact long after they had stepped out of the line and back into the real world.

Other performers brought friends and parents along with them on their journey. Carinna Kinney, an actress from Maryland who brought her mother for support, said that she had “dragged” her mother to see the 2007 Hairspray film in theatres 11 times. Kinney explained that what drew her to Tracy’s story was its strong message of self-empowerment. “Everybody deserves to have a role. [This open call is] going to put focus to the plus-sized women who want to go out and do these kinds of things,” she said.

For other actresses, like Emma Campbell, a performer who flew in from Knoxville, TN, Tracy’s body confidence makes her the amazing character that she is. Campbell was filled with pride when she saw how many plus-sized actresses showed up for the call. “It’s such a confidence booster to have walked three blocks around and see that every girl around looks like me,” she said.

Elizabeth Penny, an actress from Iowa, explained that whoever is cast must be optimistic. “There’s something to be said about being an optimist—in anything,” she said. “I think that’s why Tracy is such a powerful character. She never wavers on her beliefs or what she’s trying to accomplish.” Brenna Watkins, who came from Omaha, NE, agreed. “She’s such an underdog, and I see a lot of myself in her. I used to resent when people told me I couldn’t be a leading lady, but that I could be Tracy. Now I’ve come to appreciate it so much more because she’s such a strong female character.”

Beyond speaking for plus-sized actresses, Monique Mooty from Tucson, AZ, felt that the performer chosen to play Tracy should not be afraid to speak out for anyone who has ever been considered to be “other.” “Tracy is relatable to everyone,” she explained. “You don’t have to be heavier set or anything. Anyone can relate to her because we’ve all been in that situation where we were judged for something about us.” Wendy Humphreys, who comes from Concord, MA, said that what makes Tracy so inspiring to her is that “she wants to use her power for good. She desperately wants to make the world a better place.”

Sharon Yost, an actress from Orlando, FL, put it best: “We’re all here for the same reason. We all have similar stories, but we’re also unique in our own ways. Now we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Joe Gambino is a writer, illustrator and performer who still has not won the Hamilton lottery. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.

Auditionees Kelly Kantner, Wendy Humphreys and Arielle Fisher
Auditionees Kelly Kantner, Wendy Humphreys and Arielle Fisher Joe Gambino
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