My First Audition

Special Features   My First Audition This season's Broadway stars recall their sometimes-humbling beginnings.
From Top: Maureen McGovern, Michael Benjamin Washington and Fracnes Sternhagen
From Top: Maureen McGovern, Michael Benjamin Washington and Fracnes Sternhagen

"It's not where you start — it's where you finish," decreed Dorothy Fields in her last Broadway show, Seesaw, and truer lyrics were never sung. But those actors who finished on Broadway this season can tell you, in a heartbeat, where they started. They don't forget. There's something brain-burning about that baptism-by-fire known as The First Audition.

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Alan Alda, one of the season's most seasoned (he's the old war-horse realtor in Glengarry Glen Ross), never saw the eyes of the first producer who auditioned him. "He never looked up," he says. "He just held his head in his hands through the whole ordeal."

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Tom Aldredge, the most senior of Twelve Angry Men (Juror #9), encountered right at the starting gate the "firing squad" method of casting, and the setting couldn't have been grimmer: the abandoned New Amsterdam Roof. "They were auditioning for Mother Courage. I remember a bunch of guys coming in, standing in a row, and the director came down the row and said, 'You. You. You. You. The rest of you, go.' I wasn't one of the You's." He shudders, then smiles with a private pleasure. "I don't think it ever went into production." *

Tim Curry, as befits the loopy leader of Spamalot, "really only had three auditions in my whole life. When I went up for The Rocky Horror Show, I sang Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti,' which was rather appropriate, and did Frank 'N' Furter as a German." It worked.

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Erin Dilly, who is Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and plays a character named that as well, discovered the downside of too much determination when she auditioned for a regional production of Gypsy. There was a question if she could bring off Gypsy's striptease at the end, so Dilly went in "bound and determined to prove I was a sexy girl, ready to make this grand statement. I worked out my own little very tasteful striptease to 'Naughty Baby' from Crazy for You where I showed just my shoulder, but when I was auditioning, when I dipped my shoulder, my entire dress fell to the floor. I stood there in my bra and my underwear, then I bent down in complete embarrassment and slowly pulled it back up and finished the song, my face beet-red, and then shuffled out of the room." And, after all that, did she get the role? "No! That's the kicker!"

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Gary Beach, the drag-diva old-married of La Cage aux Folles, drove up from school in North Carolina in the late '60s for his first audition when he read that Lincoln Center was reviving Oklahoma! "I walked into a cattle call and waited around for hours. Finally I had to use the facility so I went to the men's room. I was standing at the urinal whistling, for some strange reason, 'Pore Jud Is Daid,' and I looked to my left and there was Richard Rodgers staring me in the face, like, 'Have you lost your mind?' Needless to say, I didn't get into the show. My fate, you could say, was met there at the urinal at Lincoln Center."

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Michael Benjamin Washington opted for a marginally higher road to land the role of the flamboyant (and flaming) gay maid in La Cage aux Folles. "I put on all male clothing and five-inch black patent leather heels and went in and sang 'I Enjoy Being a Girl.' Susan Bristow, our producer, said to me, 'I love your pumps, but is that song really in your audition?' It was certainly a quick way to break the ice" — and win a role.

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Christopher Sieber moves expertly through Spamalot — enough to pass for a live-action cartoon version of Sir [Dennis] Galahad — but there was a time when it just came to him that he was a dancer. "I thought, like Wayne Cilento in A Chorus Line, 'I can do that.' What's so hard about dancing? Well, I found out in one quick hurry. After a few minutes of flailing about, I left the stage feeling like an idiot. What could I have been thinking?"

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Michael McGrath, who plays Patsy to Tim Curry's King Arthur in Spamalot, at least knew he was getting into the deep end of the dance pool when he went out for the short-lived Bring Back Birdie. "I was actually cut at a dance call by Joe Layton," he recalls dry-eyed. "It got down to me and about 12 other guys. I didn't have the chops."

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James Earl Jones, now in his On Golden Pond stint as a retired college prof, started out very much The Egghead. That was the title of a Broadway play written by Elia Kazan's wife, Molly. Karl Malden starred, and Jones auditioned for (director) Hume Cronyn to understudy Lloyd Richards (then an actor who would, as a director, win a Tony with Jones for Fences 30 years later). "The Egghead opened Oct. 9, 1957," says Jones, "and closed in 21 performances," but, he concedes, it was very good company while it lasted.

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Dame Edna Everage, Back with a Vengeance on Broadway this season, auditioned first for a church play. "I played one of the Marys — the one who had to put ointment on Jesus' feet," the Dame dimly recalls. "The vicar at our church played Jesus, and I was chosen because of my striking lavender-colored hair, which I was born with. We didn't have the biblical ointment needed, so I put Nivea cream on his feet instead, and then I wiped it off with my hair. It took me weeks to get that Nivea cream out of my hair."

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Gregory Jbara, one of the larcenous spirits on the loose on the French Riviera in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, lumbered into stage prominence from an audition in which he was embraced as a long-awaited Frankenstein's monster. The show was a dippy musical spoof of "The Bride of Frankenstein" called Have I Got a Girl For You! "I remember Faith Prince was there at the same audition, and so was Dick Gallagher, who's no longer with us. It was the first time someone had immediately responded to what I describe in myself as 'goofy behavior.' They said, 'You've got the thing we're looking for'-and I got the job. Just lucky timing."

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Leah Hocking, the curvaceous museum curator in All Shook Up, must have laid 'em in the aisles doing Cole Porter's "Stereophonic Sound" for the summer-stock auditions at the New England Theatre Conference Auditions because she got calls from 13 different companies. As her luck would have it, the outfit she signed up with was the Boothbay Dinner Theatre in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Right before the season was to start, she got a call from her potential employer who said, 'We've got good news, and we've got bad news. The good news is they caught the arsonist.'" Hocking and ten other hirees wound up going to Boothbay Harbor anyway and helping to rebuild the theatre from the ground up. "It was great," as she remembers it. "We would rehearse Pippin, Evita and Company by day and then build the theatre at night. I made some lifelong friends with that experience."

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Mark Price, the nerdy lothario of All Shook Up, likewise scored at his initial audition but for a surprising reason. "It was for the workshop of Paul Simon's Capeman," he says. "I was not expecting to see him there, but he was — and he was incredibly intimidating. He asked what I was going to sing, and I said, 'River Deep, Mountain High.' He said, 'Oh, wow! Well, if you think you can sing that, go ahead.' It made me so angry he challenged me that I went up and sang the crack out of that song. Afterwards he was, like, 'OK!!!' It was a pretty crazy audition, but the thing I learned was: a good way to get me to do my best is to tell me 'no.' I got the part because I was determined to prove Paul Simon wrong."

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Frances Sternhagen, the mayor's widow in Steel Magnolias, also found anger at her first audition a useful tool in getting herself on the right professional path: "I was trying to get into the Brattle Theatre up in Cambridge, so I worked up five different pieces — Shaw, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, you name it. The producer was a young man in a tweed jacket with leather elbows and horn-rimmed glasses. He filled his pipe and said, 'All right, begin,' and I went through my five pieces. At the end, he said in this high-class accent, 'Miss Sternhagen, if you want to be an actress, I advise you to give up teaching. You do everything as if you were leading the Girl Scouts onto the hockey field.' I got so mad I did give up teaching, went to Washington, got into the first two plays I read for at Catholic University and was asked to go to Arena Stage after that. That started it all."

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Liev Schreiber, who plays one of the more ruthless and soulless of Glengarry Glen Ross' real-estate wheeler-dealers, didn't let a little thing like a physical set-back keep him from his first audition. "I was on crutches from a football injury," he recalls, "so, naturally, I did Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I still think that was a pretty good choice — but it didn't work."

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Sara Ramirez, as Spamalot's resident diva, The Lady of the Lake, didn't make it through "Jingle Bell Rock," her audition piece for an 8th-grade Grease. She forgot the lyrics, had no music and winged it a cappella. "I figured snapping my chubby little fingers would provide enough accompaniment to compensate for the lack of piano — only I was so nervous I was snapping on the wrong beat. I had no presence whatsoever and was clearly not ready to be in the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. The look on the director's face was, well, blank. Obviously I didn't get cast, but a couple of years later I landed my first lead at school — "The Witch" in Into the Woods. That changed everything."

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Mario Cantone, whose one-man laugh riot (Laugh Whore) uncorked the Cort this season, got off to an early running start in show business — like, age 11 — when he auditioned for the owner of the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, MA. Steve Slane ("The name still gives me chills up my spine"), to do a local production of The Rothschilds. He sang "The Star Spangled Banner" and read a scene and waited a week. "I remember my mother, who never really hugged me too much — I mean, I would hug her and her arms would be at her side — coming out on the porch where I was playing Clue with my friends and saying, 'You got the job!' I jumped up and hugged her and she put her arms around me, and we jumped up and down, and I was so excited. We rehearsed it for two weeks, and we did the show for two weeks, and every day my mother drove me 30 minutes to Beverly, MA. She wasn't the warmest woman in the world, but she'd do things like that."

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Cherry Jones, an avenging angel of a nun in Doubt, also was transported to stardom by Mom. "I came home for my college spring break," she recalls, "and my mother picked me up at the airport and I said I had an audition in Nashville for The Good Doctor at The Barn Dinner Theatre. She drove me to the audition and worried because I stayed a long time, but, when I came out, I said, 'Well, I got it.' I had the luck of the Irish back then."

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Christine Ebersole, a Southern belle in Steel Magnolias, made her own Irish luck at her first audition (for "The Cavanaughs," a TV series about an Irish Catholic clan in Boston). "My audition for the network was on St. Patrick's Day. I wore green and got the job."

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Leslie Uggams, who in 1968 became the first African-American to win the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical and has now revived On Golden Pond with James Earl Jones, grimaces at the thought of her first audition. "At the time, David Merrick was going to produce Hallelujah, Baby! , so I had to audition the acting part of it in front of him. When I finished the scene, I looked over, and David Merrick was sound asleep. I thought, 'Well, I didn't get this role!'" But she did get the role — and the aforementioned Tony to go with it.

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Phylicia Rashad, who only last season as the matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun became the first African-American to win the Tony for Best Actress in a Play and this season set Gem of the Ocean a-shining, remembers timorously trying out for Purlie. "My knees knocked, and my voice went mad, but [director] Philip Rose was so kind and gentle. He came up on the stage and calmed me and said 'Would you like to try again?' I always remembered that because he didn't know me — no one did — yet he took the time to be so personable." And did she get the part? "Of course not." Melba Moore did — and the Tony.

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Delta Burke, following last season's appearance in Thoroughly Modern Millie with this season's Steel Magnolias, dresses to win — no matter what. "I remember coming to New York to audition so I could get into the drama school in London, and I was still so in my beauty-queen mode that I came in a matching beige ensemble. The shoes matched the handbag matched the skirt, blouse and cape, with a hair-do that flipped. Everybody in the hallway was very actor-y, very much all in black, lots of mi-mi-mi-mi and all the warm-ups, and I looked so out of place, didn't look like an actor or behave like an actor. Then I came in there and did my Lady Macbeth and my Blanche DuBois. Afterward, they asked if I always dressed like this. Luckily, I got in, but I recall feeling, 'I just so look like I don't belong here.'"

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Victoria Clark, a Southern matron abroad in The Light in the Piazza, did the flip side of dressing for success when she went out for the role that won her an Equity card — the tomboy next door to The Wright Brothers in a Theatre for Young Audiences production: "I bought a pair of shoes that were a couple of sizes too big, and then, at one point in my audition song, I did a little kick. I practiced it at home so the shoe would fly over the production table, and then I pretended it was like a big mistake and I stopped my song and went around the other side of the table and apologized and I started over. That was my version of The Barbra Streisand Gum story. When she went out for I Can Get It for You Wholesale, she chewed gum through the entire audition and then, in the middle of it, she put it on the bottom of the stool. Afterwards, the director checked the stool, and of course there was nothing there. She was making that all up, hoping that somebody would check and see she really was an actress. And, of course, somebody did check it out."

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John Christopher Jones, who winds up foreign minister in Democracy, almost arrived on the New York scene as Romeo in a three-hour CBS-TV movie of "Romeo and Juliet" directed by Joe Papp and went through numerous callbacks to that end. "Finally, I asked Joe, 'Where do we stand?' He said, 'I want the lovers young. If I can find somebody younger than you to play Romeo, you'll play Mercutio. If I can't, you'll play Romeo." Unfortunately, or fortunately, Papp had a resounding success in the Park, and then on Broadway, with Much Ado About Nothing and elected to do that instead for CBS. A year later, Jones went up for Troilus in a Troilus and Cressida that Papp was doing at Lincoln Center. "After seven auditions, in despondency, I asked the casting director, 'What's going on? Why is he seeing me so often?' She said, 'It doesn't matter how good you are in your audition. There's a tall Cressida and a short Cressida. If they get the tall Cressida, you'll play Troilus. If they get the short Cressida, somebody else will play Troilus.' So I drove back upstate New York six hours from New York City, and, when I hit the door, the phone was ringing. It was Joe Papp, saying, 'You got the part. It's Troilus in Troilus and Cressida. I owed you one." He had remembered my great disappointment from the year before, and I was rewarded with a leading role in a Shakespeare play at Lincoln Center. Of course, it was reviled by the critics, but it was my first New York show and a great thing for me."

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Maureen McGovern, mother Marmee of Little Women, also picked Papp for her first audition. "In the summer of 1981 — having no theatre or auditioning experience, not even a high school play — I was on my way to my first theatre job in Pittsburgh [Maria in The Sound of Music] and, en route, I stopped in New York and met with Joe Papp, who was looking for a replacement for Linda Ronstadt as Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance. I had had a favorable interview with Wilford Leach, the director, earlier in the summer in Los Angeles, but had heard absolutely nothing back from casting. However, after singing for Joe, I went to lunch in the Village, and Wilford happened by. He poked his head into the restaurant and said, 'Oh, by the way, you got it,' and kept on walking down the street!"

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