For that long-running show, Telsey had to go outside acting circles and mine the rock and music worlds; open calls became the norm. Since then, he has found operatic singers who also looked good and could act, for Baz Luhrmann's Broadway La Boheme; employed talk show hosts, comediennes, rockers, and plain old regular actors in the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show; cast many middle-aged men to play a middle-aged woman in Hairspray; snagged dozens of belting witches for Wicked; picked vine-swingers for Tarzan; and located actor-musician hyphenates for John Doyle's revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company. Simultaneously, he operated Off-Broadway's MCC Theatre, where he is co-artistic director with Robert LuPone. Telsey took a break from the nine shows he now has on Broadway (as of press time) to talk to Playbill.com.
Playbill.com: Surely you must be the only major New York casting agent who also runs a theatre company. Is it difficult to juggle the two?
Bernard Telsey: It's definitely a balance. To me, why it's worked is I believe they actually feed each other.
Playbill.com: When you need people from your plays at MCC, you know where to turn?
BT: It's more that. As you establish yourself in the industry, people know that you do these two things and they respect that and they know that you're looking at things with both hats on. If I'm casting something, I know how producers feel, because at the same time I'm producing at MCC, even if it’s a different budget level and skill than a Broadway show. So I know what a producer is needing or wanting. What's more, I love actors, and what's really great at MCC is we get to really take care of them even more than I might be able to if I'm just casting. In the past five to ten years, the two jobs have really supported each other, rather than been a distraction or a conflict.
Playbill.com: Were you ever an actor?
BT: Yeah. I went to school at NYU for acting and theatre management. I understudied Matthew Broderick in Brighton Beach Memoirs. But I didn't like it. After one year of working professionally, I knew that it wasn't for me, and, simultaneously, I was able to get a job at a casting agency, where I just started working as a casting assistant and seeing really amazing New York actors, and I quickly saw what good actors could do and I knew I couldn't do that.
Playbill.com: How old is Telsey Casting?
BT: I went on my own in 1988. I started doing commercials and regional theatre. And that segued into some New York theatre. Playbill.com: What shows were turning points for your company?
BT: Rent. It was the show that brought me into the Broadway arena. But I'd also say, before that, it was casting for director Peter Sellars. I used to cast a lot of his productions. That's what trained me in really digging and really going outside the box. It really was a training ground for Rent.
Playbill.com: Would you say Rent established you as the person to go to when non-traditional casting was needed in a show?
BT: Yeah. I don't think I'm the only one who does that, but we got a lot of attention for it during Rent, so I think that's how I got the The Capeman job….
Playbill.com: I was just thinking of recent shows you've cast like Tarzan, in which you needed to find people to play monkeys and gorillas, and John Doyle's Sweeney Todd and Company, where the actors played the instruments.
BT: We seem to definitely get the jobs that are a little bit off the beaten track as far as what they need, talent-wise. Which is fun. I love that. It's an extra challenge. "Go find people who can sing and play instruments in Sweeney Todd." Who knew what that was going to sound like when we first met John Doyle?
Playbill.com: Was it easier the second time around, with Company?
BT: Yes. We knew what John responds to. And we had more access, mostly because we had a year of Sweeney Todd running, and certain actors were coming towards us. Also, we had a bigger cast in Company, so we had a few more instruments spread out among more people.
Playbill.com: Once a show is on its feet, how much time does it take up?
BT: A lot. You get a show like Wicked, which, starting in January, has five companies, and we're responsible for four of them. There's a person in the office who does nothing but Wicked every day. There's something happening every day. There was a time Rent or Hairspray was like that. The Color Purple is very high maintenance. It's a big company and there's not a lot of African-American talent out there, and now we have the tour and Broadway company.
[Editor's Note: A Jan. 8, 2007, addendum from Bernard Telsey: "[My] poor phrasing in my Playbill.com interview on Dec. 26 implied that I might not think a lot of African Americans are talented. That is, of course, not at all what I intended. Rather, I was referring to the many African-American roles we are now needing to cast. Because of the success of The Color Purple and its multiple companies, there were now many more wonderfully challenging roles for the talented pool of African-American actors. We are always looking everywhere we can to find exciting new faces, and are having great success. We recently did an open call at the Apollo Theatre in New York, as well as open calls in Los Angeles, CA; Washington, DC; Birmingham, AL; Orlando, FL; Greensboro, NC; and Atlanta GA, all within the last six months, and all open to both Equity and non-Equity actors."]
Playbill.com: Is it hard to find the two witches in Wicked?
BT: Oh, yeah. It's not just that you need a young person starting out. She also just has to sing with a huge range if you're Elphaba, or have a high range if you're Glinda, on top of having incredible comic chops. I remember the days when Maureen seemed tricky in Rent. Well, Maureen is Elphaba plus, because Maureen sings one song and Elphaba sings six. And you're the star of the show. You'd don't have to carry the show as Maureen in Rent.
Playbill.com: Aside from the original Elphaba, Idina Menzel, have you cast any other former Maureens as Elphaba?
BT: Oh yeah. It's been a path.
Playbill.com: The Drowsy Chaperone is interesting in that the average age of the cast is older than usual.
BT: That's been nice to work on! We all know Beth Leavel's been around and been great in a million shows. How great for her to create a part. We love Drowsy Chaperone for that.
Playbill.com: What do you think of the current trend of casting stars of West End and Broadway stars through television reality shows, such as with the London The Sound of Music and the Broadway Grease?
BT: I wouldn't want to cast Company that way. I think there are certain shows where it can work and it sounds like this could work with Grease. I don't think there's anyone who's silly enough to think this is the way of the future and every show will be cast this way—of course not. If you want to do a production of Grease again, why not? It makes this Grease a little different. It gives the production a little interest. It's almost like doing Company with instruments. It's a huge marketing tool.
Playbill.com: What's the single greatest challenge for a Broadway casting director right now?
BT: Finding new talent. Broadway is so healthy now and the road is so healthy and there are so many shows that continue to run from season to season. We can't find enough talent to fill them. It's not because any of us are lazy and not looking. We're all going to the schools. We sit around at every staff meeting and say, "Why can't we find people?" It's been a while since there have been too many people and not enough jobs.
(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)