Spring in Their Steps

Special Features   Spring in Their Steps Over 1,000 young performers attended an open call for the new musical Spring Awakening.

Hundreds auditioned for the chance to be the next Melchior (Jonathan Groff) in Spring Awakening.
Hundreds auditioned for the chance to be the next Melchior (Jonathan Groff) in Spring Awakening. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Over a thousand hopefuls lined West 38th Street April 29 to attend the open call for the new musical Spring Awakening. With the Broadway production running strong, 1,200 actors — most of whom cannot yet legally buy alcohol — descended upon the New Dance Group for what was, for many, their very first Broadway audition.

"I've been a fan of Spring Awakening since, like, it opened," said Michelle Croll, 16, from Somerset, NJ. "So I've been waiting for the audition notice. As soon as I saw it, I started planning." But she was apparently unfazed by the number of people in attendance. "I'm not stressing about it," she assured me. "I am here for the experience and for the fun!"

The line began forming as early as 1 AM that Sunday, and by mid-morning, it stretched down the block. "We had somebody who lives on the block complain about the noise, which I thought was funny in this area of town," said audition monitor Mike DiSalvo. DiSalvo was one of eight audition monitors whose job it was to keep the line moving. The monitors arrived at 8:30 in the morning to break people into groups and assign each group a return time. Auditioners were given stickers with a number and a time slot. Upon their return, they were sent upstairs in groups of 30 to be "typed," an inevitable practice for large calls in which actors are asked to stay or go based simply on their look, or "type." If asked to stay, they were sent up a short flight of stairs to one of three audition rooms to sing for the casting directors from Jim Carnahan casting.

While in line, most retained a sense of calm. "There are so many people," said Jessica Mengiscab, 16, of New Jersey. "You can't be too uptight about it. Enjoy it while you're doing it, you know?" Thirteen-year-old Sarah Masterson flew in from Cleveland, OH. "It's my first open call. If I get it, I get it. If I don't, I had the experience," she explained. Most claimed to be unconcerned about the typing process, yet nervous tension pervaded the room where they were to be typed. They held their breath as a casting associate looked into each of their faces, asked a few questions, and collected the headshots of those selected. Some of them spent hours in line only to be typed out after a few minutes. "There's really nothing I can do about being typed," said New York native Melissa Koval, 21. "It would've been nice to go in and have the full experience of auditioning. But it's not like I gave a bad audition. I'll come back to the next call, absolutely — wearing a different outfit!"

But for casting director Carrie Gardner, the question of an actor's type can't always be solved with a change of clothes. "There are a lot of people type wise who don't fit exactly with the characters that we have," she explained. "They have to have a contemporary feel, but they also have to be able to be believably part of 1890's Germany." For teenage girls, who tend to want to look as grown up and sophisticated as possible, this presents a challenge. "With our society the way it is, it's very hard for young people to come in and not be incredibly knowing," Gardner said. "But we're looking for a sense of innocence and naturalness. Someone who still knows how to access the child in them."

Hence, the much talked-about issue of the youth of Spring Awakening's cast. All cast members are under the age of 24, except for the two adults, who play several different roles. Since innocence and sexual awakening are two of the show's major themes, the producers and casting office insist upon working with genuinely young actors. "It's important to us that we don't cast 30 year olds who look like they're 15," said Gardner. "This is a show about young people."

Carnahan's three major casting directors — Jim Carnahan, Carrie Gardner and Kate Schwabe — were present at the open call, and this writer was able to sit in on a few of the auditions.

Once inside the audition room, nearly every actor struggled to overcome his or her nerves: Some forgot minor niceties, like thanking the pianist; some had difficulty finding their first note, others had difficulty finding any note. Some attempted banter ("a bird pooped on me right before I walked in!"), others greeted everyone with a handshake. "Most of them are shy," said Schwabe, "especially the ones who aren't used to auditioning in New York. They're a little shaky."

"I actually hadn't done the song with accompaniment before," admitted Minnesota native Neil Beckman, who sang Counting Crow's "Long December." "It's always different to hear the song like that, but you have to just go with the flow."

Very few were asked for a second song. "Today is to get a sense of what they can do as quickly as possible," Schwabe told me. But the score was kept on hand, and a select few were asked to sing from the show. While the majority of those called upon knew the score, it can be intimidating for singers to try to impress casting people with a song they've only sung in their bedroom. Anthony Lee Medina, 18, sang from the show after impressing Schwabe with his rendition of "Smash the Mirror" from Tommy. "It was awesome," said the Westchester County native. "That means they're, like, really looking at you. It was so good!"

Spring Awakening, it seems after three hours, is an extremely difficult show to cast. The requirement that performers be under the age of 24 means that large numbers of un-honed, if not untalented young people must be brought before casting personnel in hopes of finding the special few that make the grade. "We have to reach out beyond just the traditional seeing people by agency appointment," said Gardner. "Ninety-nine percent of the kids that we're looking for aren't represented by Equity, and they aren't represented by agents either. This is the kind of show where people very much get plucked from these open calls."

(Molly Sorohan is an actress and freelance writer who lives in Manhattan. She can be reached by e-mail at mollysorohan@yahoo.com.)

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