"I arrived here about 12 years ago, when I met Ellen Hart," said Scott Barbarino, who manages Ellen's Stardust Diner, the singing food joint that has become a Times Square staple among tourists and theatre fans. "Ellen is our patron saint. She is the one who came up with the idea to put singing wait staff in the diner because it was just a '50s/'60s-style diner… She hired the original ones and made the room work as a singing waiter venue."
Hart, a former Miss Subway, met Barbarino at a show he was producing at Dillons, a former cabaret venue where Characters Bar & Grill (a typical hangout for 54 Below concert crowds post-show time) now resides. She was looking for a manager, and his experience at places like The Duplex and Don't Tell Mama made him the perfect fit.
"We still weren't 100 percent sure if this idea of singing with tracks was really going to catch on or not," he said. But, thankfully, it did. And, Stardusters (the singing waiters) have been coming in and out of the doors ever since.
"The word is out, and it's a great job," said Barbarino. "When [actors] come to New York, they want to get in here because they know they'll go on auditions. We'll set up their schedules so they can go on auditions, [and] if they go away, they'll come back, so it's really a highly coveted position." And, with most jobs that require the best singers in the city, there are auditions — except, instead of a handful of people behind the table, hopefuls have to audition for paying customers, tourists, theatregoing crowds, management and potential co-workers.
On audition days, Barbarino hands over the mic, turns up the music (karaoke tracks are plentiful at the diner) and observes how they work the room. He said that talent takes priority over waiting experience, and if they make it past the audition round, they get an interview with the general manager.
But, he said, "If they're really good — if I can see from their audition that they're going to be an asset to have on the team — I will let him know this person is very strong, and we might want to try and bring them in even though they don't have all the skills… And, the best part is, when they get the job, watching them get better and better at it because they're doing it every time they work, they're singing in front of a live audience, so they're learning just by watching people's faces and reactions."
So, aside from the money, these performers are also getting a rehearsal or two for their upcoming audition?
"That's one of the perks about working here," said Jenna Miller after effortlessly delivering Jekyll & Hyde's "In His Eyes" and simultaneously taking down a few orders. "If I have a new song, and I haven't learned it completely, I can bring it to the diner and see what works and try optional notes — try changing up the keys and see what fits and how the crowd responds — so that when I go into an audition room I know that I'm comfortable with it. If I have an audition tomorrow, I can practice the song that I'm going to sing in the audition room today in front of a lot of people, so that I'm not as nervous. I feel ready; I feel polished."
At Stardust, she's belted out "A New Life" from Jekyll and Hyde, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" and "Always Starting Over" from If/Then, to name a few, aside from taking part in company numbers such as "Be Our Guest" (Stardust style, with pies and cakes circling the floor and a napkin-and-straw confetti finale!).
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After the big musical finale, customers meet Phillip, the bucket — named in hopes that it gets filled with some extra cash (aside from tips) for the performers to spend on essentials such as singing lessons, headshots and dance shoes.
Those extra lessons pay off big time for some. Stardust alumni include Zak Resnick, who went onto star in Broadway's Mamma Mia!; Eric Michael Krop, one of the troupe members in the revival of Godspell; and Alysha Umphress, the breakout star of the recent On the Town.
"[Zak] was here one day working," Barbarino explained, "and got a phone call that he got the Mamma Mia! part, so he moved next door [when it played the Winter Garden]."
Miller added, "There are some people who you see perform, and you just know that they're stars, and you know that it's just a moment before someone will pick them out, and for him it happened very soon. He got out, and now he's been out for a long time… Every person that gets out of here is one more boost of confidence that we're going to do it, too — that it's possible."
But, for some, it's very easy to become complacent. They're performing on "Broadway" and have a steady flow of cash.
"That's the trick with any place," said Miller. "I think that's what happens to a lot of people that come to New York City with big dreams of being on Broadway. They come here and realize how expensive it is and find a job, and it pays their rent and you kind of feel like, 'Well, this is good, and I make my rent.' You don't realize that time is going by, and all of a sudden, you haven't done a show in years, and you wonder what you've been doing…"
Evan Shyer, a Starduster since 2006, said, "I think if you work at Ellen's and that's your job, that's fine… But, I think it's healthier to work at Ellen's with the idea that it's simply a stepping stone onto something else."
Shyer has been in and out of Ellen's door a few times to perform on tour, and upon leaving, he was told, "See you when you come back."
With all the drama and dreamers at the diner, a reality show about the lives of Stardusters is in the works, according to Barbarino.
"I think that you go through cycles here at this restaurant," said Miller. "When you start seeing other people working towards their dreams, it reminds you, 'Oh yeah, I had dreams,' and you start working towards them."
At the very least, "I don't get stage fright anymore," said Shyer.
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)