Booking It! Something Rotten! and Mormon's Director-Choreographer On Breaking Into Broadway and Cell Phones in the Rehearsal Room

News   Booking It! Something Rotten! and Mormon's Director-Choreographer On Breaking Into Broadway and Cell Phones in the Rehearsal Room Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. In the latest installment, Tony winner Casey Nicholaw reveals what he looks for when casting a show and how actors can bring the right energy into the audition room.
Casey Nicholaw
Casey Nicholaw
Casey Nicholaw
Casey Nicholaw Photo by Joan Marcus

A Tony Award winner for co-directing and choreographing the 2011 Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, and a Tony nominee for last season's Aladdin (which he also directed and choreographed), Nicholaw is Tony-nominated this year for again doing double-duty on the new musical comedy Something Rotten!

Nicholaw's joyous and energetic work premiered on Broadway a decade ago, earning him his first Tony nomination for choreographing Monty Python's Spamalot in 2005, which was followed by dual Tony nominations for directing and choreographing The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006.

Having been a Broadway gypsy himself, appearing in such shows as Crazy for You, Steel Pier, Seussical, Victor/Victoria and Thoroughly Modern Millie, Nicholaw has a great deal of wisdom to impart to up-and-coming chorus kids who are looking to catch their next big break.

In the following interview, Nicholaw speaks about what he looks for during auditions, the kind of performers he wants to cast in his shows and what every performer can learn in the rehearsal room.

What do you look for most in a performer? What excites you at an audition?
Casey Nicholaw: Choices definitely, because it means someone is going to bring something to the table. Also, someone who is just in their skin, who is comfortable with the material they're doing, who picked something that suits them. Every element of it adds up to what your assessment is of that person. I think that's the most important thing because then we get a real sense of who they are and how we would create for them or what they might bring to the show. What else are you taking account of when a performer walks in to the audition room?
CN: Actually, a nice person. I'm looking to see how they roll with things, to see what their manner is when they come in. We can tell if somebody's nervous or not, for the most part, so I'm really looking for somebody's who's as comfortable as they can be given the situation at an audition.

Are there certain qualities that you look for in a dancer?
CN: For me, it's people who just pop, and who aren't trying too hard. I like people who are comfortable in their bodies, so I can see what they are going to the table. You have to look to see if they're going to fit in with the group, if they're going to be pushing to do their own thing in the chorus. Also, too, you look at who can fit in and cover other roles Most of the time in a show these days, ensemble has to cover all the principals.

Can you speak a bit about the importance of motivating your technical acting ability with acting?
CN: You have to do all three. You're the singing chorus, the dancing chorus and understudy. You have to be able to do all three. If it's a large, large company, you can sort of get away with someone being an awesome dancer and not a great singer, but you usually only get one of those people. The musical director won't let you have more!

Can you talk about the "It" Factor? What is that thing that grabs you?
CN: It's hard to explain. It is an "it" factor. Some people are watchable, and some are efficient, but not watchable. Not that they're unwatchable; it's just that they don't grab your eye, or you don't feel an energy with them. All of us – directors, choreographers, musical directors – have different personalities ourselves, so there are performers that may appeal to another director-choreographer that just don't appeal to me, or vice versa. There are certain things that I look for, like good energy, a good work ethic and someone who's really paying attention and listening to the notes that I give and applying them to the dance.

Brian d'Arcy James and company in <i>Something Rotten</i>
Brian d'Arcy James and company in Something Rotten Photo by Joan Marcus

How do you feel dancers should dress for an audition? Are there certain things you prefer so that you can see lines? Are there do's and don'ts?
CN: I don't think there's do's and don'ts anymore. Everything I see is a clue to a person's personality. If they're coming in to a dance call and they're wearing pants they can't dance in, I'm already going to go, "What on Earth are they thinking?" So I'm already going, "I don't think I want that person in the show." Everything that they're doing in the audition, to me, adds up. Their appearance, and I don't just mean physical appearance, is everything to me, in a way. You can tell a lot about a person just by the way they dress and the way they act. I think, given how many people are coming in, you have to do things that are in your favor as far as saying, "This is who I am."

What is a way for actor/singers can succeed at a dance call?
CN: It's a tricky thing. The good news is, usually the casting director will let us know ahead of time. I think it's important that the agents say, "They're a little out of their comfort zone, but they're game to come in." So that way I go, "Okay this person is going to go for it." The casting director will say, "They've got an amazing voice, you might want to keep them, if you think they're workable." So I think it's about getting that information out a little bit, so it takes it off of their minds, too. So they're not freaking out about, "Oh, I can't do this." Because once they do that, then they're kind of sunk.

If an actor feels like they may not be right for a role, is it still worth going in?
CN: I think so, but again, it's important you still go in and be who you are. If you have an audition, you should go for it even if you don't think you're totally right. You don't really know what the director is going to be thinking, so you should totally go for it. If you get the audition, I say absolutely go. The only thing I do say is, don't try to be someone else. If you're the whitest girl alive going in for Aladdin, don't put on hoop earrings and black eye shadow to try to make yourself look ethnic because it's probably not going to work. [Laughs.]

Can you talk about technique a bit? Are there certain skills or dance vocabularies every dancer should have in their arsenal?
CN: The style of dance depends on the show. Technique is important, but for me, it's really more about who they are and what kind of energy they give out. You could have someone who is just absolutely an amazing technical dancer and they just seem dead inside when they're dancing. I just can't have that in the show that requires a lot of energy or requires the ensemble to act, as well.

Do you have advice for how dancers can maintain their health and take care of their bodies?
CN: Whatever tip I give you now is something I should probably listen to for myself. [Laughs.] Just take care of it with whatever feels good for your body. Stretch it out, go to yoga, do whatever you possibly have time for. No matter what kind of class you take, you'll learn something from it. I have never been a ballet dancer, and I used to go to ballet all the time. You never know what you're going to learn from anything or what kind of people you're going to meet who may help you later on. What have you learned from being in the chorus that you've carried with you throughout your career?
CN: Of course there's times where you're just going to sit around and chat, and that's part of the energy of a show, but I learned to do what I'm doing now by being in shows. I watched everything getting put together and what I liked and didn't and all of that. I think it's important to pay attention and not just sit on your cell phone. For most people, it's their dream to be on Broadway, so why would you waste six weeks being on your cell phone when you could be taking in a situation and learning something?

Can you talk about transitioning from being a performer to directing and choreographing?
CN: My way was sort of untraditional, then at least, because I didn't assist anyone. I really sort of learned by watching. I basically used all the money I had and did a little dance presentation with 25 dancer friends. I arranged music and did three numbers and I invited everyone I'd ever worked with – everyone who was a producer, writer and director – and they all came and I started getting work from that.

Andrew Rannells and company in <i>The Book of Mormon</i>
Andrew Rannells and company in The Book of Mormon Photo by Joan Marcus

Is it possible for up-and-coming director-choreographers to still get a break like that?
CN: I think anything is possible. I really do. You never know how you're going to get it. Sometimes it's just about the right timing, or somebody recommends you. Again, if you do good work; if I have an associate that does great work for me, I'm going to recommend them for jobs.

Are there challenges that performers face now that are new to the industry?
CN: I think the challenge is that there's not enough opportunity to learn anymore, or people don't take the time to learn. That, to me, is the challenge for them because they don't even realize it's a challenge. Everyone goes, "I'm out of college, I'm going to get on Broadway!" Or "I'm going to be a star!" as opposed to really knowing that it takes hard work and there's a craft to it all.

Where there hardships or bumps in the road earlier on in your career that you were able to learn from that carry you through to today?
CN: Yeah, actually. When I was 22 years old I started losing my hair big-time, and that's kind of when I developed my personality in a way and my sense of humor. I wanted to make a joke before someone else did. People would see me after ten years, or even after two years, and go, "Oh I haven't seen you in a long time," looking at my forehead the whole time. I didn't work as a performer right away, and once I lost my hair, I started working. That was a tough period for me, but I think that was what sort of made me become who I am. Everything shapes you, but that one was really important to me. Just keep going. If it's what you want, keep going. If it's not what you want, or you're not sure if you want it, you should probably stop. Because it's hard.

Speaking to that, can you talk about type? Does it matter anymore?
CN: The thing is, for me, I looked like everybody else, and then I lost my hair and suddenly people were like, "Oh! Here's someone to do the character parts." It was a big plus for me because I could do character parts and dance. I think that's kind of why I had my career, because I don't think I was the best dancer. I was an energetic dancer for sure, but you know, again, just be who you are. That's the most important thing, because it's going to appeal to somebody. If you're there and you're open, because if you're open you can access the gifts that you have. If you're closed off and worried about what they're thinking and worried about the result, that doesn't always pay off because you're not present.

With Book of Mormon you have given so many actors the chance to make their Broadway debuts. What are the main things you're looking for in those auditions?
CN: So much of it depends on the voice, because those are some hard arrangements and some high arrangements. I think that a lot of it has to do with the singing, ultimately. But also sense of humor and honesty are really important at those auditions. You've worked on several big original musicals, from Something Rotten! to Book of Mormon and Drowsy Chaperone. Do you have advice for actors who are walking into an audition room for a show no one has seen before?
CN: You know what I'm going to say? Just be yourself. Seriously, because you can't guess. So don't guess. Don't guess all that time, because it's wasted energy. Just put your best foot forward and do what you do best. Because then we'll say, "Oh, you know what? I loved that person. I was thinking the role was like this, but maybe it's not, maybe we can fit it for this person." If they show us a sense of who they are, we can cast them.

What's your advice for directors and choreographers who are tackling an original musical and charting new territory in the rehearsal room?
CN: Start with the story. Start with the writers and get that solid. Then when it comes to the choreography, you start with the music, you start with the dance arranger and then you just keep communicating and make sure everyone is on the same page.

Danny Burstein and Beth Leavel in <i>The Drowsy Chaperone</i>
Danny Burstein and Beth Leavel in The Drowsy Chaperone Photo by Joan Marcus