On May 21, I wake at 4:30 to catch a 7 am flight from SFO to JFK. I’m flying to New York to find a cast for our upcoming production of “The Fourth Messenger” at the New York Musical Festival, aka NYMF. This was supposed to happen weeks ago, but a key team member’s health crisis forced us to postpone. We’re less than a month from the start of rehearsals, so the pressure’s on. The goal is to emerge from this three-day trip with offers out to nine actor-singers who are ready and willing to bring this story to vivid, three-dimensional life.
Over the years that I’ve been developing this piece, I’ve had the privilege of seeing these roles played by many different casts. I’ve borne witness to several transcendent Sids, fierce yet vulnerable Rainas, devoted Andys, fabulous Delilahs, oily Sams, wacky Claras, etc… Each performer brings something different, so in seeing a new actor in a role, I get to meet a new version of the character. As a writer, I have the opportunity to see things in these characters – characters which I ostensibly created – that I didn’t know were there. This happens in microcosm even during the audition process. I remember, for example, a couple of guys who read for the role of Derekh in Los Angeles. One made Derekh a none-too-bright surfer dude on a perpetual quest to discover his own mind. Another rendered him with social anxiety and a variety of nervous tics. Both were hilarious.
My dream for this trip is to find actors who can help us realize our best version of our musical, discovering new layers of meaning and nuance, pathos and humor in the script, while doing justice to the subtlety, sweep, and lyricism of Vienna’s score.
Oh yeah, and if we can get folks who have a bit of a following, well, that too would be divine.
For the next two and a half days, we behold an extraordinary parade of talent. Actor-singers enter the room, introduce themselves, chat for a moment about the traffic or some mutual acquaintance, stand before us, breathe, settle, perform. They sing pieces from their “books” – the thick binders of sheet music that musical theater actors bring to auditions – as well as segments of scenes and songs from our musical which the casting director, Cindi Rush, has provided them in advance. How lucky we are to observe this brilliance, the panoply of talent, skill, ambition, anxiety and humanity that actors bring into the room. It’s humbling.
At the end of the first and second day we lay out the actors’ headshots and make two piles: those we’ll call back and those we won’t.
It’s a strange beast, casting. In many ways, it’s like dating. As writers, producers, and directors, we bring to the table our expectations and dreams of what we want a character to be. Then the humans arrive and perform for us. And no matter how brilliant they are, none will 100% match the image in our heads. Something will be different… Not worse – just different. Some people will walk in looking the way you imagined, but the vocal range won’t match the part, or they’ll be a bit older or younger, or the energy will feel softer or harder than you envisioned. Others will look nothing at all like what you pictured, but something about them will knock you off your feet. Some blow you away on the first call, but when they show up a second time the impression wears thin. Others make a lukewarm first impression, but gain depth and momentum on a second look. When someone bucks your expectations, a process of adjustment has to occur. And just as in a romantic relationship, the moment comes when you must abandon the image in your imagination and look squarely at the person standing before you. Sometimes this feels like a revelation: this person is more complex and interesting than you could have imagined. At other moments it feels like a compromise. And yet it often happens that the choices which feel like compromises when you make them end up yielding the greatest rewards.
As with dating, your mind sweeps the terrain from the present moment to the endpoint, picturing an outcome. Can this work? Can the performance you’re seeing now lead to a performance you’ll want to see on opening night?
Unlike dating, you don’t have an expanse of time to test your hypothesis before making a decision. It’s as though you had to decide after two dates whether or not to marry, and then hope for the best that your choice works out. Luckily, if you’ve made the choice with good communication between your heart and your head, it almost always does.
And then of course, it’s a two-way street. Once you go through your agonizing process of deliberation and make an offer, they have to accept you. Which brings us back to the whole dating analogy. What if you finally decide you want them, only to discover they’ve accepted an offer from someone else?
In other words, this #%$@ is hard.
The good news is that we found an incredible cast. Seriously. World class. I can’t tell you who they are yet, but I will soon. How’s that for a tease?
Festival passes are on sale now at NYMF.org