A VIEW FROM THE CHORUS
by Dodie Pettit
The Booth Theater
45th Street, New York
"What? This is your first audition?... EVER?! " Those words were hurled at me by a disbelieving showgirl-type standing in a dilapidated dressing room backstage at the Booth Theater on 45th street. Then with a snicker she said, "Yeah, this is where you wait." The look in her eye said, "What'd you do? Just get off the bus from Oklahoma?" I could see that it was all she could do to keep herself from bursting out laughing. But, mercifully, she caught herself, and abruptly turned back to her two friends who were sitting on the broken down couch next to her and dove back into their very important conversation, which I had so naively interrupted, about who was "called back" to what, did you hear "so-n- so" got "such-n-such" ?; Trevor Nunn this, Gillian Lynne that; and as far a they were concerned, I had disappeared.
Had I been a few years younger, and had I not gotten myself invited to this audition through the recommendation of Stanley Lubowski, one of New York's best Broadway conductors, I probably would have let the terror that had welled up in the pit of my stomach drive me downstairs, out of the building and out of the district forever. But I had to stay, for better or worse. Still, I was starting to think that this was a huge mistake.
A few weeks earlier, I was standing in the hallway of my dance studio killing a few moments before my usual ballet class at Morelli Ballet Studio on 14th Street, when I happened to spot a rather inconspicuous typewritten notice on the message board which said, "We are looking for a lyrical ballet dancer with a clear soprano voice for a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical 'CATS' opening in the fall of 1982. Choreography by Gillian Lynne, directed by Trevor Nunn, musical director-Stanley Lubowski." At the bottom of the page was a phone number for a casting agent. This was certainly an unusually low-key announcement for what was to become one of history's biggest musicals ever.
But at that moment I knew nothing of Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber or CATS, and so I read the note with mild curiosity and thought matter-of-factly,"I can do that. Hey, I bet there aren't many ballerinas around who can sing as well as I can." And then a bell went off in my head. I paused, and then reread the notice; more carefully this time yet trying to keep a casual air, lest I draw too much attention to it, as there were several dancers milling about and I didn't want to let them in on my newfound secret. For suddenly I felt I'd discovered something very important, and for a brief moment my world stopped. A Broadway show was something I'd never considered before, as I'd always been a serious classical ballet dancer. In fact, I'd only seen one musical in my life and really had not much interest in seeing any others. But there was something about the notice that made me stop and think. This was a special combination of talents they were asking for; a combination I had. Come to think of it, I'd never met anyone else with that combination of skills. Suddenly it was clear. I had to call. So I scribbled down the number on a scrap of paper, shoved it in my dance bag, and went off to my class with a flicker of a dream in my head.
Little did I know that by that time, early June of 1982, Trevor Nunn, Gillian Lynne and Stanley Lubowski had been auditioning singer-dancers from all over for six months already. Casting calls had been in the usual rags, Backstage & ShowBusiness, for months, and they had pretty much scoured the market. Word on the "street " was that they'd seen every singer-dancer in New York. And in fact, the show was almost completely cast. There was just this one cat, the white cat, Victoria, that they were still searching for.
But I never read those papers. I didn't have the slightest idea what was going on in ShowBiz. In fact, at the time if you would have asked me to name three Broadway shows, I probably couldn't have.
But my curiosity was aroused. So, in the next days I made three calls. The first one was to the casting agent who's number had appeared on the notice, who told me it was too late to add me into the casting call, end of story. Which, of course, only made me more determined and led me to my second call, to my former Ballet mistress, Audree Estey, from Princeton Ballet. You see, her daughter was married to Stanley Lubowski. In fact I had met him many times. He had even conducted the orchestra for our company when I was the principal dancer there. I knew that Audree could get me in touch with Stanley, and perhaps Stanley could pull a string or two. As I'd hoped, Audree gave me Stanley's number and said, "By all means, call him. He'll get you seen." And so I did. And he did.
Stanley Lubowski was not only a wonderful conductor, he was a wonderful man as well; very generous and out going yet assertive and firm in what he believed was right. He was no push over. And make no mistake, he would never recommend someone to audition for a job unless he felt they were up to it. His professional integrity wouldn't allow it. And I knew that when he said "Yes, I'll arrange for you to be included in the audition" that he was not just being nice. And I also knew that once that was done, I could not get cold feet and back out.
Two weeks that passed between that phone call and the audition. And I spent those weeks in a curious but dreaded anticipation about what the audition would be like. Except for my very first audition at the tender age of twelve for the Princeton Ballet Co., I'd never auditioned for anything before. For once I was in the company, I was simply given roles to do each successive season until I'd worked my way up to the principal parts. And similarly with my singing. Though I'd sung pop music professionally for years, even on recordings, the idea of singing a Broadway audition was a strange and curious thought. I'd never even sung a Broadway tune before. In short, I was totally clueless, and to say I was ill-prepared for what was to happen that fateful day was an understatement. And that, my friends, is not the way to show up for a Broadway audition. But I guess that's ok, everyone's career has to have a beginning somewhere, and unbeknownst to me, this was to be the start of mine.
So to prepare for "the day", I did only what I could think of and had time for. I took ballet class every day, I got together with an old ballet partner of mine from Garden State Ballet and rehearsed a pas de deux with the notion that perhaps they'd want me to do a choreographed piece (which they wouldn't), and I made the third phone call on my list to an old friend of mine, Bebe Neuwirth, who I had danced with at Princeton Ballet, for advice. Bebe had been in "A Chorus Line" on Broadway, and she was the only person I knew in the business. Bebe's advice was short and sweet. She said, "Oh yeah, I've auditioned, every in NEW YORK HAS AUDITIONED...you have to sing a song from a show... and 'knock your face up.'" Translation: wear tons of makeup. And finally, I went to a music store and bought piano selections of "Chorus Line" and "Pippin," sat down at the piano, and skimming through the songs, learned the first one that seemed plausible, considering I wasn't familiar with any of it, which was "Morning Glow" from Pippin.
So that was it, my preparation for my first Broadway audition. And, ignorance being bliss, I thought I'd be ok. And even if I didn't think I'd be ok, it was too late, I'd already opened my big mouth and had to show up.
Click here for Part 2…
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