I need a wife

It’s my wife’s birthday, and my first inclination is just to post a photo of her and say “Isn’t she beautiful?” I’m writing this in Riverside Park, on our baby’s nine month birthday. Adelaide’s asleep in her stroller, and Stevie Wonder’s evergreen song Isn’t She Lovely? is, naturally, on my mind. If you ask me to name the best American songwriters, Wonder’s the only one I’d name who hasn’t written a musical. (Paul Simon and Burt Bacharach have written Broadway shows, one each.)

How hard Joy works. Three months ago, she started her own casting company, and she’s already done some major off-Broadway musicals and the soon-to-launch national tour of Catch Me If You Can (look for it in a city near you).  All this hard work takes time away from Adelaide, and I’m the lucky one since I get the lion’s share of time with the baby.

Casting can be very challenging work. Clients sometimes come to projects with unrealistic expectations. Gazing at our beautiful child, I see, attached to the stroller, a luggage tag from the 2007-2008 national tour of Movin’ Out, the first big project Joy ever cast. The director, internationally esteemed choreographer Twyla Tharp, was used to getting the crème de la crème, but this particular tour had an arduous schedule and a not-all-that-attractive salary. Many of the dancers with the proficiency to perform this difficult narrative ballet were saying no to this gig. Joy’s job was to find the folk who’d say yes. That meant, first, that Joy had to educate herself about dance; it hadn’t previously been her area of expertise. Then, she had to go out and find a wide array of talent, and put it in front if Twyla. What strikes me as most remarkable, all these years later, is that Joy got Tharp to adjust her expectations, to see diamonds in the rough: where she was used to crème de la crème, she learned to embrace la crème du reste.  And was quite pleased with the results.

That’s telling an old tale out of school, of course, and perhaps I shouldn’t have.  But a sizable number of actors can’t seem to grasp what the life of a casting director is like.  They too often see casting directors as impediments towards their getting cast.  “If only Bigshot McCaster liked me, and would call me in.  I was perfect for that.”

  1. Show up at the open call and out-audition everyone else.  That’s the way it’s done.
  2. It’s your agent’s job to get you work, not the casting director’s.
  3. It’s likely you don’t see yourself the way the world sees you, especially when it comes to role appropriateness.

And the casting director can become the lightning rod for blame.  Once, I ran into a friend of mine, right as she was on line to audition for something.  Across the hall, Joy was casting something my friend would have been perfect for.  Or so I thought.  The client, it turns out, was insisting on a very specific physical type which my friend didn’t fit.  But how would she know that?  Sometimes, a casting director’s hands are tied.

Lest we jump to the conclusion that this client was being unreasonable, let me air some dirty linen of my own.  There was a character in Area 51 who had to be laid-back, personable, copacetic and friendly.  Oh, and he hails from another planet.  We saw a lot of fine actors for the role but one stood head and shoulders above the rest.  Literally.  Gregory Jones is six-foot-six.  Paint him green (as we did) and he’s bound to look like a brother from another planet.  No mere human-size human would do for us.  Greg was wonderful as the alien, and I’m pleased to report he made his Broadway debut last spring in a play about NBA stars.

And then there was an incredible array of specifications for the lead of Such Good Friends.  The character is a big comedy star in the early days of television, so someone like Lucille Ball or Imogene Coca.  The script contains a flashback to an early point in her career, so the actress would have to pass for 21-or-thereabouts to 38-or-thereabouts.  I wanted to make a subtle point about the anti-semitism of blacklisting, so, ideally, the character should be Jewish.  But not like Gertrude Berg – the point would cease to be subtle.  The singing demands were huge (critics compared it to Funny Girl) and, above all, she had to be lovable.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?  Luckily, Joy’s company was on the case.  Agents pushed various people – some big names, but none that matched our needs.  Since we were part of The New York Theatre Festival, there was, contractually, a severely limited amount of salary that we were allowed to offer.  (Also, a limited rehearsal period.)  Actors’ availability and willingness was checked.  We sat through roughly 300 auditions.  And finally, credit a save to the casting director: We got Liz Larsen.  I’d seen her in A New Brain, Starmites, and The Most Happy Fella, but somehow didn’t think of her.  That’s because I don’t have the brains to work in casting. While The Most Happy Fella earned her a Tony nomination, Such Good Friends earned Liz two impressive awards: one from NYMF and a performance-of-the-year honor from Talkin’ Broadway, in addition to a whole bunch of raves.  She was absolutely riveting in the role: no one else would have been nearly as good.

Area 51 didn’t have a casting director; some of those players never appeared in a New York musical again.  Such Good Friends taught me that trying to cast without a professional (like Joy Dewing) is the height of foolishness and hubris.  Trust me, you don’t want to go through the casting process alone.  And I know, I know: it’s a little harder to trust a husband, but you couldn’t find a better casting director than Joy.

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