THE CHANCE OF A LIFETIME
It was a Friday afternoon, about four o’clock and the end of the fourth day of auditions. The large rehearsal room in New York City’s Ansonia Hotel, with its two enormous but filthy Gothic windows was beginning to feel all too familiar, like a dark and dusty home. Four consecutive days later, after six-hours-a-day of singing, dancing and reading scripts, the five remaining actors/dancers/singers realized that the creative team seated on the other side of the table was looking for their cast to all be approximately 5 feet 8 inches tall and between 130 and 140 pounds. The five male finalists included two Caucasians, one Black, one Asian, and one Puerto Rican. Diversity seemed as essential as well as height and weight.
Jamie had decided to go to the auditions because he thought he needed to work on his audition skills. He also thought that meeting new people in the business was always a good idea – like a free lesson. Last Tuesday, when this audition had begun, he never expected to get as far as he had.
Sitting at the casting table was the production team: including the playwright, the composer, the lyricist, the casting director and another person the finalists assumed to be the production stage manager. The casting director, a kind man who sincerely wanted the best for each of the male hopefuls, thanked them for all their efforts over the last four days. He then explained that they were casting what they were hoping would be Broadway’s next musical success but unfortunately, no decisions were being made that day.
“We will be auditioning in L.A. next week and making all final decisions after that. You will be hearing from us by the end of the month with details about signing contracts, rehearsal schedules, out-of-town dates and other essential details,” he assured them. And with that, the final five finalists left the dusty rehearsal room.
Leaving the intimidatingly ornate building, Jamie, one of the two Caucasian hopefuls, said to his friends Scotty, the Puerto Rican finalist and Rickie, the black actor, “Well, that was a little anti-climactic.” As Broadway hopefuls, they had all worked together as waiters in a theater restaurant and because they were approximately the same size, they had more expected to compete with each other for the same roles rather than finding themselves all being considered for the same show. Jamie was the only one to have three Broadway credits on his resumé and was a stronger dancer than singer. Scotty was the stronger singer who danced, while Rickie did both impressively.
All three guys knew the drill and agreed that they were thrilled to have even the prospect of a “next” job. Good luck wishes and hugs were exchanged. “Our dinner shifts at Barrymore’s begin in thirty minutes. We’d better run,” explained Rickie. The three friends stepped back into their work-a-day worlds, remembering the last four days of close competitiveness fondly. They now had found a new respect for each other’s talents.
They all knew very well that show business requires total strangers to audition (dance, sing and read) for a creative team that isn’t exactly sure what they want. However, in all auditions, actors are expected to give their best to help them decide what they need you to be. The future is never really clear for either side of the casting table.
After the audition Jamie, Scotty and Rickie would wait … and wait some more … for a phone call. The awaited call would define who they would be over the course of the next show. Hopefully, the job would last more than a few months, allowing them to catch up on their rent and all the bills they had been juggling since their last job. The joys of living hand-to-mouth!
Jamie’s last Broadway show had toured for almost a year before coming into New York, so he had saved a few bucks. While that cushion allowed him some comfort in waiting the few weeks, it didn’t reduce any anticipation anxiety. Without an agent, a manager, or any representation, he was pleased to have gotten as far as he had with this audition.
He had always thought of auditions as simply another class, of sorts. Every audition offered the opportunity of meeting people who were in the position of hiring him, either then or in the future. Optimism was certainly more attractive and hirable than desperation. While the actor may not have gotten the job, he had been given the opportunity to present his best to a creative team involved in mounting Broadway musicals. All he had to do was remember the names of those people on the other side of the table. Chances were very good that he would be seeing all of them again.
The casting director phoned Jamie two weeks later – not to say he had the job, but surprisingly to ask him out to dinner.
“Thank you, Jeff. I’d love that,” he responded, probably a little more excited than might have been necessary and trying his best not to indicate any reticence he may have felt. Jamie wondered, “Do I now have to date the casting director to get a job?”
“Great,” Jeff said and then added, “I was most impressed with your many talents during those auditions. After dinner, I’d like to bring you to my office and we’ll talk about your future.”
“My future?!” Jamie thought, “Let’s hope it involves a paycheck!”
Jeff’s casting agency was well-known and well-respected, but Jamie had never auditioned for him before and wondered about the reason for this dinner. If Jeff had wanted to jump his bones, he was being very courteous. Two days later, Jamie met Jeff at Noh, a Japanese restaurant just east of Fifth Avenue.
Between rounds of sushi and sake, Jeff explained that the producers had tabled their efforts because a backer had withdrawn financial resources and more money was needed to be raised. Everyone would be notified soon. Jamie wondered how Scotty and Ricky would take this news; he knew that they needed to be validated in a greater way. Disappointment was something that Jamie knew well. He’d learned that it was an integral part of auditioning. But how many showbiz hopefuls had ever received the bad news while having dinner with the show’s casting agent? Dinner was tasty but brief and it was only a short walk to Jeff’s agency on East 42nd Street.
Sitting behind his office desk, Jeff slid papers across it toward Jamie. “Please take these home; seriously consider them; and then return them to me signed next week. I want to make YOU a household name,” he said.
“A HOUSEHOLD Name?!” Jamie thought, “… What?!”
Somehow this was more shocking to Jamie than a casting couch would have been!
Jeff explained, “My staff will begin small by arranging local auditions. In that way they will get to know you and get an assessment from the casting people to whom they will be sending you.”
“Additionally, there are a few new television series interested in casting your type. So I hope you’re not opposed to the prospect of becoming bi-coastal …”
These comments were being tossed, almost randomly, into the conversation, making Jamie gratefully excited but also nervous. More than a little stunned, he stood up oblivious to how much time had passed; the two men shook hands and hugged.
“Wow, what an evening … I thought you were going to … Wow! Thank you!” Jamie said, desperately hoping that Jeff hadn’t noticed his internal quivering, which seemed virtually uncontrollable.
Jeff said, “I realize that all this may seem a little overwhelming. My office will be taking full responsibility in presenting you on a larger scale. I’ll call you in a week, should we not hear from you.”
Again, Jamie thanked Jeff and then left the office building.
He caught the M104 bus uptown in a haze, thinking of all that had just happened. Why was he shaking? He had already achieved his dream of dancing in three Broadway shows. He had even been hired to back Ginger Rogers and Carol Lawrence as a “Rocker” with the Radio City Rockettes. Was becoming a household name to be his next career goal? What Jeff presented was far beyond anything that Jamie had ever imagined.
Although he appreciated Jeff’s confidence, Jamie felt shifting sands beneath his feet. While almost any actor would have gladly given a body part for this opportunity, Jamie was hesitant. He was confident that he had the talents to be a very good chorus boy, but he felt he lacked the ego strength to step out of that chorus line.
He understood that taking this step would require an almost obsessive effort, a concentrated egocentric strength that was totally foreign to who he was. He thought about calling his friend, Christopher, who had relocated to Los Angeles. But because Chris knew Jeff from their early days in the City, could Chris’ perspective be unbiased? As for his New York friends, Jamie kept his decision to himself, feeling a little embarrassed and wondering if anyone he knew in “the biz” would even have believed this story.
Jamie was now thirty-five years old and fairly well established as a reliable theatre gypsy. He had spent the majority of his life, giving others what they needed; choreographers, directors, agents, not to mention lovers. With five performing union memberships, he was a very well-paid chorus boy and was making a good enough living, although it may have been sometimes hand-to-mouth.
Exhausted from tossing about all these thoughts, Jamie made his decision and called Jeff the next week.
“Jeff, hi … it’s Jamie.”
“Hello. I was hoping to hear from you. In fact, I was planning to give you a call about those papers.”
Jamie stumbled, “Well, yes, about those papers … I’m not signing them, Jeff. I’m just not concerned with becoming a ‘household name,’ as you put it … And I couldn’t allow you or your agency to put any effort – which I know would be considerable – into attempting to make me a big name, without my full commitment.”
Jeff’s silence was deafening. Following what seemed a minor eternity, he asked, “Are you absolutely sure of your decision, Jamie? Not many in your shoes would turn down this opportunity.”
“Yes, Jeff, I’m sure,” Jamie added, “But thank you for your trust in my abilities. The confidence required for taking the step you have so generously offered was beaten out of me years ago, I’m afraid. While I am making a living by giving everyone: producers, directors, choreographers, whatever they need me to be, I’ve never really considered what it is that I want my next goal to be. But … I honestly don’t think it is being a household name.”
“Well … I do appreciate your honesty. I honestly think you’re talented and could go far, Jamie. Thank you. It was pleasure to meet you.” Jeff said before saying goodbye.
“Thank you, Jeff, for your votes of encouragement. Let’s hope we see each other around the ‘hood,” Jamie said goodbye.
Months later while waiting to cross Fifth Avenue, Jamie was reflecting on all the new experiences he was having after leaving the theater. (Awash in idle thought.) He had become a word processor temping in legal offices and financial security firms and found himself pounding his fingers rather than his feet. But he wondered how many times opportunities similar to the one Jeff offered might actually present themselves in his life. The light turned green and before he could step off the curb, a limousine pulled up unexpectedly. The driver rolled down the window and asked, “May I take you someplace, sir?”
The driver explained, “I’ve been hired for the evening and just dropped the couple off for dinner ... some television actor and his trophy wife. I’m free until I pick them up after the opera.”
“I’m just walking across town to meet friends for dinner at Curtain Up … you know that outdoor restaurant on West 43rd Street and Ninth? Manhattan Plaza. It’s a short ride.
“Five-dollars work for you?” Jamie asked.
“Certainly, good sir,” said the driver. It was becoming a very beautiful evening.
Inside the limo, the driver explained, “Yeah, well … I’m really an actor … but like all drivers, I’m just trying to make some extra bucks, so I drive around Manhattan and randomly stop to ask if I might assist other New Yorkers. This is one impressive limo, huh?”
From the limo’s back seat, Jamie could see Scotty and Ricky already seated at a table, observing the limo’s arrival and wondering expectantly if they had worked with whatever celeb’ was about to make an entrance.
Just before getting out, Jamie handed the driver a five-dollar bill and thanked him.
“Oh, thanks. By the way, what do you do?” the driver asked.
“Me? … Oh … I’m a word processor,” and Jamie grabbed his back-pack and closed the door. Taking a deep breath, he wondered if either of his friends would believe any of this story.
Isn’t life indeed a stage? Shakespeare got that right. Entrances and exits are sometimes the most memorable element of any performance.
“Hey, guys!” Jamie waved and shouted in response to his friends’ bursting curiosity. Nearing the table, he added, “Quite an entrance, huh? Was it indelibly etched in those envious minds or yours? Oh … well, sorry to have disappointed you in any way.”
The three guys all took their seats, ordered their first libations of the evening and soon agreed, one should never forget the first rule of the theater: You can never wear too much lip gloss.
J.L. Homan is a writer living in Massachusetts.