Published March 22. 2013 4:00AM
During the winter months, the stage at Goodspeed Opera House tends to be empty, but that doesn't mean Goodspeed Musicals is quiet.
No, that's when members of the behind-the-scenes team are busy auditioning actors and searching for the perfect cast for Goodspeed's mainstage lineup.
Casting staff have been meeting in New York City, running through auditions - dancer after dancer stepping up to whirl through a combination they just learned, singer after singer trilling a piece they think will showcase their talent. All told, they'll see nearly 2,000 performers for these three productions, with each show taking at least eight full days of auditions.
That's not all. Goodspeed also has to cast the shows at its developmental Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, which means auditioning an additional 1,500 or so performers for that trio of productions. That process begins in a couple of weeks.
It's a big job - and it's a big job with countless details to consider.
"Every year there are challenges in finding the right people to come up to Goodspeed," says Paul Hardt, of New York-based SH Entertainment, who has served as Goodspeed's casting director for about seven years.
Casting the lead for "Most Happy Fella," for example, has had its unique issues. The role requires a classically trained voice. (Goodspeed's 1991 production, which moved onto Broadway, starred an opera singer.)
"Many opera singers who can sing and act this role are still working in the opera world, which (unlike Goodspeed) is not eight performances a week, and never two performances on the same day," Hardt says.
He's certain, though, that with director Rob Ruggiero's track record, they'll find the perfect candidate for Goodspeed's production.
Over time, Hardt has developed a strong sense of what Goodspeed needs and what its audiences want.
Goodspeed Line Producer Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton says, "Because it's his job to cast dozens and dozens of shows, he knows so many more actors than we could ever begin to know - and we know a lot. It's all he does. So he knows this person is right for that role and that person's not right for that role."
Hilton gives this example: Hardt brought in James Snyder to audition for the role of Billy Bigelow in last year's "Carousel." Snyder had relocated to the West Coast, so the last time Goodspeed folks had seen him was years earlier when he starred in "Cry-Baby" on Broadway.
Hilton recalls that Snyder "came in the room, and he blew us all away. We were all, 'Do you have a contract in your bag? Can we sign it right now?' Paul has developed a really long history of doing that for us. Those roles that are pivotal to the piece that we've chosen to do - he's really good at saying, 'I think this is exactly what they are looking for.'"
Auditions are, of course, all about figuring out who will be best for a given role - and seeing beyond the veneer to the long-term reality.
"I believe all of this industry is smoke and mirrors," Hardt says. "It's our job to figure out where your deficits are."
Sometimes, though, optimism gets the best of people. During one particular audition for a non-Goodspeed, Washington, D.C., area production, Hardt was worried about an actress that the theater wanted to hire.
"I said, 'Is anyone concerned that this girl, (auditioning) with her own material, is singing off pitch?'" he recalls.
The music director said he'd be able to fix that. After a series of up-and-down rehearsals and a questionable first preview, though, the team finally decided to bring in someone else.
For the Goodspeed Opera House's 2013 season, the "Good News" cast is in place and started rehearsing last week for its April 12 opening. "Hello, Dolly!" is almost set; the Goodspeed team is holding more auditions on April 2 for two roles they weren't able to fill during the first round.
And then they'll delve into auditions for "The Most Happy Fella" during the second week of April.
The Goodspeed process goes through various auditions and considerations and negotiations before the final casting choices are made and ready to be printed in the playbill.
It all begins with Goodspeed telling Hardt what the shows for the upcoming season are, what their order is, who the directors are, and so on.
Hardt talks with the directors to discuss the roles they'll look for through the agent appointments and devise breakdowns. For instance, for Dolly Levi, it might say, "Mid-40s to mid-50s, vivacious, loves to meddle in other's affairs ..." (Klea Blackhurst has since been hired to play Dolly.) Goodspeed Music Director Michael O'Flaherty might offer input on the vocal requirements.
Hardt sends the final breakdowns out to agents through a company called Breakdown Express. The agents then email him the photos and resumes of actors. Hardt goes through them and presents to the creative team the people he likes - and asks if they have requests of performers they'd like him to see.
Sitting in on the audition sessions from Goodspeed are the show's director and choreographer, along with O'Flaherty, Hilton and Associate Producer Bob Alwine, as well as an accompanist and a reader.
Before Goodspeed sees the performers submitted via agents, though, they have to hold separate sessions. By union rules, they have to do an Equity Principal Audition, which are for all the principal roles for the entire season. It's a way for actors - whether represented by an agent or not - to get a chance to be seen.
"A lot of the acting industry feels like those are a waste of time because no one ever casts from that; they wait until the agent submissions come back," Hardt says. "But we cast someone in 'Good News' who I saw at the EPA, and I brought her back. She'll be playing one of the principals."
The singers who come to the Equity chorus call sing 16 bars of a song of his or her choice. For dancers, the choreographer brings 40 dancers into the room at a time, teaches a combination, and they dance in small groups so the choreographer and director can assess them.
During the principal auditions, actors sing a number of their choice - sometimes, but not always, the director asks that it be from the show at hand - and they read a scene.
Then Goodspeed moves onto appointments for actors submitted by agents. The process is similar; people auditioning for principal roles, for instance, sing a number and perform a scene.
The team whittles the potential pool down for callbacks, where more time is often spent with each candidate. Actors being considered for related principal roles, too, might read together in callbacks, so the Goodspeed team can see their chemistry.
At Goodspeed, because the stage is small and the productions are lean, ensemble members are rarely just ensemble members. They usually also have to understudy one or two of the principal roles. So they are given dialogue to read during auditions for understudy assignments.
And finally? Goodspeed decides who to hire and makes an offer.
Hilton says that Hardt is excellent at making sure actors know exactly what they're signing on for - in terms of housing, finances, and so on.
"They know that if you're a New York City kid and you hate being in the country, well, you shouldn't even come in to audition. Because you're going to be in the country," she says.
Their understanding is critical so that, if they're hired, they are happy when they get to East Haddam and can just focus on their work.
The biggest challenge in casting for Goodspeed isn't the locale, though, but the length of the run. Hilton says that many actors performing at the Goodspeed Opera House sign a 16-week contract. It can be difficult for an actor to give up the possibility of other opportunities for that amount of time.
But, she says, "I'm always surprised by, knock wood, how well it works out, that we do always manage to uncover the people who are right for Goodspeed's production. ... It is so kismet when it all locks into place, and you go, 'Wow, it's a great company.'"