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Many Are Called but Few Will Be Chosen for 'Rent'

Theater: Originality is the key to landing a role in upcoming productions of the musical as an open-call audition draws more than 2,000 hopefuls.


NEW YORK — By noon last Friday, the colorful queue at a nondescript building on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan had snaked past a long stretch of lower Broadway and almost wrapped back on itself--a gigantic chorus line with resumes in hand and hope in heart.

More than 2,000 young wannabes responded to an open-call audition for new productions of "Rent," and the scene was a media carnival of ambition and camaraderie, pierced derma and painted jeans, drag and guitars, joy and heartbreak. All of which, of course, was a reflection of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about East Village bohemians with its of cast of raw talent, some of whom had never before been on a stage.

"Precisely because this show is about discovering unknown talent, we're only going to find out if someone's unknown and talented by doing these kinds of open calls," said Bernie Telsey, the casting director whose entire office was on alert in the daylong search for talent to fill the 15 roles and four understudy spots in upcoming productions of "Rent," including companies for Boston (this fall), Los Angeles (not before next year) and Toronto, as well as replacements for the New York cast.

"It becomes a very complicated process because few of the norms of casting apply."

The call for "singers who truly have a quality of street life, can move well and have a good time" drew hopefuls from all over the country, some arriving as early as 4 a.m. to register and be assigned numbers.

Among the early birds was Sara Mann, No. 121, a 20-year-old Emerson College student who had flown from Boston with her roommate, Abby Gonzalez, for the audition. Like many here, Mann, who is from Los Angeles, had not seen the Broadway production of "Rent"--"too expensive, too sold-out"--but was familiar with television snippets, just part of the vast hype surrounding the show since its modest beginnings off-Broadway early this year.

"I love the show's message of love and community, AIDS and cross-dressers and lots of stuff you don't have in a typical Broadway show," Mann said. "It makes me happy to know that theater is starting to thrive again, at least a little bit."


The mood on the line was festive at first but shifted to tense as the queue inched into the fifth-floor hive of rehearsal rooms buzzing with adrenaline and oozing sweat as hopes were either lifted or dashed. A young woman blinking back tears and avoiding eye contact emerged from room 5A, the first hurdle.

Inside, Heidi Marshall and Corry Ouellette of Bernie Telsey casting sat behind a table casting critical glances at resumes nervously handed to them and asking a few questions to determine if a tryout had the right personality and presence for the show.

"How did you hear about the audition?" Marshall crisply asked a woman dressed in a white bolero top and jeans.

"From Backstage," she said, referring to the theater trade publication while tossing her head with seemingly calculated nonchalance.

"How would you describe your voice?"

"Just like Alanis Morissette," she responded.

Wrong answer. The agency was looking for original voices, not mimics; for individuality, not clones. Another who insisted she looked just like Idina Menzel, one of the original stars of "Rent," also was "typed out."

During a break, a weary Marshall said: "There are so many difficult roles and specific needs for 'Rent,' so even though I'm seeing a lot of very trained and qualified actors, they just don't have the right quality, the right rawness. It's a sexy, hot show, so if I see someone coming in here in a flowered dress, I think, 'Oh-oh, not the show, Miss.' Unless, of course, it's a man. But then, just a look doesn't cut it, either."

To find the original cast last year for Jonathan Larson's "Rent," which opened at the small New York Theatre Workshop, Telsey casting spent five months calling agents, haunting rock clubs and following leads of "someone who knew someone who knew someone in a band."

After rave reviews downtown, the same cast moved to Broadway's Nederlander in time to qualify for this year's Tony Awards. The show won four Tonys, including best musical.


Waiting just outside room 5G to sing his 16 bars of music--pop, rock or gospel, no Broadway show tunes allowed--was Christopher Carothers from West L.A. The actor, 34, who has performed in "Les Miserables" at the Pantages, was steeling himself for the audition, having flown into New York two days before and flopped on a friend's couch in Chelsea. Although "Rent" is a quintessentially New York show and he was surrounded by New Yorkers, Carothers said he didn't feel out of place.

"I think there are certain aspects of 'Rent' that everyone can relate to: You're poor; you're trying to get along the best you can, dealing with relationships, friendships, lover stuff. The role I'm going out for, Mark, is an underfunded artist from an affluent background living in poverty. That's my life."

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