November 2009

Who’s on First

It’s a “pick me” moment for youngsters trying out for a part in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical   by Michele Willens / photographs by Peden + Munk

It isn’t for a leading role, mind you, but the folks behind the theatrical version of Dr.Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood from November 10 to January 3, decided to hold a contest for an unknown to play one of the young inhabitants of Dr. Seuss’ Who-ville. It’s a gimmick, no doubt, but the folks behind the show say it's one well worth taking.

“We thought it was a great idea,” says James Sanna, president and executive producer of Running Subway Productions, which is putting on the musical in partnership with Nederlander Presentations. “It’s a legitimate way for us to find the next generation of real talent,” adds director Matt August, who has been with the show for two Broadway holiday runs. (“I am your go-to Christmas Jew.”) “We always strive for authenticity, not the polished showbiz type of kids.”

They also hope it will provide Los Angeles with a sense of ownership. “It is a way to bring local flair so a community feels involved,” says Nick Scandalios, executive vice president of Nederlander.

So, Nathan Lane and Kristin Chenoweth wannabes got out those tap shoes...

Monday, September 14: The announcement for the upcoming auditions is made on Fox’s Good Day L.A.; one week later, the Pantages sends an email blast to its own patron list, announcing the tryouts. “Do you have what it takes to be a Who? If you’re 9 to 14 years old, no more than five feet tall, and you’ve got talent, you might be able to perform on the Pantages stage!”

About 175 digital-video submissions come in before the deadline. They are sent to Rachel Hoffman of the Telsey + Company casting agency in New York, who spends hours watching, scoring, nixing, pondering. But she stays focused. Most of the videos are anything but slick—homemade efforts featuring the girl or boy (heavily the former) introducing themselves, then bursting into song (“Tomorrow” from Annie has been replaced by “Popular” from Wicked as top choice) and showing some dance steps. “He knows what he’s doing—you can tell he works,” she says of Terren Mueller. Ditto for Kevin Zambrano: “I like him, he’s funny.” Of Isabella Briscoe, Hoffman says, “She looks like a Who.”

Finally, she has narrowed down the long list to five: Briscoe, 12; Zambrano, 13; Mueller, 11; Kaylee Hernandez, 11; and Sadie Calvano, 12. They get the phone calls the following day telling them to show up for a half-day rehearsal at the Pantages. “I was driving carpool when we got the call,” says Terren’s mom, Laura, of Rancho Palos Verdes. “I did pull over to get the details.”

“Sadie happened to be running in to get her gym equipment,” says her mother, Aimmee Hagler-Calvano, “and the phone was ringing. She came out screaming with excitement.” The Hernandez family missed the call and later saw a message from Nederlander. “At first I thought it was a ticket-selling solicitation,” dad Virgil says. “Lucky we didn’t erase it.”

Sunday, October 4: The five finalists and an assortment of parents show up at 1 o’clock and begin their rehearsal in a basement of the famed theater. First, the kids work with music director Ron Colvard. They’ve been sent the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and all have memorized the tongue-twisty lyrics. The kids belt it out nicely together, and eventually each is given one full stanza as a solo.

Meanwhile, the parents wait and watch. They echo similar sentiments, all happy their children have found a passion, even if it is bound to mean a lot of rejection up ahead. “She has New York weather on her computer screen. That’s how much she wants to go to Broadway,” says Melanie Briscoe of her daughter, Isabella. Aimmee from Northridge, mother of Sadie, says, “She loves it, and regardless of what happens, I tell her she’s a winner already.”

“Some kids do soccer; mine does theater,” smiles Laura Mueller. “Terren has a strong sense of self, and if he doesn’t get something, he doesn’t take it personally.”

Next up: Co-choreographer Bob Richard has the kids face the mirror that lines one entire wall. Soon, they’ve learned a 30-second, six-step dance routine, complete with sound effects (to irritate the Grinch, who hates noise). “We don’t want just steps; we want little Who actors and actresses,” Richard explains, as the kids start hopping like pogo sticks. “I want crazy, Ritalin-driven children!”

Once they have their singing and dancing routines assigned, the next hour is spent putting them together and fine tuning. The professionals profess they are satisfied with the unknowns, one of whom will be hitting the boards soon. “They are not supposed to be slick dancers; they’re supposed to be kids,” says Richard. “They were all great, just what I expected,” concurs Colvard. The youngsters are given their final instructions for the live TV audition the following day. “Begin where we ended today,” says Richard. Casting agent Hoffman goes for the heart: “Ninety-nine percent of the time you don’t get the part, it’s not because you’re not talented. The fact you made it this far is a big deal!”

Monday, October 5, 8 a.m.: The families start arriving at the studio in Hollywood, where they will perform on Good Day L.A. right at the top of the show. Kaylee’s family has come the farthest, from Mission Viejo. “We left at 4 this morning,” says Virgil Hernandez, a musician. Everyone starts gathering in the green room. Nerves are palpable. No one has ever been on television before, let alone auditioned live.

8:15 a.m.: The finalists gather around the piano and start doing warm-up exercises. They meet Grinch director Matt August, who listens to their solos and gives last-minute notes (partly to see how quickly the kids adjust and take directions). After Terren does his particularly long stanza, “Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable,” August tells him, “You can take a breath after ‘imaginable.’ ” We all exhale.

“Let’s boogie a little bit,” says Richard, who leads them through the dance routine in the new space. All seem to have it sealed into their brains. He gives them one final piece of advice: “Sing right into the camera as if it’s the Grinch.”

8:45 a.m.: Suzanne Marques, the reporter for Good Day L.A., arrives to meet the kids. She watches them do the routine one more time. Isabella blanks on her last few lines. (“And I quote: Stink. Stank. Stunk.”) Nerves are showing.

9 a.m.: The performance starts, and Marques introduces the kids one by one. Music begins, and the finalists perform perfectly. There are cheers and sighs of relief from the green room, where the anxious parents watch. “Can’t you take all five?” asks Marques.

9:05 a.m.: The deciders—August, Richard, Colvard and Hoffman—confer. “She doesn’t have any pitch problems,” says August of Isabella. Hoffman pushes for Terren: “He got the highest scores.” Suddenly comes word that Good Day L.A.’s executive producer would like all five on when the winner is announced. “That’s not what they told us,” says Hoffman, concerned about frayed young nerves. “We’re not doing it,” says August, and that’s that. A new idea is hatched. “Bring out Isabella and Terren,” August says, “and let’s pitch it as between the two of them. Then we’ll cast them both.”

9:20 a.m.: Hoffman and August head to the green room to thank everyone, then ask Isabella and Terren to come with them.

9:25 a.m.: Isabella and Terren hear the good news on television and scream and hug with delight. Watching from backstage, dad Kevin Zambrano can’t hold back the tears. When the two winners return, the others all congratulate them. Rehearsals begin for Isabella and Terren a week later.

The rest of these kids will see this Grinch from the audience. But there will always be other auditions…