Biographies & Memoirs


Chapter 14

The Audition

Sometimes I imagine life as a big set of scales. Every time something bad happens, one side goes down a little farther. But eventually, something good balances it out, if you work hard enough or get lucky enough. Suddenly, after years of the scales tipping in one direction, it was as though someone reached down and put their hand on the other side (thanks, Dad). My life started to look up. Way up.

Not only was Ray Hesselink a legit big deal, he really did want me to audition for Billy Elliot. When Mom called him, he explained that the show needed a ballet dancer mature enough to handle a Broadway schedule but young enough to play an eleven-year-old. I was twelve, and while I was definitely young, the last few years had helped me grow up fast. Ray had seen me in my classes, and he thought I’d be great for the role.

The show, Mom said, was about a boy in Britain in the 1980s who lived in a mining town with his father. His mother was dead, and the family had very little money. It was a tough community, full of strong, proud, harsh people living in a harsh world. The miners’ strike was a real historical event, although Billy was a fictional character. No work means no money, and life becomes all the harder as the miners fight for their safety and dignity. But Billy dreams of being a great ballet dancer more than anything else in the world, and despite all the odds against him, he finds a way to learn to dance, although he has to hide it from his father. When Billy gets sent to take boxing lessons at a local community center, he stays behind and joins a ballet class. The teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, recognizes the talent inside him, and helps Billy realize his dreams of getting into a prestigious ballet school and escaping from his poverty-stricken town. In the end, his father stands up for him and his dreams, and encourages him to go to London and become the best dancer he can be. From the moment Mom told me the plot, I knew I wanted to do the show. Billy’s life was so much like mine that even hearing a summary of his story gave me chills. Maybe I wasn’t a great ballet dancer yet, but like Billy, I wanted to be, and I knew I could channel that hope and fear into his character if I got the part.

One thing that really confused Mom and me was race. Was Billy Asian? Did it matter? Ray explained to us that the creative team was devoted to blind casting. That means they thought the race of the Billy character didn’t matter. “Given the talents of these kids, any doubts about their right to be in the show would be swept away as soon as someone saw them on that stage,” said Stephen Daldry, the director of Billy Elliot.

This was June, and the show was set to open in November. Because the part was for minors, they had to cast the part with three boys, who would alternate performances, to stay within child labor laws. They already had the first three Billys, but they were starting to look for more.

After Ray discovered me at Steps, the teachers there offered me a great gift: a full scholarship to their six-week summer intensive. They were impressed with my technique and positive attitude, and getting that audition was the icing on the cake. Now I could train with them in New York and get ready for my audition, which would be in July. I had a little over a month and a half to prepare. I’d been dreaming of a way to return to Steps, and now I’d found one before I’d even left.

Peter O’Brien, the teacher with whom I worked the most at Steps, was the one who made the decision. He was in his late fifties and had a very long, very distinguished career at the Royal Ballet in London. He was such a fixture on the New York dance scene that his image was immortalized in the late sixties in a mural at O’Neals’ Lincoln Center Restaurant called Dancers at the Bar.

“If it makes a difference,” Peter said on the phone, “my girlfriend and I would be honored to have you stay with us while you’re in New York. We know how intimidating—and expensive—the city can be. But you need to be here.”

It was a sweet offer, but Mom had a better idea.

“You’re not going alone,” she told me. “I’m coming with you this time, and Matt too.”

I was expecting that. There was no way Mom would let me spend six weeks in New York alone. Sarah and Eloy had to return to Iowa, and we didn’t know anyone else in the city. It seemed impossible to imagine that we could afford it, but Mom worked her magic. Through her old PhD connections, she found a professor in Queens who was going away for the summer and needed a cat sitter to live in her apartment. John volunteered to stay in Iowa and watch the house. He was nearly in college now, and he didn’t want to leave his friends. Mom agreed, and arranged to have him stay with people we knew. Just about a month after I left New York, we headed back—and I knew if I did well this time, I might never have to leave again.

At first, the city was intimidating. Our apartment in Queens (Astoria) had so many locks, it looked like the landlord was preparing for a zombie attack. The first time I got on the subway by myself, I was on the phone with Mom almost the entire time getting directions. If it hadn’t been an aboveground train, I don’t know what I would have done. She was more nervous than I was.

When they call it a “summer intensive program,” they’re not kidding. I trained for hours, and when I wasn’t training, I was working out, or thinking about training.

Finally, the day of my audition came. Mom took me to the Sheraton Hotel on Fifty-second Street, which seemed like a strange place to hold an audition, but I figured the casting people were from Broadway and knew what they were doing. The hotel was a madhouse when we arrived. There were kids in dance clothes everywhere, because the auditions were part of a much larger dance conference.

We found the casting director holding a clipboard full of pictures and names. After I checked in, she escorted us to the ballroom, which was a giant room with dark green curtains and an elaborate blue-and-white carpet. There were a lot of kids in this place as well, but most of them were just there to watch. There were only about twenty of us actually auditioning, and mostly it was kids from New York. In my head, I dubbed us “the wanna-Billys.”

There were three people leading the audition. First, the casting director, Nora Brennan. She was pretty and blond and friendly, and she gave us the information about how the audition would run. Then there was an older man who was obviously a dancer—you could tell just by looking at his muscles and the graceful way he moved. Finally, there was a really young guy with light brown hair who was about my height. From the moment I saw him, I knew he had to be one of the Billys.

As soon as I entered the ballroom, we started warming up. We did jumping jacks, ran in place, and stretched. The whole time, I could sense Nora following us with her eyes—literally. When we did jumping jacks, her head even bobbed up and down. Every few seconds she would purse her lips and make another mark on her clipboard. We were all desperate to know what she was writing.

Then the dance coach called us to a stop.

“Okay, everyone,” he said, “get your tap shoes on.”

I froze. Tap was not my strong suit.

“Nervous?” a guy next to me asked. At first, I thought he was trying to make me worried. But I looked over and saw that he was nervous himself. No matter how calm someone might appear, if they’re at an audition, they’re probably just as scared as you are.

“Yeah,” I admitted. “I’m not a big tapper.”

I wanted to tell someone that before we started, just in case I totally embarrassed myself. Then I realized I was psyching myself out. I shook my head to get rid of my worries.

How can I embarrass myself? I thought. I don’t even know these people.

That was comforting. Even if the audition was a disaster, it didn’t matter. No one here knew me. After this was over, I could walk out and forget about it entirely if I had to.

With that in mind, I jogged to catch the other guys and get my tap shoes on. They weren’t actually my tap shoes. Because I didn’t tap a lot, and we didn’t have much money, I used my older brother John’s hand-me-downs. They were a little tight in the heel, but they worked.

“We’re going to teach you a few combinations,” the older man said, once we were all ready.

“Don’t worry if you’re not the best tapper,” said the younger guy. “They’re really looking for great ballet technique. And I’ve already been through all of this, so I know what I’m talking about.”

In fact, he turned out to be Corey Snide, who had played Billy in the London production, which came before the Broadway show. He’d also played Billy in Australia, and done lots of other theater. An audible gasp went through the room when Corey told us who he was. Some of the other dancers looked intimidated by him, but I tried to treat him like any other instructor.

Learn the combos, I told myself. Forget everything else.

They taught us some of the hardest combos I’d ever done. I was terrified. After they showed us a few times, they sent us off to separate corners of the ballroom to practice. All around me, kids were tapping to different rhythms. I found a quiet corner where the sound was muffled by heavy floor-to-ceiling drapes and started practicing.

By the time they called us back together, I had the combos down, mostly. I was definitely better than some of the other kids, but there were some real tap wizards in the audition, and they showed us all up.

It’s okay, I told myself. You did all right, and you knew tap would be the hardest part. You just have to nail the next section. Please let it be ballet.

“Tap shoes off, ballet shoes on!” yelled the dance coach. I said a silent thank-you to Dad. Corey said they wanted good ballet technique, and I knew I could give it to them. I wasn’t going to let Eloy or Dad down.

They put us in one long line and explained that we were to go one at a time, doing turns down the length of the ballroom. I went to the back of the line so I would have time to watch and prepare. Most of the kids in front of me were decent, but none of them really stood out. I thought I’d blow them away, but when my turn came, I was shaking and nearly stumbled. Nora must have known how nervous we all were, though, because she had us each do a few more passes. By the third one, I was nailing it. I managed to do four or five turns each time, which was better than almost all the other boys. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nora smile and nod as I did my final pass. Then she looked down at her clipboard and made a large check mark next to something, and I knew I’d aced part of the audition.

Next they had us put on our street shoes. I knew what that meant: hip-hop. I wasn’t great at tap, but at least I’d taken a class or two in it and had years of experience watching John. I’d never studied hip-hop in my life.

This’ll be interesting, I thought to myself.

“I’m going to teach you a three-minute combination,” the dance coach explained. “At the end, you’ll get thirty seconds to freestyle. Don’t hold back.”

Instantly, I knew what I was going to do. I might not be great at hip-hop, but I could still bust out backflips, handsprings, and aerials from my days in gymnastics.

When it came my turn, I owned my freestyle. I flipped around and around, letting the beat of the music take me away. This was my moment to shine. My tap had been decent and my ballet was good, but now I showed them that I had something none of the others had. Remember, in every audition, your biggest goal is to stand out. If they don’t remember you, they won’t cast you.

I hit my final landing and stuck it perfectly, without even a quiver. Sweat dripped down my face, and I knew I’d given it my all. If this didn’t get me the part, nothing would. I looked up at Nora, and she beamed. She whispered something to the dance coach, and he smiled as well. Just knowing they’d noticed me filled me with so much energy that I could have done the whole routine all over again!

Instead, they ushered us into a smaller room. Right in the middle was a big piano, surrounded by a bunch of chairs. I like to sing, but I’m not trained by any means, so this was outside my comfort zone. I grabbed a seat and tried to squash my nerves.

There must have been some holdup in the process, because after they got us all into the room, Nora and the dance coach both left, putting Corey in charge.

“Sing ‘Electricity’!” one of the wanna-Billys called out.

“Yeah!” said another. “Sing!”

“Electricity” is the big number that Billy does near the end of the show. If I hadn’t listened to the London recording to prepare, I wouldn’t have had any idea what they were yelling about. Most of the kids at Broadway auditions know—or at least act like they know—all about theater, but I wasn’t going to let that intimidate me. In an audition, it’s not what you know, it’s what you can do, that matters.

For half a second, Corey looked embarrassed by all the attention.

“Really?” he asked.

“Yeah!” everyone yelled.

That was all the encouragement he needed. Soon he was up at the piano belting out the song.

And then I feel a change, like a fire deep inside

Something bursting me wide open, impossible to hide

And suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird

Like electricity, electricity

Sparks inside of me, and I’m free, I’m free

If you’ve never heard it, “Electricity” is a beautiful song. It was written for the musical by Sir Elton John, but I felt like it was speaking directly to me. That was exactly how I felt when I danced.

But hearing Corey sing it made me even more nervous. He was good. I’d had a few singing lessons, and for a while in elementary school I was in choir. But I definitely wouldn’t call myself a professional.

When Corey finished, all the wanna-Billys burst into applause. I think he got a standing ovation. Right as the clapping died down, Nora entered the room. Suddenly it was so quiet you could have heard crickets. For a moment we had all forgotten that we were auditioning. Nora began distributing pages of sheet music.

Just sing along quietly with everyone else, I told myself. There were so many of us in the room, I figured they wouldn’t notice if I hung back. Once I felt secure, I’d sing it at full volume.

“All right, everyone,” Nora said. “Each of you will take one line from the song, and we’ll go down the row singing. Easy peasy.”

Oh, no, I thought. I’d assumed we’d sing in a group. Going solo was a whole other animal. Just like earlier, I hurried to the back of the line, figuring that again, it would give me a little more time to prepare.

Big mistake. Because “Electricity” is a big number near the end of the show, it gets stronger and more powerful as it goes on. It’s a showstopper, really. By putting myself at the back of the line, I’d ended up with one of the hardest parts to sing, full of big, ascending notes.

When it came my turn, I pushed everything out of my mind and did my best. Overthinking kills my performance every time. Worrying and wondering are for rehearsals. When you’re at an audition—or onstage—you give it your all, no matter how nervous you might be.

“It’s like that there’s a music, playin’ in your ear, but the music is impossible, impossible to hear,” I sang.

I sounded okay. If I’d been a teacher, I’d have given myself a solid B.

Luckily, after the first time through, we switched lines and did the song a couple more times, so I wasn’t stuck with the hard part. I wasn’t the best, but I wasn’t the worst, and I’d shown them that I could handle the singing and rock the dancing. The show was about a dancer, so that had to count for more. At least, that’s what I told myself.

“Pass the sheets back,” Nora said after about thirty minutes. “This was wonderful. You all did a great job. We’ll call you again if we want to see more of you.”

And just like that, they’d ushered us back into the lobby. I couldn’t believe how quickly it went. I spotted Mom and hurried over. She wasn’t a stage mom, and normally she didn’t stick around for my auditions, but this time I’d asked her to stay because I was so nervous.

“How was it?” Mom asked.

“Really good!” I told her. Then I thought about it for a second. “I mean, I think I did good. I think? I don’t know.”

The more I thought about it, the more nervous I got. Had I done well? I knew the gymnastics had impressed them, and I was pretty sure my ballet technique was spot on. But the rest . . .

“I’m sure you did well Alex,” Mom said, ruffling my hair. I wanted to believe her, but she was my mom, so she had to say that.

“Excuse me?” a voice said from behind us. I turned to see Nora standing by Mom’s shoulder.

“Are you Alex’s mom? I’m Nora—Nora Brennan, the casting director for Billy. Your son is darling.”

“Thank you,” Mom said as they shook hands.

“Can we use some footage of Alex from the audition for press purposes?”

“Of course!” Mom said. My head was nodding so fast, I thought it might fall off.

“Wonderful!” Nora smiled at me. She had us sign a few forms, and then left to talk to some of the other kids. “I’m very glad we met,” she said.

I was too. And I hoped I’d see more of her soon.

“That’s a great sign,” Mom whispered as Nora walked away. “They must want you. I bet we hear from them soon.”

I felt so proud, I thought I’d explode. I wanted to race home and sit by the phone until they called.

Thankfully I didn’t, because I would have been sitting there for a very long time.

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