I sat down on the curb of Forty-fourth Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, in front of the St. James Theatre, and glanced at my watch: no way was I going to be on time for my audition. Fuck. I raced to get my shoes off and my skates and helmet on, and launched myself into traffic, my skates gliding and buzzing, my arms pumping, my breath quickening, my skin relishing the balmy autumnal breeze that flowed around me. Rushing around New York City like this had always focused me: all my senses became more acute as I sped down Broadway, swerving among taxis and around jaywalkers, sprinting through yellow lights, avoiding at all costs any lethal car doors that threatened to spring open in my path. I hoped the Rent people would understand my reason for being late. They should. It wasn't as if I could've just up and left my friend Bill's memorial service early; that would have been unconscionable. I would just have to explain myself.
Ten minutes later, and twenty minutes after my scheduled appointment, I slid to a stop at the glass doors of the New York Theatre Workshop on East Fourth Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery. Even though I lived only six blocks away, I had never actually been there. Still breathing heavily, I peered inside. Two actors, one male, one female, sat in the concrete-floored lobby on small wooden chairs between two sets of bright red wooden double doors. At least there were some people ahead of me. I rolled in and plopped myself on the ground, nodding hello to my fellow auditioners, unlatching my helmet, and wiping the sweat out of my eyes all at once. I quickly swapped my skates for shoes and reached in my backpack for my sheet music: R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." I hadn't had a chance to warm up my voice yet, and there wasn't going to be a chance to now. So I hummed some random notes at what I hoped was an imperceptible volume, just to get my chords working a little. If the others heard me, they thankfully didn't say anything; instead, their eyes alternately scoured their music and gazed vacantly out at East Fourth Street.
At least I now had time to settle my breath, to let my mind clear from what had been an emotionally draining and cathartic morning. I stared at my sheet music, even though I knew the song, in an attempt to zero in on something outside my head.
My fellow actors went in one at a time, and as much as I disliked listening to other people's auditions (I didn't want to disrespect them, but even more importantly I didn't want to psyche myself out if I caught the sound of someone who was really great), I couldn't help but hear the strains of Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About" and Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie" floating through the doors. Both of their voices were raw and strong and very rock and roll, and altogether intimidating. At least the three of us weren't all up for the same part, as far as I could tell; the guy looked older than I, and the girl was, well, a girl.
At last it was my turn to go in. I looked up from my music as the Steve Perry singer exited the theatre, and Wendy Ettinger, the casting director, poked her head out the door.
"Hi, Anthony, we're glad you could make it."
I gathered up my stuff and stood. "I'm sorry I was late."
She smiled. "Not a problem. We're running late too." Well, that was a relief.
Wendy opened the door for me, and I followed her into the theatre, feeling the familiar tinges of shyness and formality that often clouded over me when I headed into an audition room, at least during the introductory chitchat phase; once I got to read or sing, I was usually in good shape.
I had met Michael Greif, the director, a few months ago, when I auditioned for his production of The Seagull (he called me back, but didn't cast me), and I immediately recognized him sitting in the middle of the seats, his mop of black curls and dark, round, wire-framed glasses offsetting his pale, cherubic face. Having seen his production of Machinal a few years before, I was eager to work with him; I had been invigorated by the inventive, dark, and refreshingly theatrical vision he'd displayed. I always walked into an audition wanting to make a good impression, but the opportunity to get in front of Michael Greif again motivated me to try to make a great impression.
"Sorry I was late," I said, extending my hand for a shake. "I was at a memorial service for a friend." Had that been too formal of me to say? Too personal? A mistake?
"I'm sorry to hear that," Michael said. And right away, I was relieved; his tone was warm and gracious. "Well, we're glad you're here."
"Thanks." I glanced furtively at the other people spread out among the red velvet seats of the theatre: a young woman and two men, one younger than the other. I didn't recognize any of them. Well, that was no big deal; it was normal at an audition not to know who everyone was.
"So, are you ready?" Michael asked.
"Uh, sure." Good. I would get to do my thing right away.
"Great. Tim will play for you."
At the bottom of the aisle, in front of the stage, sat Tim at an upright piano. I made my way down to him.
"How you doing?" he asked amiably, a lot more amiably than most of the audition pianists I'd encountered over the years.
"Fine. How are you?"
"Oh, I'm great." He seemed like he really meant it, too, as he nodded and smiled. "What are we doing?" I handed him my music. "Oh, great tune."
"What are you singing?" a voice from the audience asked. I looked up to see that it belonged to the younger man, who was hunched down in his seat, a pencil in his mouth.
"'Losing My Religion,'" I said.
He nodded vigorously, also smiling. "Excellent." That response boded well.
I set the tempo with Tim, and jumped up onto the stage, glancing again at Michael, Wendy, the pencil chewer, and the two others I didn't know, all sitting there in the impassive yet attentive manner casting teams always displayed. I took a deep breath, and gave Tim the nod to begin.
The song's opening chords chimed. They were among my most favorite chords of any pop song ever, so simple and so hummable, and so right for the song. My body involuntarily pulsed in time with them, and I launched into my singing.
It's bigger than you,
And you are not me
I loved the way the song felt in my voice, right in the pocket, so I wasn't straining to hit any notes; I was just soaring on the melody and pouring myself into it. Images from the video of a twirling Michael Stipe danced in my head as I sang, my arms splayed out to my sides, my chest full.
That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
I had read in an interview somewhere that this song was a love song, that in the South, where R.E.M. was from, losing your religion meant falling in love. I wasn't trying to sing it as a love song to anyone in particular; I was trying to sing it with as much heart and passion as I could muster, to anyone and everyone. I was singing it for the sheer joy of being able to sing it, and I could feel myself flying with it, grateful for the chance to open up my voice and fulfill some of my rock star fantasies, and to pay tribute to one of my all-time favorite bands.
I got so swept away that I lost the sense of where I was in the song, and jumped a verse:
The hint of the century
Panicking, I peeked at Tim, but he was in the music and right with me. My panic subsided as quickly as it had come, and I charged on, building steam for the final chorus.
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream
I flung my arms out to my sides, spreading them as far as they could go, my hands flaring open, the energy of the song shooting through me. My heart pounded as the final chords rang out, and just like that it was over. My fingers tingled.
"Thanks," Michael said. Was that it? Auditions always ended so quickly, and took so much out of me, like a sprint, leaving me spent, but also warmed up and hungry to keep going. Jazzed, I hopped off the stage and went to the piano, where Tim handed me my music.
"Good job," he said quietly, conspiratorially.
"Thanks." I knew that he was right. It had gone well, even with my fuckup. Not that an audition going well meant anything necessarily; I gave good auditions that led nowhere all the time. Cautiously satisfied, I started up the steps and encountered Michael standing in the aisle next to the young pencil chewer.
"I want to introduce you to Jonathan Larson," Michael said. "He's the writer of the show."
I took Jonathan's hand, shook it. "Nice to meet you."
"You too," Jonathan replied, smiling. He looked somewhat young to have written a show, but had what seemed like the right kind of intensity. His long body was all folded up in his plush red seat, and his large face, framed by ears that stuck out a bit too much, glowed pleasantly and openly under a mass of brown curls.
Michael handed me a cassette and some sheet music. "We would like you to come back and sing the title song," he said. "It's the first song on the tape."
"Cool," I said. I loved it when I got called back on the spot. It didn't happen that often, but when it did, it usually worked out that I got the part. I mentally crossed my fingers.
"Great," Michael said. "We'll see you in a couple of days."
The callback couldn't have come at a better moment. It was September 1994, and I had just begun my first-ever "real" job since moving to New York five years earlier: pouring lattes and cappuccinos and double-tall decaf skim no-whip mochas at a Starbucks up on Eighty-first and Second. I had been unusually lucky in getting enough acting work to sustain myself for the five years I'd lived in New York, but things had dried up over the last year or so, and I was now more broke than I'd ever been. If I were cast in Rent, the money would come in handy, and I would savor the creative fulfillment of working on a new show.
Back at my cramped but pleasant East Village apartment, which I shared with my older brother, Adam, and two other roommates, I sat on the floor of my living room and popped the tape in my boom box. All I knew about the show was from the description in the casting sheet on the desk of my agent, Paul, which had said, "Rent is a new rock opera about a group of friends in the East Village," and that my character, Mark, was a videographer. There was also a transvestite mentioned and a drug-addicted, HIV-positive S&M dancer and a rock musician and other characters. It seemed potentially interesting, but the phrase "rock opera" didn't fill me with a tremendous amount of hope; it could all turn out to be silly, with a lot of bad special effects and tacky makeup and big hair. Or it could be funky and hip. The only way to find out, though, was to listen to it, and see.
I pressed play, and a fake-sounding electric guitar solo wailed out a melody I recognized but couldn't place. Then, abruptly, it was cut off, and fake-sounding drums and more fake-sounding guitars kicked in, chugging along in a mid-tempo rock song. It all sounded sampled and computerized, and very '80s. I hoped the rock and roll vibe would get a little more authentic, but I reminded myself that the tape was probably a demo. I followed along with my sheet music as the guy playing Mark sang on the tape.
If I threw my body out the window,
Brains all splattered, guts all steaming in the snow
I wouldn't have to finish shooting videos
No one wants to show
Well, the melody was easy enough, pretty much staying on one note except for the end. The lyrics seemed extreme and vivid for an opening song, although there was a directness and an energy to them. I played on, as Roger sang next, with Mark joining him on the chorus. Its melody reminded me of the 007 theme.
How we gonna pay
How we gonna pay
How we gonna pay
Last month's rent?
It all seemed straightforward enough: obviously, Mark and Roger were frustrated and broke. I could identify with that. I rewound the tape back to the beginning and set about learning the song for my callback.
Ten in the morning was too early to be belting out anything, let alone the opening number of a rock opera, but two days later that's what I was about to be doing. Annoyingly, my contact lenses were blurring up, so I had to keep squinting to make out any of the tiny words printed on the sheet music I gripped in my hand. I hoped they wouldn't notice. I stood in the same spot onstage as my first audition, the same group of five sitting in the audience, and gave my eyes one last forceful rub, willing my vision to clear. Thankfully, it did. I nodded to Tim, he pounded out the opening chords, and I began to sing. On the wrong note.
"Uh, let's start again," Tim said.
"No problem," Michael called out from the audience. I could feel myself blushing, but if Michael wasn't going to be overly fazed by my mistake, neither would I. So I concentrated on my breathing, trying to focus and channel the charge of my embarrassment into my performance; nervous energy was still energy, after all, and if I didn't let it fuel me, it would wind up spinning me out of myself and ruining my audition. I breathed steadily in and out, and Tim plunked the correct note and began the song again. Its drive infected me, and I sang, my voice edgy as I bit into the words, the spite and frustration of the lyrics erupting out of me. It felt good to vent, and good to sing.
"Thanks," Michael said when I was done. My heart pounded. He made his way down the steps of the theatre to the front of the stage, looking up at me as I crouched down to hear what he was saying. "That was fine, but I want you to try something." I waited as he found the words to articulate his thoughts, his eyebrows arching, his hands groping the air. "I want you to think of this less as just an expression of angst and frustration, and more of an attempt to entertain yourself and your friend. You guys are freezing, and you're dancing around to keep yourself warm. You're sort of laughing at your own plight. You're dancing on your grave. Does that make sense?"
I nodded and felt the twinge of wishing I had thought of that already. But at the same time I was grateful for the direction and the opportunity to try again. Too often at auditions directors say nothing at all, and I go home wondering if what I did was remotely close to what they were looking for. "Yeah," I said.
"Great. Also, really ask the question: how are you going to pay the rent? Really ask it. Don't just rant and complain about it."
I nodded. "Okay."
"Great. Let's start again."
He went back to his seat, and Tim played the opening chords. I sang, immediately feeling a lighter touch, and feeling how right that was. The whole song became more arch and sardonic, less nakedly angry, but without losing the inherent frustration that fueled it. I loved when good direction opened material up; it was always more interesting, more full, to have lots of layers to play with.
"Thanks," Michael said when I was finished. "That was great."
Flushed from my singing and sparked by Michael's response, I glanced over at Tim, who quietly but forcefully nodded, his eyes wide and knowing and happy. I jumped off the stage and headed up the aisle.
"Good job," Jonathan said as I passed him. He was also nodding and smiling, again folded up in his seat, a notepad in his lap, his eyes intense and delighted.
"Bye," I replied, waving to everyone as I opened the door and walked into the lobby. I stood there for a moment, chewing my lip. As exhilarated as I always was after a good audition, I also always wanted the casting people to tell me right then and there whether I had the job. That rarely happened, though. While I walked home, disappointment lurked around the edges of my excitement, but I did my best to push it aside and coast on my adrenaline for a little while longer. So I had to wait, as usual. That was okay. This one felt good. This one felt like it was going to happen.
Copyright © 2006 by Anthony Rapp