BRINGING UP BROADWAY: Finding Your Niche
I still remember where I was when I got the text. I bet you do, too. You know the one, that text from your child who is completely and utterly devastated not to have gotten a coveted part.
My daughter was auditioning for a part in "The Sound of Music, Jr." at our local children's theatre. She (who am I kidding... WE) dreamed of Julie Andrews and all things Maria. Alas, that was not to be. She was cast instead as the Mother Abbess, a great part with a beautiful song.
The hardest part for her to swallow wasn't the fact that she didn't get the lead. Instead, it was that it was the continuation of a pattern. You see, she had a period of time when she seemed to be cast as the mother or mother figure in every show (Emily in "Elf, Jr.," Mrs. Paroo in "Music Man, Jr.," Grace in "Annie, Jr.," etc.). She was ready to break free from that pattern and try on something new.
She also had a friend who shared her frustration. This friend, who was the same age, but smaller in stature, was disappointed to be cast often as a child, or as a "young" version of the principal character in roles like Young Nala, Young Fiona, or Young Elsa.
Their director explained that casting doesn't necessarily reflect shortcomings in an audition, but rather who is the best fit for the role based on characteristics other than just vocal range and dance proficiency. The director must decide who will be most believable as each character, and a performer's personality, height, and appearance may all factor into that decision.
I recently spoke with performer Jeremy Benton about this topic since he's found his niche and has made quite a career out of playing what he calls "a song and dance man" in many classic, old-school musicals like "42nd Street," "Singin' in the Rain," and "Irving Berlin's White Christmas." I asked him to talk about his character type and how that came to be what he now calls his "brand."
In response, he laughed, "The joke I always do when people ask me, and they see a theme, I say 'Yes, I only ever play old Hollywood, dead, tap-dancing movie stars. Those are the roles I have to play...' That's sort of my brand, I guess you would call it - song and dance guy.
I guess what I've been told before is that there's a classic look about me... And I sort of feel like I've stepped out of another time period, or that maybe I should've been born in another time period. And so, I think the whole package with me just so happens, you know, knock on wood, to sort of work because I kind of look like... 50's, 40's, 30's, which kind of lends itself, of course, to all the shows you listed."
So when Jeremy found himself stuck in a typecasting pattern, instead of fighting it, he embraced it. And having been successful in this niche for a while now, he's found that directors now look for a "Jeremy-Benton-type" performer for these roles.
Jeremy's advice to Broadway hopefuls?
"Know what your strengths are and accept them early. Something I wish I could go back and tell my younger self is that "Hey, look... On a list of ten things, you are really, really fantastic at six of those things. So don't worry about the other four and try to also be a gymnast and an opera singer, and a Shakespearean actor... because you start to dilute your time, your resources, your talent.'
As soon as I accepted, 'Hey look, people are seeing me as Bert in Mary Poppins, people are seeing me as Billy Lawler.' I just.. I accepted that. I went with it. I didn't go, you know, 'What I should really be is the ultimate Renaissance actor.' No. Luckily I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the style of what I do.
As soon as I accepted that, something clicked not just in me, but in everybody else. Okay, this is what he does. Let's call him. I wish I would've given myself permission to accept my strengths at a much younger age."
So while there's something to be said for trying on new roles and personas, there's also great value in recognizing and embracing the characters that are best suited to your talents and persona.
To hear our full interview with Jeremy Benton on our "From Atlanta to Broadway" podcast in which he shares more exceptional advice for Broadway hopefuls, find us on iTunes or on our website.
Photo Credit: K. Talley Photography