Dave Clemmons likes to assume the persona of a good ol' boy, which he can get away with, since he's originally from Murfreesboro, Tenn. Bushy-haired and bearded, he invariably wears a ball cap and jeans, but the down-home style is deceiving. Few people know the American pop songbook as well as he does.
Clemmons is a casting director for Broadway musicals, and a couple of weeks ago, he was at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center holding open auditions for Wonderland, a new show by Frank Wildhorn, composer of Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War, among others.
"Good choice, one of the greatest songs ever written,'' Clemmons said to a woman who had sung a bit of I Can't Make You Love Me, the Bonnie Raitt hit.
At that point, Clemmons had heard about 60 actors perform excerpts of songs, and there were still about 70 to go, milling around the lobby of the Jaeb Theater, where the auditions were being held on the set of the cabaret show Waistwatchers. When auditions started in the morning, Clemmons had allowed each performer to sing up to 32 measures of a song of their choice, but now in the afternoon, with a plane to catch in a few hours, he had cut it down to 16 measures.
"It's like a roller coaster ride,'' said Kristina Huegel, one of the auditioners. "Two or three hours of waiting, then you go on for a minute.''
This was the first audition for Wonderland, a contemporary take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The musical is being produced by TBPAC, where it will premiere in December. The dream is that it will be a smash and ultimately wind up on Broadway.
Most, if not all, of the cast for Wonderland will likely come from New York, but under the Actors Equity union contract with the production, there must also be auditions in the city where the show originates. The Tampa audition, as well as several more held in New York in April, was advertised for "musical theatre singers with pop vocal sensibility.'' The cast includes eight principal roles and 16 ensemble members, and minimum pay is $750 a week.
"Don't try to guess what we're looking for,'' Clemmons had told the assembled auditioners first thing in the morning. "You won't hear anything today and not for a few weeks. Then, if you do hear from me, you'll be asked to come to New York. That'll be on your own dime, but I wouldn't ask if I didn't think you had a good shot.''
And then came the onslaught, a stream of bright-eyed, (mostly) young women and men, briefly going over their sheet music with the pianist, then belting out a number into the darkened theater. The casting director listened at a small table, laptop open in front of him.
Clemmons has been on the other side, himself having auditioned for and performed in Broadway shows such as Les Miserables and The Civil War. He's a supportive, encouraging guy, bobbing his head, smiling, keeping time with his hands as each actor performs. But it can be hard to keep up the enthusiasm when you're hearing Fortune Favors the Brave, an overblown showstopper from Aida, for the fifth time.
Occasionally, an auditioner would perform something Clemmons hadn't heard in a while, such as Rita's Tune from Sweet Smell of Success, a flop from 2002, or Raven, a song from another flop, Brooklyn, for which he was casting director several years ago. Quite a few singers performed numbers from Wildhorn shows (In His Eyes from Jekyll & Hyde was popular), but one woman got high marks for doing Please Don't Make Me Love You from the European production of Dracula.
"I don't know where she found the music for that,'' Clemmons said. "I don't think it's even been published.''
Audition song selections can make an incremental difference in his evaluation of a performer. "An interesting song does say something about you,'' he said "It won't get you the job. But it says you're resourceful, that you've done your homework.''
Landing a part in Wonderland would be a coup for a Florida actor, so the audition attracted a lot of local talent, including many performers who appear at American Stage ("I think we've now seen the whole cast of Altar Boyz,'' Clemmons said at one point in the afternoon) or in TBPAC cabaret shows. Many performers in theme park shows in Orlando drove over to audition.
But the odds are long. In the end, having heard well more than 100 auditioners, Clemmons had set aside just a few resumes and head shots to keep. Only one, Juan Cantu, who has appeared in Finding Nemo at Disney World, seemed like he might get asked to come to New York for further auditions.
"The bar is set really high for this,'' Clemmons said. "I can't put anyone in front of Frank unless they're amazing singers.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He also writes for Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.