Once upon a time, many years ago, I auditionned in front of a theatrical panel in a room that smelt of soup. The panel looked as upset as I did. I was upset because somehow I had got the wrong information and turned up wearing a school uniform, plaits and plimsolls. I should have taken the plaits out in the waiting room, but instead stared at the other auditionees, smugly, thinking how I had the advantage on them as I was the only person to have truly heeded the “School girl; RP accent; High-spirited; xylophone playing an advantage” agents’ brief. Imagine my horror to find it was actually “The Threepenny Opera”, to be performed with deep, Weimar-Germanic intent in Bury St Edmunds. Apparently it was school-age-ish girl, and a tragic looking German one, to boot. I realised that it was too late to change anything about my outfit. I didn’t even have time to remove the wire from my schoolgirl plaits, which made them stand out in large arcs either side of my head.
When I went into the room to audition all the blood drained from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s face.
I wasn’t even sure what he was doing there. The thing is he wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing there, either, because he was nothing to do with Bury St Edmunds. I mean, he had heard of it. Probably. His Rolls may have gorgeously oozed through it on his way to Bill Kenwright’s country estate , but it was clear after ten minutes that he was in the wrong room. The panel was headed up by a dreary, burgundy-trousered director whose face had had all the hope and protein sucked out of it, and who had a skin tone that spoke of early morning Nescafes and Berkeley Menthol fags. At his feet was a black canvas bag on which were loudly printed the dates of a San Francisco play tour from 1986. He may have ventured to the States but he clearly hadn’t been to Planet Fashion. Drainpipe burgundy jeans can work in a certain setting, but the accompanying mules were very risky for February. He gazed at my plaits intensely.
“Hello. What are you doing for us today?”
Fortunately I didn’t have to do any acting. I just had to play the xylophone and do a song. Being a pianist, the xylophone wasn’t a problem – off I went – banging the keys masterfully, tapping away on plimsolled-feet, plaits a-flying and generally grooving away. The petulant Artistic Director of Bury St Edmunds must have been well impressed, because he basically just sat there with his jaw hanging. At one point, I removed my right hand from the keyboard and clicked my fingers enthusiastically to the beat. It was at this point that I think Andrew Lloyd Webber realised he had a previous engagement or something, because he instantly walked out of the room, whispering eerily “Sorrymydear” on his way out. My version of Fly Me To The Moon ended with a lovely major 7th blues chord, which I punctuated with a wiggle of the politically incorrect bottom half of my uniform.
The silence was stunning. Then they asked what I was going to sing. What they wanted was Don’t Tell Mama from Cabaret or similar. Everyone was going to sing Don’t Tell Mama or something else from Cabaret, because that was the only other German-set musical anyone’s ever heard of. But, due to the theatrical crossed wires, I only had You Can’t Get A Man with A Gun. I knew I was about to die a grisly, appalling theatrical death, whilst watched with vicarious vigour by Mr Burgundy Trousers and his accompanying orange lipsticked costume designer. They wanted a nubile creature, stretching 40 denier-tightclad legs over the orange plastic rehearsal room chairs, drawling Berlin vowels about the place and trying to hump the chairs like Liza Minnelli faking an orgasm. I was bereft. What they were going to get was a cheery upstart from the dustbowl of the American Midwest whose only conclusion about romantic love was that if you wanted someone to kiss you, it was better not to shoot them first. It had nothing of the Teutonic ennui about tawdry Berlin life. I had no bowler hat or green nail varnish or false eyelashes. But what I did have, unfortunately, was laryngitis.
Singing You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun is a business one must dive into headfirst, with fearless guts, with crisp enunciation and a look in the eye that suggests you’ve just spotted a dustbowl on the Kansas horizon. Admittedly, it’s tricky to pull off in the Holborn pre-fab, but by golly I gave it my best. But singing it with laryngitis was a whole different story. It made it evil. As soon as I began croaking and growling through the first verse, I realised I was in deep, sinister trouble. So I pushed myself through it, this school-plaited idiot with hands on her hips singing about being “…out in the cactus and practising all day” in a voice that sounded like Louis Armstrong’s would, if you’d had made him sing after putting his head through a blender. Looking up, I realised the director looked strange. In fact, he looked like he had just had some sort of stroke. Or something. His head slumped down to one side and a little bit of dribble came out the corner of his nicotined mouth. Oh God, I thought whilst battling uphill belting out that “I lose all my lustre, when with a Bronco Buster!” I’ve killed him. Watching me do this is actually fatal. Finally – after years of dreaming of killing people like that – I’ve succeeded. I’ve actually bumped one of the bastards off. And it’s happening when I’m high on Sudafed. And, unlike Annie Oakley, it turns out I didn’t even need a gun.
I had pushed my voice so aggressively that I could feel a deep burning at the base of my throat, and I had a tense jaw with the effort of it all. Swooping down into the main philosophy of the song, the undeniable truth that, indeed, you “can’t get a hug from a mug with a slug”, the end of the song looked like a cool, wide beautiful oasis. When I finished, I think they were relieved as I was. I stood, listening to my career opportunities softly sifting away. Still, at least I wasn’t dead and dribbling onto a canvas bag which advertised a touring production of My Fair Lady.
What should you do with a dead Artistic Director anyway? At least the Actors Church wasn’t far away. It’s handy for funerals. And actors tend to the predictable spiritually, hovering ominously in the half light between humanism and agnosticism. So they’ll probably just cremate him then. You can’t prove you’ve killed someone by singing Irving Berlin songs at them until they died after they are cremated, can you? Can you? Perhaps this is how I shall finally get famous, I mused. It isn’t going to be whilst taking a bow in gold tap shoes on a first night, the tired soles of my award-winning feet cushioned by a blanket of first night pink roses. It’s going to be by the headline Actress sings as Director keels over. “I think the authenticity of my performance devastated him,” says North London ingenue, 26″.
No sooner had I been enjoying this reverie of red-top scandal and notoriety than the bastard woke up, sat bolt upright and said “Can you snort like a pig?”
After the audition, I did what I usually did. I wondered what on earth I was doing and thought about how long it would take to train as a lawyer, vetinarian, train announcer, street-cleaner, or other, more dignified, forms of employ. Then I went home and comfort ate some spaghetti carbonara, washing down my antibiotics with a generous slug of Mount Bay Rum. I returned to diligent work in the office as a temp the next day. I must have been unwell in the brain because I actually did the filing. Life was stupid : this constant merry-go-round of auditions and interviews by people who demanded I impress them whilst being so relentlessly unimpressive themselves. Two days passed, at the end of which I returned home to an ansaphone message telling me I got the job. I mean, I actually got the job. I GOT THE JOB. It turned out they liked the maturity of my voice, which was alarming. What was I going to do when I got better and my voice changed beyond recognition? By then I thought, I would be in dire Bury St Edmunds, smack in the middle of Britain’s soggiest, dampest county and by then they wouldn’t be able to get rid of me.
The irony wasn’t lost on me though : that the best audition I ever did was one which I turned up to in inflatable plaits, dressed like a moron, appalled an impresario and sung with a fractured voice out of tune. Such is the business of show. There’s no other like it. Thank God.
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