I wonder how Victor Hugo would feel about his behemoth of a novel, Les Miserables, becoming a musical. Would he smile at the script, fondly tapping his foot along with the music of the orchestra? Would he feel that squeezing his many words into a four-hour performance is an injustice? Would he shed a tear while witnessing Val Jeans’s transformation, his heart soaring with the notes? I don’t know.
What I do know is that in less than a day I will be auditioning for the role of Enjolras, the young French revolutionary birthed from Hugo’s imagination. He is the young, idealistic martyr that is all but required in novels such as Les Mis. In a story full of allusions to Christ, Enjorlas perfectly fulfills the words of the messiah, “ Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
The last time I auditioned for a musical, I was a senior in high school, and the show was Little Shop Of Horrors. I was the voice of Audrey 2, a man-eating plant plotting world domination. Needless to say, this makes for quite a tonal shift in material. And though my voice was well suited for the bass/baritone venus flytrap, Enjolras’s high baritone/tenor range has been a little bit more of a strain on my vocal chords.
“Try to imagine your vocal chords as a pipe, starting in your diaphragm and ending with your mouth. Now imagine your voice is paint, filling your diaphragm. Shoot your voice out from your diaphragm, through your mouth, and paint the ceiling!”
This is actual advice I received from a musical theatre major. I can’t make this stuff up. Sometimes, I really question my decision to get a major in this business.
But it’s not all bad. I’ve gotten more practical advice from the vocal instructor who has taught me at home, and while I still haven’t been able to nail the last note of the measure I am required to sing for callbacks, I’m hoping I’ll get there with the help of the theatre/musical theatre majors I am soon to be surrounded by.
On the plane my heart begins to pound. I haven’t flown in almost two years, and I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like. As we ascend, every sound is the plane falling apart, and any turbulence is a sure sign we are falling out of the sky. I realize I have forgotten to buy gum. I look around at my fellow passengers and begin to conjure up biographies for each of them, hypothesizing who will miss them when they are gone. I think of the movie Flight and hope my pilot is as skilled as Denzel Washington on drugs. I have to mentally slap myself to snap out of it. When did I become so melodramatic? Maybe this theatre thing is the right decision after all.
The flight to DFW is just over an hour. I had forgotten how large the airport is. Being in an airport has always given me a stupid sense of superiority, as if the high school band members, businessmen, and vacationers flying around the world achieve greater heights both literally and personally, in terms of fulfillment. And yet the men and women in uniform always remind me that some people just want to fly home.
I Skype my girlfriend. She talks about her day. I do my best to listen, and avoid being distracted by thoughts of the audition and fear of missing my flight. She tells me about a tense conversation she had with friends in a theatre class. The topic was homosexuality. I think of the news that Jason Collins has come out, the first NBA player to do so publicly. I consider the high school stigma that theatre is “for faggots” as one jock back home so eloquently put it. I can’t help but feel sorry for Collins, because I have a nagging feeling that there are quite a few professional athletes who are still very much high school jocks. The call to board is announced and I say a rushed goodbye.
The plane to Abilene is the smallest I’ve ever been on. At the maximum, I would say it holds maybe thirty people. I fight the urge to rehearse my song out loud, and settle for humming instead. The woman sitting across the aisle shoots quick glances my way. I continue humming. Thankfully the flight is only thirty minutes long.
Some friends pick me up from the tiny Abilene airport. Two girls I went to high school with attend ACU, so there are smiles and hugs. We do what every Texas college student feels the urge to do late at night; we go to Whataburger.
At ACU we pull up to the theatre building and head up to the practice rooms. Almost every room is filled; various songs and vocal warm ups permeate the hallway. On the way over I have been informed that I must learn the bass part of a harmony for auditions as well. Much of the rest of the night is spent trying to get it down. In my limited experience, theatre majors are masters of procrastination, so I’m not alone in my desperation to learn the music. There are at least twelve of us crowded into a room that is maybe six feet by six feet. It is hot and difficult to breathe. I am asked to sing my part.
“La Marque is dead. La Marque, his death is the hour of fate!”
Contrary to popular belief, theatrical types still get nervous. And I am very nervous as I sing to a room full of people I haven’t met, most of whom are less then five feet from my face. Of course it’s nerve-wracking. I choke on the last note. I receive praise from a few of the students, but in a room full of actors you can never know who’s telling the truth.
I meet up with an acting major named Matt Silar, who happens to be auditioning for the same role. I am pleasantly surprised when he genuinely offers to help me, and gives some practical tips and reassurance. Both of us are acting majors, not musical theatre majors. Auditioning for a musical has us feeling like fish in uncomfortable waters.
A little before 1 a.m. we head back to the dorms. I crawl into a sleeping bag in a hot, stuffy dorm room, and try not to think about the congestion I feel building up in my nose, or that note I still haven’t hit. Instead, I think about both at once and fall slowly into sleep.
The next day after lunch, I’m back to trying to find my niche in the harmony. This is exceedingly difficult, as I had spent a lot of time learning the melody, which is what Enjolras would sing. Muscle memory is not easily rewritten. I take some time to rehearse my own part again and before I know it the time has come for callbacks.
“The time is here! Let us welcome it gladly with courage and cheer!”
If only I had the same confidence as my prospective character. Around fifty students crowd the stage, split into four groups; bass, tenor, alto, and soprano. Four people go up at a time, one from each group, and each sings their part as the pianist plays. I am straining to hear the bass but not having much success. A few of us attempt to quietly find the notes and sing along in muted voices, but a 6 foot 2 upperclassman shoots us a knowing glance and shakes his head, effectively shutting us up. I feel somewhat ashamed of myself.
I go last, after every other bass has gone up at least once. I do not find the part. I am standing next to a tenor, and my voice slips into his role. I sing softly in an attempt to disguise my ignorance, praying that the directors won’t ask for a repeat. We finish.
“Okay, sing it again please, and Andrew? Sing a bit louder, okay?”
I nod my head. My soul implodes. I do not have a moment of sudden clarity and miraculously belt out a booming bass. Instead, I match the tenor again and fail to hit several of the notes. I applaud myself for being enough of an actor to be able to hide my rage and disappointment. I walk off stage, trying to take consolation in the fact that at least I am halfway through.
The callback for Enjolras is not for another four hours. I head to the student center to eat a quesadilla, and then head back to the practice rooms.
Here I proceed to significantly lower my chances of getting the role. The last few lines are in the outskirts of my range, and so to make up for it I try to shout/sing them, and scratch my voice in the process. This is exacerbated by yelling the very last note in an attempt to reach it. I am waging psychological warfare on myself as well, berating myself and convincing myself that I’ve wasted my time and my parents’ money. The pity party begins.
A friend of mine who is listening to me sing tells me to focus more on the character then the singing. He is convinced that if I can get into character, I won’t have such a hard time hitting the notes.
“Think of it as a monologue instead of a song”
So I sit down, cradling my head in my hands, trying to slip into the skin of the young, vibrant, Enjolras. As I consider the character as depicted in the novel, the musical, and the book, I wonder how a writer feels when they see an actor present him or herself under the guise of a character they created. I try to imagine what purpose Hugo had for creating Enjolras, what message he needed this character to convey to his readers. I muster up the urgency that would be felt by the leader of a revolution, the determination, the sense of purpose. I let it seep in through my pores, into my blood. And then my name is called.
I take the stage. The whole thing is over in twenty seconds. I hit the last note, but it sounded a bit like a dying animal. All in all, I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that it did not go as badly as it could have. I’m an acting student, not a musical theatre major.
And as Hugo so eloquently wrote through his character Jean Val Jean:
“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”