Category Archives: Writing

About Casting

In my previous post, I wrote about visualizing actors for characters. I don’t do that for fiction, but when it comes to writing for musical theater, that changes. The reason is that the voice, specifically the singing voice, matters. Whereas a written character’s voice could be anything [and the few audio versions that I’ve heard of my work sound nothing like I hear the characters], when it comes to musicals, you have to be thinking, “She’s a soprano, not legit, with a theater belt and the ability to rock out when we need her to.” And once you do, you start remembering performers who meet those criteria.

Which means that you are essentially casting the show in your head while you’re writing it, and I have found that to be a useful thing. You’re moving the imaginary characters around an imaginary stage anyway to make sure that the scenes work and that people have enough time to change costumes, so you might as well have specific people for your templates rather than a SimRep group [and wouldn’t that be a fun game to have?]

The more I’ve gotten to work in theater, the more performers I have met. Every one of them is in my mental database, waiting to leap out and sing their imaginary little hearts out. And I don’t typecast them — the ingenue in one show becomes a biker chick bartender in another; the straight high school senior segués into a gay, thirty-something editor. It all comes down to the voice and, to a lesser extent, the age.

In the year after I had been in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, I was looking for a compatible composer to work with. I had come up with an idea for a show to be made up of thematically-related musical sketches and one-acts. I had been influenced by my experiences both watching and participating in the Raw Impressions Theater Company, who put together evenings of eight ten minute musicals written in forty-eight hours by eight pairs of writers and composers who had never worked together before. They usually had a cast of ten covering the whole set, and the performers were seriously good.

So, as I began thinking about what I would write, I also thought about the practicalities. I wanted to use six performers, three men and three women, all versatile. And thinking about the characters in the pieces became mixed with thinking about who would play them. The characters suggested the performers, the performers suggested more characters, and in my head, where I was director, designer and audience, I was having a great time enjoying the show.

Of course, if you get to the point where you actually can have a reading or, if you’re lucky, an actual staging of the show, the actors you dreamed of may not be available because they selfishly have their own lives and needs. In the case of “This Happened To Someone I Know,” the anthology musical which I ultimately wrote with composer Mark Sutton-Smith, I did get four of the six to record some demos. I later got a different four of the six to do a reading, and it was sweet hearing their actual voices doing what the voices in my head had done [no medication needed here, folks. Relax.]

But, if you can’t get the performers you dreamed of getting, here’s the wonderful thing about living in NYC: There are a lot of performers here, and many will happily come in to read or sing for you, either because they hope that this will lead to work for them if you ever strike gold, or because they realize that all of us in this community [and I am willing at this point to include myself] need to have this symbiosis continue if musical theater is going to be created.

So, what happens when a performer you craved is unavailable? You network. You find others, and they know others, and before you know it, your imaginary repertory company is legion. And someone will come in who was nothing like the person in your head and put an entirely new spin on the character, and you, the writer, sit there and think, “Oh! This character can do that!” For example, when Mark and I wrote “Girl Detective,” we recruited Kimmy Brownell for the table reading. We had met Kimmy when she learned four songs at the last second for some demos when our original singer came down with a cold. Right before the table reading, Kimmy had a family emergency. She sent me a list of possible replacements, with a notation next to one of them, “She rules!”

Her name was Lauren Blackman. She looked nothing like Kimmy, and we didn’t know how good she was. Turned out she was real good. When we later did a staged reading in NYC, she came back for the role and came up with a reading of the line, “Like what?” that sent both Mark and me into hysterics. Too long to explain, but the point is, I wrote that line, and I had no idea it contained what she found in it.

Sometimes you get even luckier. We wanted a young voice for Casey Ames, Girl Detective. I remembered that the older sister of one of my son’s friends had gone to the Performing Arts High School in NYC, and then on to study musical theater at Pace University. I contacted her, and had her learn one of Casey’s songs. And that’s how I started working with Tara Novie.

Tara has become one of the mainstays of my imaginary repertory company. She’s not merely a great singer. She’s a great musician [not every singer is]. So good, that she allowed Mark and me to take musical risks, knowing that she had the capability to take them and run with them. There was a moment in “Girl Detective” where Casey, self-styled high school detective, comes across a murdered man, and breaks dow because things suddenly got real. Mark and I independently arrived at the idea of using musical fragments to create the theater equivalent of an operatic mad scene. The structure was unconventional, the meters shifted into some less standard rhythms, and we ended up writing a piece that I love to this day because Tara had come into this role and we knew she could do it [and she did]. Unfortunately, it’s not up on the website, but you can hear Tara [and Lauren and many other good folks] here.

So, when I began writing “The Usual,” which had its basis in one of the one-acts from the unfinished “This Happened …” musical, Tara took over in my mind from the actress who was part of the original six. “The Usual” was a three person show: two women, one man. For the visuals, I had Tara, the fabulous Kristin Maloney, who had done demos for “This Happened …” and performed the one-act “Bad Reception” from that show, and Gil Brady, who Mark had recruited for “Girl Detective” from his imaginary repertory company.

See how this works? Only when we got to the table reading and recording for “The Usual,” real life intervened in good and bad ways. The bad: Mark was diagnosed with lymphoma, the treatment of which naturally slowed down his composing. The good: Kristin was pregnant. The delay in the completion of the score pushed things past her due date. She recommended Jillian Louis, who was incredible, and a completely different type than Kristin. [Go to the Musical Theater page to hear Jillian, Tara and Gil on those songs.]

And then “The Usual” was done at the Williamston Theatre in Michigan, and that cast, Joseph Zettelmaier, Emily Sutton-Smith and Leslie Hull, was nothing like Gil, Jillian and Tara. Their takes were different; Tony Caselli, the genius director, found beats and notes that I didn’t know were there, and it was all brilliant.

So, what I have learned: I can cast as much as I like in my head, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll get those people. But if I don’t, I can’t wait to see what these characters of mine will turn into when the new folks arrive. I will keep writing for Tara, and Jillian, and Nick Cearley and David Perlman and so many others, because they help me imagine who these people are. Theater characters are meant to be played by actors, and by more than one if you want the show to live on.

And the other great thing about it is that you keep making new friends.

Casting about

Ming-Na Wen has returned to network television as Melinda May in Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Disappointing, badly written first season, unfortunately, and for those of us who remember her wonderful breakthrough in “The Joy Luck,” it is sad to see her reduced to the Hollywood you’re an Asian Woman, so you can be the kick-ass martial arts chick syndrome. Mind you, she can at 51 wear the catsuit Diana Rigg wore at 24 in a much different “Avengers,” as well as carry through fight scenes that Rigg never could, so props to her, but she’s woefully underused.

Seeing Ms. Wen invariably reminds me of a conversation I had with my mystery writer buddy S. J. Rozan at some Bouchercon several years back. She was talking about how she would cast her series featuring Lydia Chin and Bill Smith [read them if you haven’t], and Wen’s name came up. Wen would have been good had it been done then. The time lapse since that conversation has taken her out of contention. Lydia Chin is, of course, a Chinese-American detective with some serious martial arts chops, but those are rarely deployed — the detecting is the thing.

It’s fun to mentally cast one’s characters, and I wonder how often the actors selected match the writer’s intent. Colin Dexter loved John Thaw’s portrayal of Inspector Morse, and the books that came out after the BBC series began seemed to reflect the actor more and more. On the other hand, the fans may have their own idea of a character in mind. There was a huge brouhaha when Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher. “Reacher is tall! Cruise is not!” screamed the fans, forgetting that Cruise not only is a damn good actor, but also possesses the most credible physicality in fight scenes of any major Hollywood star. I’m sure that Lee Child’s reaction to the casting was along the lines of “I like people who are going to make me money.” [The movie underperformed, but a sequel is in the works.]

A question writers often get is, “Who would you cast in the movie of your book?” This sends us into reveries of endorsing checks with large numbers to the right of and beneath our names, walking down red carpets in tuxes, appearing on national talk shows while trying to appear modest and witty, yet self-deprecating. The truth is, unless you are also the executive producer, you, the writer, will have no control over any part of what happens once you sign away the rights. And you agree to this because the first part of the fantasy, that large-dollar amount check, overwhelms everything else.

I have nothing against this process. [It’s only happened to me once, with a short story that came thisclose to being made, with a screenplay by an Oscar-winner and another Oscar-winner lined up to star. Fortunately, I didn’t spend the money I didn’t get before I got it, which I didn’t. Long story for a short story.]

As to who I would cast — I try not to think about it. I’m writing characters who need to come to life on the page, as opposed to barely fleshed-out movie proposals disguised as a novel. I tend to underdescribe them, which might be a fault, but I prefer to give a bare bones description and let the readers flesh out the rest with their imaginations. There will be bits and pieces — Theophilos, my jester, is tall, skinny and flexible enough for tumbling and acrobatics, but we don’t know much more. His age wasn’t pinned down precisely until the fifth book, An Antic Disposition, which was his origins book. Claudia, née Viola, is given a little more since we see her through his eyes, but not much.

Did I play the casting game with them? Yes, of course. I had the movie fantasies like anyone would. But these characters started forming in the mid-Nineties. The actors I would have cast then? A tall actor with a good singing voice who was adept at physical comedy — Kevin Kline leapt to mind, and if the movie had been made immediately, he would have been great. But he’s 66 now. For Viola at that time, I needed a woman who was a chameleon, short and thirty-ish. I was a big fan of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Still am, but she’s 53.

Even if Hollywood buys the rights, it takes years to get anything actually made, and therein lies the problem. So, if anyone comes knocking, I’ll sign away my characters with alacrity. [Maybe I can get them to let me write the screenplay — nah, who am I kidding?] And I’ll hope to God they get it right. Or make it better. As much as I loved Baum’s Oz books, I’m glad that MGM made Dorothy old enough to be played by Judy Garland. It would have been a much poorer movie if she had been the age depicted in the original Denslow illustration.

And I’m a patient man. Matt Smith isn’t old enough to play Theophilos yet. But he will be. And I hear he can sing.