Biographies & Memoirs


Chapter 16

Callbacks, Part 2

In the final moments of my solo, I leave the chair behind, gesture up to Dad, and bring his spirit down into me as the lights go out onstage. It’s my way of saying he’ll always be with me. Never have I felt his watchful eye and protective hand more than at the callback for Billy Elliot.

As soon as the music stopped, the applause began—and my foot burst into terrible pain. I forced a smile. I knew I’d done well. And if the pain in my heel was anything to judge by, I hadn’t held back. The panel seemed impressed. Peter, the choreographer, was nodding energetically when I finished. He whispered something in Stephen’s ear, and they both smiled. All the pain was suddenly worth it.

There were a few solos after me, but to be honest, I don’t remember anything about them. I was focused on how I was doing in the audition, and how my foot felt. I couldn’t wait until the break, when the dancing would be over and I could check on it.

“All right, everyone,” Nora said. “We’re on lunch for forty-five minutes.”

Finally! I thought. I probed the heel of my foot with a tentative finger. Just touching it hurt. I could tell it was swollen too. Getting the shoe off was going to be painful. But at least we were done dancing.

“After lunch, we’ll be working on acting and accents. But don’t put your dancing shoes away yet,” she hurried to say. My stomach lurched. “There will also be some individual dancing later in the afternoon.”

No! I thought. All I wanted at that moment was to get my ballet shoes off and look at my heel. But if I took the shoe off, and it was really bad, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get it back on.

I half raised my hand to get Nora’s attention, but as soon as she looked over, I yanked it back down. I didn’t want to be the problem kid.

It’s only a couple more hours, I told myself. I thought back to my days as a gymnast. I’d hurt myself way worse back then and still performed. That awful competition had been a blessing in disguise, because knowing I’d done it once gave me the confidence to push through a second time. Pain is temporary, I thought.

After lunch, it was time for our individual auditions. One by one, they ushered us into a separate room. The rest of us had nothing to do but sit, wait, and worry. I spent most of the time trying to assign myself points for the various parts of the auditions. If my ballet was a nine, and my tap was an eight, and my solo . . . etc. This kind of thinking can drive you crazy, but it’s hard not to do it when you’re stuck at an all-day audition. Let me tell you, it was a long afternoon.

I was one of the last names Nora called. By that point, my foot wasn’t throbbing anymore, but it hurt as soon as I stepped on it. I must have made some noise, because Nora turned to me.

“Don’t worry, be confident,” she said. She walked me down a long hallway toward the final audition. I was so nervous, it felt like walking to a firing squad.

The entire panel looked up as I walked in.

“Alex, this is David Chase,” Nora said, and pointed to the man sitting at the piano that took up most of one wall. “He’s the musical director for Billy. Just follow his lead.”

With that, we jumped right in. At least we’ll get the singing done first, I thought. It was the part I was least confident about.

“Take a look at this,” David said as I approached the piano. He pointed to a song called “The Letter.” Immediately, I started to worry. Really literal titles, like “The Letter,” tend to be difficult songs, because they’re often big emotional numbers referring to something specific in the show.

A quick sight read confirmed that “The Letter” was tough. But before I could get nervous, I realized that the song was a conversation between Billy and his mother, who had died. Billy talked to his mom when he prayed, just like I did with my dad.

He’s just like me, I thought to myself. All I have to do is play myself.

Suddenly it was as though I were alone in my room, talking to my father. I shut everything else out.

Dad, I hope you can hear this, I thought.

“Sing this,” David said, pointing to the first line. He played the opening notes.

“And I will have missed you growing,” I sang. My voice was firm and clear and a bit sad.

“Now this,” David said, pointing to another line. He had me do this a few times with different parts of the song. After the sixth or seventh, he paused and closed the sheet music.

Here it comes, I thought. They were going to make me sing it without the score. My palms started to sweat.

“Great,” called out Stephen, the director. “Now come sit up here.”

What? I thought.

That’s when I realized we weren’t warming up. That was the singing audition. The scariest part of the entire day, and I’d gone through it without noticing. I guess the lessons had paid off.

Yes! I thought. In my head, I danced with joy.

Stephen pointed to a chair directly in front of the panel. All eyes were on me, and up close, they really felt like a firing squad.

“I’m William Conacher,” said the man directly across the table from me. “I’m the dialect coach for Billy. We’re just going to have you say some easy words, okay?”

“Sure.” I nodded.

He explained that the show was set in rural northern England, where they spoke with what he called a “Geordie” accent. Luckily, it wasn’t that different from the Hong Kong accent Dad had. Until I went to kindergarten, I sounded exactly like him, so I didn’t think this would be hard. All I had to do was repeat after William. He had me say words like window, which he pronounced “winda,” and about, which he pronounced “aboot.”

I felt silly trading words back and forth, but everyone on the panel seemed impressed. It was like playing a vocal game of follow-the-leader. After maybe ten minutes, William nodded and gave me a thumbs-up.

Apparently, that meant we were done, because Stephen handed me a stack of papers from the script, which he called “sides.”

“Find the emotion in the scene,” said Julian Webber, the associate director, who was reading with me. “Imagine what Billy would be feeling.”

Because I didn’t think of myself as an actor at the time, I read the lines the way I would say them myself. I felt such a connection to Billy that it seemed natural and easy.

The entire time I read, Stephen stared at the ground. When I finished one run-through, he’d look up, smile, and say, “Great. Now try it happier,” or, “Great. Now a little slower.” I thought it was odd that he didn’t really look at me, since this was the acting portion of the audition, but the whole thing was so casual. In fact, it was the exact opposite of the big-group portion of the audition, which had been so stressful. I wondered what that meant. Was I doing really well, and so it felt easy? Or was I so off the mark that they saw no point in trying to correct me? Was Stephen smiling because he was happy, or was he laughing at me? Now I know that Stephen would never laugh at someone during an audition, but at the time he was kind of the bogeyman, and I was more than a little scared of him.

After maybe fifteen minutes, Stephen finally looked up.

“You’re good to go!” he said, with another thumbs-up.

What does that mean? I wondered.

I stood awkwardly in the center of the room. The entire panel was talking to one another and seemed to have forgotten I was there. I didn’t know if I should stay or leave. Thankfully, Nora was by the door.

“So . . . is that it?” I asked hesitantly.

“Oh, yeah, you’re done with them,” she said. “Now hurry up and follow me.”

I had no idea where we were going. I’d thought that was the end of the audition, but apparently there was more.

They had me do all the dance choreography over again, but this time with music. I learned a little bit of an actual number from the show, but it was mostly the same as before. At first I was alone with just the dance coaches and Nora, but then more of the creative team filed in. I saw Stephen and Julian, but they didn’t say anything to me. Instead, they kept having small, private discussions, which was maddening. I knew they were talking about me. I wished I could hear them.

At least I had something to take my mind off what they were saying: my foot. Dancing had made it ache, and I was pretty sure I was bleeding now. When I switched from my ballet slippers to my tap shoes, there was blood on the inside of the heel and all over my sock. But what was I going to do? Stop? That wasn’t an option.

Soon, every step burned. When we danced “Electricity,” Billy’s big number in the second act, it felt like the electricity was going right up my foot! There’s nothing like physical pain to distract you from your worries. I’d almost forgotten anyone else was in the room.

After the final piece of choreography, the creative team huddled together and whispered about me for fifteen seconds. I stood there and tried to bleed as quietly as I could. Thankfully Nora came over and took me by the arm.

“You did a great job,” she said as she deposited me back in the waiting room. If I hadn’t heard her say the same thing to every boy before me, it would have meant more, but I actually thought I had done pretty well, so I took it as a compliment.

Once Nora left, I ran straight to the bathroom. When I peeled off my shoe, my foot was sticky with blood.

I stretched my leg up and put my foot into the sink. The cold water hurt at first, but soon it soothed my raw, cracked skin. I managed to get the cuts clean, and dried them with some paper towels. I’d avoided telling Mom about the tap shoes because I didn’t want to stress her out about the money. Now I knew I had to tell her, and I felt dumb for waiting as long as I had. Trying to work through the pain got me in trouble every time, but it’s a hard lesson to unlearn when you’re trying to do your best.

I put on my socks to hide the blisters and walked to the front desk to get some Band-Aids. Even that little bit of padding made my feet feel better. I’d just gotten my street shoes back on when Nora grabbed me.

“Alex! Just who I was looking for,” she said brightly. She always had a lot of energy, like she’d just finished chugging a Red Bull. “Julian wants to see you.”

She took me to the other room, where it was just Julian and me. Julian was blond, with spiky hair and chunky black plastic glasses. He was also very, very tall. He talked and moved quickly, and I found him intimidating. As soon as Nora told me it would be just us, my nerves came flooding back.

“Alex, great job today,” Julian said as Nora left. He handed me another set of sides. “I just want to do a little more with you, okay?”

“Sure!” I said, excited. Anytime they want to pay you special attention, go for it. I knew this meant they liked me, I just knew it. Even if Julian intimidated me, I wanted to impress him.

“Okay, let’s do this.” He clapped his hands. “You read Billy.”

In the scene, Billy’s father freaked out because he discovered that Billy had been taking ballet. Even though my dad was more supportive than that, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine myself in that very situation. Aside from the weird Briticisms, like bloody hell and lassies, I could easily picture myself saying every word on the page.

After our third run-through, Julian plucked the script from my hand.

“You should know it by now” was all he said. “Again.”

Julian was so casual, as though taking my script was no big deal. I’d never seen the lines before, and I’d had no idea I was going to have to remember them. It was legitimately terrifying, but I tried not to let that show.

“Uh—” I hesitated for a second. What was the first line? If I could just remember it, I knew I’d have no problem with the whole thing. It was something about ballet. . . .

“It’s not just puffs that do ballet!” I was so excited I nearly yelled. After that, the rest came easily. I said a silent thank-you to Mom and Dad for insisting that I pay attention in school and train my mind, because this was something for which I would have otherwise been totally unprepared.

After a few more run-throughs, Julian gave me a final thumbs-up and I went out to join the other kids. All the parents were there, except for Mom. I felt self-conscious, and as Nora started telling us when we might hear from them again, I wished I had Mom with me. I didn’t want to forget any of the important details, and I could tell from the way the other kids were looking at me that they’d all noticed I was alone. I’ve always been better friends with adults than with kids my age, and this is one of the reasons why. Especially when you’re eleven or twelve, it seems like every kid is quick to notice anything weird or different about you. Even when they don’t say anything, you can tell they’re thinking it. I tried to shrug it off, but after all the stress of the audition and the pain in my foot, I just wanted Mom to be there so I could let go and be a kid like everyone else.

As the other dancers and their parents began to talk over the audition, I grabbed my chair and headed for the elevator.

“Alex! Wait!” a voice yelled from the studio. I turned to find Nora running after me.

“I called your mom,” she said. “She’ll be here in a minute. Would you mind waiting a little while so I can talk to you both?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks,” said Nora. “And, uh, don’t mention this to any of the other kids, okay?”

I nodded. I wondered if they were about to give me the part. My heart was suddenly pounding faster than it had during the dance numbers. This could be it, my moment, my big break.

Mom, I thought, GET HERE NOW!

Thankfully, she was only a few minutes away.

“Alex, what’s going on?” I could hear the curiosity in her voice as soon as she arrived.

“I don’t know!” I whispered. “But the casting director wants to talk to us.”

I pointed at Nora, who was talking to Stephen and Julian. She nodded our way and gestured to a small room off the main studio. We headed in, and a few minutes later, Nora joined us.

“The creative team is very interested in you, Alex.” She smiled broadly. “You should be so proud of him,” she told Mom.

“I am!” Mom replied. “But what does that mean?”

Mom’s always great about asking for the practical details.

“Well, nothing is set in stone, of course,” Nora started. “But they’d like you to see the show, so that Alex knows what he’s getting into if he gets cast. How much longer are you here in New York?”

Mom and I looked at each other. Please! I pleaded silently.

“We leave in the morning,” she said, and I slumped.

“That’s unfortunate.” Nora clicked her tongue. “They’d like to offer you tickets to tomorrow night’s show. Is there any way you can stay longer?”

Yes! I thought. We can change our tickets. I don’t even need to leave. I could stay here. You could just give me the part now. Please oh please oh please please please please!

I’d never felt so close to something I’d wanted so much. I looked at Mom. She looked at the ground.

“Well, uh—I mean, I’ll have to call the airline, but—” She hesitated. I slipped my hand into hers. Didn’t she know how much I wanted this?

“But we can stay,” she said finally, and I breathed a giant sigh of relief.

“Wonderful,” said Nora. “I’ll make the arrangements.”

I literally jumped for joy the moment we left the studio. I was just some kid from Iowa who couldn’t afford new tap shoes, and I was being given free tickets to a Broadway show! It felt like all the hours of training and rehearsing and worrying and practicing had finally paid off.

But I could tell something was wrong with Mom. She seemed down, even though she was excited for me.

“Why didn’t you say yes right away?” I asked, even though I kind of knew the answer.

“Everything costs money,” she said in a sad voice. She ran her hand through her hair the way she did when she was stressed. I guess I’d known that this trip cost quite a bit, but I don’t think I really knew how little we had.

“We don’t have to stay, Mom,” I said. “I don’t need to see the show, and it’s not like they want me to audition more or anything.

“No!” she said quickly. She shook her head and smiled. “Alex, they want you. This is fantastic. Of course we’re seeing the show. In fact, I’m letting everyone know right now.”

The entire way back to the hotel, Mom called our friends and family to tell them the fantastic news. I felt like skipping, even though I had a blistered foot. When we arrived at our room, we learned that my grandparents had ordered dinner for us. I’d never had room service before in my life, and it made me feel like a star already. I guess it was their way of apologizing for PNB, which was sweet. I knew they hadn’t meant to hurt me—they didn’t have the money. But I didn’t care about PNB anymore. All I could think about was Broadway.

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