Biographies & Memoirs


Chapter 17

The Biggest Surprise of My Life

After the audition, I didn’t think I could want the part more than I already did. But seeing the show on Broadway was awe-inspiring. It wasn’t just the dancing, or the singing, or the acting, it was everything. It all came together to tell a beautiful, powerful story. When Billy’s mother came down as an angel to wish him luck as he left for a bright but uncertain future as a dance student in the big city, it was like watching my life onstage. The moment the show ended, I turned to Mom.

“I need to be in this,” I said as the final curtain descended. “I could do this. I could be Billy.”

I didn’t mean I could play the part. I meant I could literally be him, like in an alternate dimension or something.

“I know,” said Mom, wiping tears from her eyes. “Your father would be so proud.”

“I’m going to do this,” I told her. “No matter what.”

“I know you will,” she said. “Because you are dedicated, and talented, and you have an angel watching over you.”

We both looked up. I could just imagine Dad looking down on us through the beautiful carved ceiling of the Imperial Theatre, a huge smile on his face.

I’m going to make you proud, I whispered.

After we went home, I expected to hear from Nora within a few days. But days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, and no call came. Mom started applying for full-time jobs again. She still worried about leaving Matt and me home alone too much, but we couldn’t make it on her part-time salary anymore. She even applied for a few jobs in New York, just in case. Luckily, she quickly got a second part-time statistics job in addition to her teaching position at Kirkwood College and the tutoring she did with high school students. Simultaneously, I started my second semester at the University of Iowa, and our time in New York faded into the background.

But in January, we got the call we’d been waiting for.

Sort of.

“Another audition?” Mom said as soon as she hung up. “They should know by now if they want you. This is getting ridiculous.”

I could tell she wasn’t happy, and I didn’t blame her. At first, they wanted us to come back for two weeks, which meant she’d have to find a substitute teacher for her classes, and I’d miss mine. We told them we could only come for one, and even that would be difficult. Though Mom was working more than full-time, we still didn’t have money to waste. I figured the trip wasn’t possible. But I wanted to try.

“Please, Mom? They want to see me again. They’ll make a decision this time. I know it.”

Mom thought about it for a few minutes. I could see her weighing all the pros and cons.

“It’s your life Alex, and you’ve earned this. We’ll do it if you want—but I still think they should be able to make a decision about whether they want you by now.”

You only live once, I thought to myself.

“I want to do it,” I said quickly. “But this is the last time.”

If the creative team couldn’t make up their minds after this, they must not really want me. I couldn’t keep wasting money on something that wasn’t real. But if I didn’t try, I knew I would always wonder what would have happened.

It took a while to plan our trip. Stephen had been nominated for an Oscar for his new film, The Reader, and we had to work around his schedule. At first it seemed like we’d never find a date that fit everyone. But then Mom pulled off another miracle. In November, when we’d thought I was certain to get the part, she’d applied for a job at the New York City College of Technology. Right as we were trying to find a date for my third audition, the school called and asked her to come in for an interview in February. We suggested the same date to Nora, she spoke to Stephen, and everything fell into place.

Returning to New York felt oddly like coming home. Maybe it was just because I was paying attention, but I saw posters for Billy Elliot everywhere: on the subway, on taxis, on billboards. When I saw one right outside our hotel, I figured it had to be a sign.

Everything about my third audition was weird. For the first time, we weren’t scheduled to start at the crack of dawn. Mom dropped me off at Ripley-Grier Studios a little before noon.

“Text me when you’re done,” she said. We hugged good-bye and I headed up to the sixteenth floor. Aside from Nora and the studio’s receptionist, the lobby was empty.

Where is everyone? I wondered.

“Alex!” Nora said, leaping up from her chair. “It’s great to see you.”

“Thanks!” I said. We hugged.

“Ready?” she asked, gesturing toward the inner studio.

“Oh, sure!” I was surprised to be jumping right in. I hadn’t even had a chance to sew my shoes. “Let’s do it.”

I expected a roomful of other kids, but inside there were just Julian and a man I’d seen at the last audition but hadn’t been introduced to. They were sitting at a big table, in the center of which sat a massive binder with the words Billy Elliot—Script written across the front. I was surprised Stephen wasn’t there, but I guess getting ready for the Oscars was keeping him pretty busy.

“Alex, grab a seat!” said Julian as I entered. He shook my hand. “This is BT McNicholl, the show’s resident director.”

“Nice to meet you,” BT said. He was short, with dark hair and a big smile. I liked him instantly, which was good, because if I got cast, we’d be working together closely. The resident director is at the theater every day. The director (Stephen) and the assistant director (Julian) were technically BT’s bosses, but they were often working on other things. If I got the role, BT was the one I’d be dealing with the most.

“Nice to meet you too!” I said.

Now I thought I understood what was going on. They must have narrowed the pool down to two or three candidates. These strange individual auditions were for the creative team to get to know us. It was nerve-racking, but I knew it meant I was so close. This was the final hurdle. Whatever BT and Julian threw at me, I was ready.

“Let’s get started, shall we?” said Julian. He pushed a pencil and notebook my way. “There’s one thing I want you to keep in mind as we do these scenes. The key to being a great actor is this: don’t act.”

He paused, a mischievous glint in his eye. I must have looked confused, because he laughed.

“If you think you’re acting when you’re up there, so will the audience, and they won’t believe it. You have to be your character. Every moment has to be genuine, because the audience can smell a fake.”

I nodded. I was excited to get acting notes from a big director like Julian, especially because when it came to this role, I knew I could be real.

Julian opened the script and turned to Billy’s first scene.

“Let’s start reading,” he said. “Now, when the action starts, you’ll be in the wings, upstage left.”

He looked at me and gestured at my notepad. I was confused. I didn’t know how to apply this information to the audition. There was no backstage here. There wasn’t even a stage! But I picked up the pencil and started writing, because I’d learned my lesson with the turns, and I didn’t want to be the kid who didn’t do what he was told.

When I looked up from the pad, Julian was staring at me with a weird look on his face.

“You know you have the part, right?” he said.

My brain exploded. There had been a miscommunication. This wasn’t an audition at all.

It was my first rehearsal.

I spent at least five minutes sitting there in shock with my mouth hanging open as Julian and Nora sorted things out. Nora apologized repeatedly for the mix-up. Instantly we called Mom, who came running back to the studio to congratulate me.

While we were both in the room, Nora talked us through what being on Broadway would actually mean.

“We’re going to start Alex in the show in the fall,” she said. “That way he’ll have all summer to adjust to New York and rehearse, without worrying about tutoring. He’ll be on an intense in-house schedule, as well as working with outside singing and acting coaches. In fact, we’d like him to visit the coaches before you go back to Iowa so they can prepare lessons for him to do at home.”

Now I understood why they had wanted me here for a whole week.

“Do you have a tap teacher?” she asked.

“No. But my brother does, and I’ve worked with her before,” I said, thinking of Michael. “I really like her.”

Nora looked at my mom.

“Michael Kohli. She’s wonderful.” Mom nodded.

“Great. Then we’ll get her information from you and you’ll start as soon as you get back home.”

Nora paused in her speech and smiled.

“That is, of course, if you accept the part.”

“YES!” I yelled. “I’ll start right now!”

I grabbed the script, ready to show Nora just how excited I was.

“Easy there, Alex.” Nora laughed. “We’ll have a lot of time to work on this. We have some details to talk over with your mom, but how does starting rehearsals in”—she paused to calculate in his head—“three months sound?”

I looked at Mom and she smiled.

“My interview went well,” she said. “So fingers crossed, that works for us!”

“Woo-hooooo!” I yelled, and bolted out of my chair. “Yes, yes, yes!” I couldn’t contain myself any longer. I had to let it all out. I leaped with joy, and the entire room cracked up laughing. I knew right then that not only was the show great, but the people behind it were awesome as well.

The rest of the week was a blur of meetings, paperwork, and phone calls to friends and family. Just about half of Iowa seemed to hear the news at the same time, so my phone and Facebook wall blew up with congratulations. I already felt like a star.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the week was meeting Joan Lader, my new vocal coach. She was, without a doubt, one of the nicest people I met during my time at Billy Elliot. She reminded me of Mom: down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and supersmart. With her pretty brown bangs and wide smile, she would have totally fit in back home in Iowa City. But considering that she mostly worked with stars like Madonna and Patti LuPone, I understood why she lived in New York.

That’s right, I now had the same vocal coach as Madonna. A week ago, the closest I’d been to Madonna was buying her albums on iTunes, and now I was getting advice from the same woman who trained her for the movie Evita.

The first time I stepped into Joan’s beautiful studio on Union Square, it was hard not to think about Madonna’s voice echoing down the hallway.

“Hi, Ms. Lader,” I said, nervous to be meeting her for the first time. The arrangements had been made by the show, and Mom had dropped me off outside. Now it was just the two of us, and my shy side was out in force. I was embarrassed to sing in front of a woman who’d worked with some of the greatest performers in the world. I looked at the walls, the floors, her exquisite grand piano, and everything else in the room but her.

“Joan,” she said, laughing. “Call me Joan. And you must be Alex.”

She shook my hand and sat at the piano. She played a twinkling of notes, and I recognized the overture of Billy Elliot.

“We probably won’t work on any of the songs from the show today,” she said, surprising me. “In fact, we’ll work on the numbers occasionally, but you’ll do more of that with David, the show’s musical director. I’m mostly here to help you strengthen, tone, and train your voice. So we’ll be doing a lot of exercises.”

She pulled out a small digital recorder from a bag by the piano.

“I’m going to record this for you to take home. Our first priority is your diction. In a musical, the songs tell the story, so if people can’t understand what you’re saying, it’s a big problem. I want you to do these exercises every day while you’re in Iowa.”

She looked up at me, her brown eyes serious. “You’ll do that, right?”

“Of course!” I rushed to assure her. I wanted to do everything I could to prepare myself for the role. And knowing that we weren’t going to be singing any actual songs took a lot of the pressure off. How badly could I embarrass myself doing a bunch of exercises?

“Fantastic. Let’s start with your position. Stand up straight. Bring your head back.”

I tried to do as she said.

“Not that far.”

She stood up and gently adjusted my head and neck until they were in perfect alignment.

“That is how you should stand when you’re singing. Of course, it’ll depend on what you’re doing in the scene, but that’s how your head and neck are best positioned to open your throat and let you sing out.”

Because I hadn’t taken a lot of voice lessons, no one had trained me on the technical aspects of singing. Joan had two master’s degrees in speech pathology, however, and what made her so successful was that she understood the ways in which our bodies physically create sound. The way you position your head, where you create the words in your mouth, and the way you breathe all have huge effects on your voice and singing abilities.

“Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do-o-o-o-o!”

She had me do scales so she could analyze my singing. A couple of times, she had me yell as loud as I could.

“There’s a lot of shouting in the play, and if you yell onstage like you would in real life, your voice will be gone,” she told me. “You can’t grind it out. You’ve got to yell from your mouth, not your throat.”

The whole time we were doing the lessons, she gave me pointers on how to hold my head and chest. It was amazing to learn how the body really is an instrument, just like a guitar, and how you get different sounds by positioning yourself differently. Already I felt like I was learning so much, and rehearsals hadn’t even officially started.

I met a whole lot of other people that week—more than I could keep straight! By the time I left for Iowa, I had the script (covered in notes from BT), the tape from Joan, lessons from Ann Ratray (my new acting coach), and a video of the tap numbers to work on with Michael Kohli. It felt kind of like I was homeschooling again, only this time, the subject was Broadway, my textbook was a script, and my “final exam” would be seen by thousands of people.

I couldn’t wait to start studying.

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