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Lipstick Thespians

[whitespace] Rent tryouts
Rent-a-Cast: The hip, young and grating gargle for their shot at fame.

Gentrification and faux-Grunge converge at Rent auditions

By Michael Stabile

"I need this job/oh god I need this show ..."
--A Chorus Line

Open auditions, especially for a show like the late Jonathan Larson's Rent, reek like a publicity stunt in the guise of a cattle call. Four weeks before the opening of Rent in San Francisco, fliers began appearing in post-beatnik coffeehouses and secondhand clothing stores. Ostensibly, "amateurs" (read: authentic squatters) were welcome to try out for parts and participate in this timely and moving musical.

The fliers sat like one-page zines in juice bars calling the young and the trendy to a prissy Union Square rave. No doubt such postings were also in Variety and local theater journals, and certainly high school and college drama coaches passed the information on to their more ambitious students, but the omnipresence of fliers on Haight Street and in the Castro and the Mission lent a good degree of authenticity to a show that, while about what's left of Gen-X, is often dismissed by the audience it claims to represent. Personally, I love a good show tune (and quite a few bad ones, as well), but that makes twentysomething me an anomaly. My only companions tend to be suburban girls, theater nerds and over-the-hill--er, rainbow--gay men.

Truth be told, however, I don't sing in the shower, my dancing is similar to drunken stumbling and I loathe the particular pretentiousness inherent in summer-stock actors--but I do cry at the end of Fame. And I've listened to the soundtrack to Rent more times than I care to admit (ask my neighbors).

Auditions began at 10am, but prospective representatives of la vie bohème were encouraged to arrive as early as 8am, and by 9:45 the line stretched down three blocks. The blue-haired and the pierced queued up alongside SoCal semiprofessionals and would-be models.

Thomas "Buck" Howard, a weathered but handsome late twentysomething, worried about his chances. "The flier said young 20s [wanted], but I know I'd be perfect, even for a small role--like one of the policemen. Everyone around here is so young, though. I'm afraid I'm too heavy, too unpierced and too old." While sipping hot tea with lemon, he tried to remember the words to his audition piece, "Cold-Hearted Snake" by Paula Abdul. "They said they wanted something upbeat and pop-rockish, but I'm concerned that it won't demonstrate my [vocal] range."


"Excellent! Thank you. Next."


A proud stage mother wearing a crew jacket from a regional production of Grease! pushed her daughter's head shots at me. "Here's Amberly as Wendy in Peter Pan--she's flying!" Amberly had recently tried out for Les Miserables in Los Angeles ("And she received two call backs!" interjected mother) but without landing a part. "I'm going to be singing 'Criminal' by Fiona Apple," she volunteered, before crooning, upbeat, the song's first line, "I've been a bad, bad girl." Despite Amberly's polished physical presentation, she seemed right on target for the role of Mimi Marquez, the show's heroin-addled center.

Rent, loosely based on the opera La Bohème, recounts the gentrification of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the mid-'90s, which clearly resonates in San Francisco with Missionization of Hayes Valley, South of Market and, most recently, the Tenderloin. Buck, a San Francisco resident, felt a special affinity for the musical. "It was recommended by a friend last year, and soon thereafter I was faced with an OMI [Owner Move-in Eviction]. I sued my landlord and eventually won a settlement, but I was forced to find another apartment. We considered having a protest [as they do in the musical], but we didn't have the resources or the energy. It was clear the marble fawn was moving in ."

As expected in early February, gusty winds soon gave way to cold pelting rain. From under a sea of umbrellas, an annoying manifestation of Chorus Line camaraderie overtook the three-hours-and-still-waiting crowd. A group of suburban teens in skater drag began an a cappella rendition of "Lean on Me." Soon every would-be was swaying and smiling, finding companionship amid their suffering and anxiety. I was cold and decided to leave before someone contracted the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" bug. I may love musicals, but I am definitely not a theater person. And I happen to like gentrification. It may raise rents, but it certainly makes it easier to get a good cup of coffee.

I moved toward the audition room, where hopefuls paced nervously, reviewed lyric sheets and drank tea with lemon from the Grand Cafe upstairs. Despite the call for amateurs, the participants grasped their résumés and head shots as if they were professionals--all while trying to affect a conversely "downtown" demeanor.

The publicist for Rent avoided my questions with glittering generalities when I asked her what parts in the musical the casting call was meant to fill. "We're casting for all parts," she said, "in all shows and tours [across the country]. We never know when someone with a leading role is going to get sick and not be able to finish the tour."

Here I thought that the purpose of these auditions was to bring some local color to the San Francisco show. She started waxing about some man in Cleveland who tried out and now was cast as the main character in Houston or some other middle-American city. I wonder if the talented and tattooed would have waited in line for four hours to perform a 15-bar piece if they knew that the luck of the draw might well be Peoria.

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From the March 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.