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Remembering the Sister Act auditions

I'm in the long and painstaking process of transferring my blog posts over from another platform. I'm not sure I'm going to bother going back all the way to the dawn of time, but have decided to repost this one from 2011. It was originally spread out over several posts but I've combined it all into one.

Here it is - The anatomy of an audition, a.k.a. my Sister Act diary...

September 2011

The news has spread like wildfire across the Internet. Stage Entertainment is accepting submissions to audition for their next big musical, Sister Act. Please read descriptions on their site and submit if you correspond to a role…

Really good musical theater productions in France are rare. Long-running productions the caliber of Stage Entertainment’s shows are rarer yet. Like almost every musical theater performer in France, I click and read through the descriptions with hope in my heart. Sister Mary Robert? I’m too old. Sister Mary Patrick? Too thin (for once!). Mother Superior? Too young. Mary Lazarus? Way too young. Darn it!

My agent tells me she has submitted me for Mother Superior. Really? The description says they want someone between 55 and 70 years old. Surely I’m too young. The days pass with no news. I am not surprised.

November 2011

I have been called in for the role of Mother Superior. Give me a break! I don’t have a hope! Do I look like Maggie Smith?

I’m supposed to prepare a song of my choice, as well as “Here within these walls” from Sister Act. I read through the music. What a beautiful song! I begin my research, watching every interview and excerpt I can find to click my mouse on. I listen to Sheila Hancock, to Victoria Clark, whose voice is stunning… Wait a minute, surely she’s not that much older than I am? In spite of myself, I am falling in love with the music and lyrics, I’m starting to hope…

I work on the song, which is a sheer joy to sing, imagining the situation, wondering how I would respond to a crazy show-girl showing up in my convent. 10 days later, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be and it’s almost time to bite the bullet and run the gauntlet. Two days before the audition, there is an e-mail. Be sure your music has chord changes on it so the pianist can accompany you. If you can, send it by e-mail ahead of time. You may sing a cappella if you wish. Uh, oh. That doesn’t sound good. I make a last minute change and switch from “Everybody says don’t” to “Broadway Baby” for my second song. I can sing it in my sleep and surely it will be simple enough for even the shakiest of the notoriously shaky pianists who always seem to accompany auditions in France. I send off the scan of my music. I am trying not to fall into my usual pre-audition jitters, but it’s hard.

ROUND 1 – Tuesday, November 22nd

There’s only one final question: what to wear? I decide all black is a little too much for the first round and head out to the audition in a long striped skirt and black turtleneck. I am a modern nun.

11 am – The auditions are running late, but there are plenty of people to schmooze with. Schmoozing helps relax me. It tricks my mind into thinking I’m at a social function instead of about to strip myself naked in front of total strangers. I know about half of the various nuns, gangsters, and priests who are crowded into the room. Two gorgeous Deloris’s are vocalizing down the hall. People mill around in various stages of nerves. One young singer bursts into tears when she is told to come back later for the dance audition. A camera crew captures it all on film, interviewing anyone who isn’t too nervous to be able to speak in complete sentences.

Suddenly it’s my turn. Concentrate in the antechamber. The casting director, Bruno, pokes his head out the door and seems happy to see me. He whispers some last minute acting directions. Authoritative. Right. Strict. Yes. But with a sense of humor. Okay.

I’m supposed to start with “Broadway Baby”. I hand my music to the pianist and start to walk him through it but… What do you mean, you want to do the beginning freely? I’d like to start slowly and gradually accelerate. Can you follow me? Follow you how? What am I supposed to play? The chords… But that’s not what’s written. I’m sorry, I thought you read chords. Ummm… Okay, never mind, let’s do what’s written, that’s fine. Well, what’s the tempo? Oh wow, that’s really fast. I’ll try... ???? (Someone told me later that he was actually a guitar player. What?) Anyway, off we go with the song and, after the second line, he skips a measure or two. I stop. You know what? Can I just sing this a cappella?

Now it’s time for “Here within these walls”. The music director and stage director seem to be Dutch and speak in English. The assistant director and the casting director are French. The audition is being filmed. Who are those other people sitting on the floor? Concentrate! I imagine my convent walls and slip inside my mental nun’s habit. It’s worth going through the anxiety just to be able to sing this song… which seems to have gone well, as I am asked to stay for the dance audition at two.

I end up going to lunch with the two gorgeous Deloris’s who turn out to be Americans too. This is the great part of auditions, meeting new people and having one of those instant bonding things that can only come through fighting side by side in mortal combat on the battlefield, or going through the audition process together.

Back at the studio now in our sweats and sneakers, we learn the dance routine. And this bit is just pure fun. The choreographer is calm and friendly, guiding us through the process with all the patience and encouragement that non-dancers could possibly hope for. In the group are two others up for the role of Mother Superior, Laure and Sarah, both of whom I’ve known for ages. We’re so different that I’m not sure we can even be considered to be in competition – it will all boil down to what they’re looking for. And I’m still convinced that we are, all three of us, too young.

Everyone dances their hearts out. It’s 4pm. Thank you all. We’ll let you know within the next few days…

5 days go by… No news.

A week… No news.

10 days… Oh well.

But on Day 11, I am called back…


For the next round, we have a scene to prepare, a new song to learn, and new lyrics to “Here within these wall” which has been adapted into French. The callback is in a week.

This round comes with its fair share of difficulties. The French adaptation is obviously a first draft as there are acCENTS on a lot of wrong syLLAbles. This requires quite a bit of fiddling around with the rhythm in order to make the lyrics comprehensible and sometimes limits your choices in terms of acting. I spend a lot of time trying to put this puzzle together.

The new song is another challenge. There is no recorded version anywhere of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” which was added when Sister Act went to Broadway. Luckily, I have a pianist “à domicile” in the form of my husband, who records a playback for me to practice to. I actually find the fact that there is no previously recorded version quite freeing and I dig into the emotions of the song with gusto. It’s another fabulous number with the Mother Superior in a full-blown crisis of faith. It’s time for me to admit the truth to myself: I really want this part! Oh boy, I am opening myself up to a whole world of hurt if I don’t get the role. I try not to think about it… The song goes up higher and higher. I am working hard to get a homogenous sound from way down at the bottom of my range, all the way up to the high notes which I am doing in a mix of head and chest voice. My friend Caro calls. She is going back in for Mother Superior too and wants to know if I’ve found a recording of the song. I send her my playback. She tells me she has been doing some of the ensemble callbacks and they really want high belts. Okay. Fine. Remain calm. I can belt those D’s and E’s, can’t I? Yes I can, by gum!

The day before the audition, I go meet with a stage director friend, Jean-Michel, for a coaching session on the scene. This is the hard part for me. When a scene is new, I have a tendency to concentrate mostly on getting my text out without an accent. Acting is also the area where I doubt myself the most, afraid of sounding insincere. No matter how many acting jobs I am hired to do, this doubt never goes away and dates back to when I was playing Irene Malloy in “Hello Dolly!” with a particularly unpleasant director. One day he said to me, “Are you an actress? No, you’re not! So stop thinking, stop asking questions, just shut your trap and do what I say.” Stupid as it is, no amount of logic or experience can take away that little voice that sometimes pipes up to say, ”Are you an actress?”. Of course I am, but still… We run the lines, do a little staging, talk about Mother Superior’s relationship with God, with the Monsignor, with her nuns. As I am on my way home, I get a text message from the casting director’s assistant: Check your e-mail! What do I find waiting for me? A recording of “Haven’t got a prayer” in from the Italian version of Sister Act. And the interpretation doesn’t sound anything like what I’ve prepared for the next day. Too late now. Ready or not, it’s callback time.

ROUND 2 – Thursday December 8th

This time my audition is in the afternoon. I have plenty of time to sing through everything, run my lines and then address the eternally burning question, what should I wear? All black this time? Once again, I decide on a compromise: a long printed skirt and a black turtleneck.

On my way to the Mogador Theater, I bump into Caro, who has already done her audition. She seems slightly feverish. I myself am feeling nauseous and a bit dizzy. When I get to the theater, I know almost all of the Mother Superiors who are waiting their turn. Nelly-Anne, Agnès, Brigitte… there is some amazing talent here today. We’re in such a state of nerves that we all have to pee every five minutes or so. Half of the women haven’t learned “I haven’t got a prayer” and they’re gathered around the piano in another room, learning the melody to try for the infamous belt. I see a new arrival who seems to be greeted like a long-lost friend by the casting staff. Canadian, she is dressed like a nun right down to her veil and the huge cross around her neck. Worst of all, she looks the right age. In fact, she looks exactly the part. And Canadian! We all know about Canadians. They can sing, dance, act ANYTHING. Why, oh why didn’t I dress all in black? I go from nauseous to ravenously hungry in the blink of an eye and wolf down half a banana. I’m starting to find myself slightly ridiculous and my sense of humor begins to assert itself. Why am I in such a state?

The answer comes from the fact that over here in Paris we only get to audition maybe one to three times a year max. And that’s in a good year! There’s really almost no way to stay in audition “shape” and each audition takes on an importance that can be quite out of proportion.

The woman before me goes in… My friend Frank is there to audition for the part of Monsignor and Bruno Berberes, the casting director, suggests that he do the scene with me. Oh yes! Carmen, the Canadian seems so right for the role that I think I probably have no chance of getting the part myself. So with nothing to lose, I head in for my turn. A television crew follows me into the room. Right! As if I didn’t have enough stage fright already! We start with “Haven’t got a prayer”. Carline Brouwer, the director, takes the time to answer some of my questions about the character. Oh no! Now not only do I want the part, I want to work with this woman! The music director, Simone Manfredini, accompanies me and he’s one of those dream pianists that makes you feel as though you’re flying as you perform the song. Now it’s on to the scene and after how many false starts (4? 5? Come on, girl! Get a grip!) I manage to act my way through it with Frank, the Monsignor, and head into the second song, which again is just a joy. By the time the audition is through, I would give anything to work with this fantastic, supportive team…

Now the waiting game starts again – we should have an answer soon because the call-backs are in two days. That evening I go to a charity event to raise funds for AIDS research. Bruno calls to tell me I’ve made it to the next round just as I am listening to a speech by one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. I decide to take it as a sign!

ROUND 3 – The Final Callback

One day to prepare! I can’t seem to stay in one place. I break out the vacuum as I repeat my lines over and over, especially that first line that I kept flubbing in the last audition… “Repos, Mesdames, jusqu’à la messe de Noel!”, ad nauseum. The house is starting to look cleaner than it’s been in some time. I go online and do some research on Carmelite nuns. There's a whole convent in Texas, living in seclusion and believing themselves to be the "Brides of Christ". I decide to bake some bread as I consider the depth of faith it would take to devote your life in this way and I just can't get my head around it. "Bride of Christ" sounds like the title of some sort of horror flick to me. Still there are women who not only do it, but are profoundly satisfied with that life.

Saturday, December 10th

It's show-time, folks! My audition is at the crack of dawn: 10 am, so I am up by 5:30. The house is still sleeping - there's no question of being able to warm up. I put on my all black outfit, pull my hair back into a severe ponytail, powder my nose just enough to feel as though I'm not leaving the house completely ungroomed. Just before leaving, I have a sudden thought and go rushing to my jewelry box, rummaging around until I find the tiny gold cross on a chain that my mother received for her first communion. As I walk down the hill toward the train, I think about my mom. She may not have been a Mother Superior, but she was definitely a superior mother. I think of her calm abiding faith, of her firm but gentle discipline with her three girls, of her conviction that women can solve any problem if only they set their mind to it... I have found her - the perfect example to model my Mother Superior on! And not a moment too soon. Before I know it, I'm in the Mogador, preparing to go in. I've been making long hissing sounds to myself all along the way so at least my diaphragm is warmed up. Now I'm the first audition of the day and we'll be singing for the Broadway musical director. Can you say jitters, anyone?

Performing is a funny thing. 7/8 of your brain allows you to sink into the skin of a character, letting you feel every emotion, allowing you to live every word as someone else. The other 1/8 of your brain is making sure you don't get drowned in that emotion and clicks along, making the technical vocal decisions for you. That 1/8 of my brain is silent throughout the audition until I hit the fateful high belt, at which point it kicks in - a fraction of a second mental yell that says, "Go with the emotion but it's 10 in the morning and I think you should do a mix otherwise you're gonna crack that belt!". No time to second-guess myself: I pour my heart into it but don't force the note into a belt. The song ends and I stand there quivering, feeling as if my heart has jumped out of my body to land, palpitating, in the palms of my outstretched hands. The music director looks at me and says, "That was... well negotiated for so early in the morning." Oh no! He heard that I pulled back! I should have gone for broke! Why didn't I go for broke?! I ask if I can show him anything else but no, he says he's heard what he needs. Is that good or bad? No way to tell.

I am asked to wait. Carline Brouwer, the director, hasn't arrived yet and I'll have to do the spoken scenes for her again later in the day. There are five of us left for the role of Mother Superior: Caro, Laure, Sara, me and... you guessed it, Carmen the Canadian. It's Sara's turn to go in. I can't help but listen outside the door. She sounds absolutely beautiful but what strikes me the most is the incredible difference between our choices. Even without seeing her, I can hear she has made very different acting decisions, and she has not gone for a belt at all, singing everything in her gorgeous soprano voice. So much for the rumor that a belt was necessary to make it through to the final cut! We're so very different that I can't even bring myself to feel in competition with her - it's all going to boil down to what they are looking for and who fits the best, and will not be any reflection on the quality of our auditions.

Sara and I are asked to head upstairs to the costuming department to be measured. This part is really fun at first, as they fit us for shoes, wrap our heads in plastic wrap to make a wig mold, and have us try on the "box", the bit that is the base for a nun's wimple. Then it suddenly hits us that we already feel as though we are a part of the show, when in reality, a rejection is still a distinct possibility. Our spirits take a dip.

Back downstairs, we each do our scenes. Caro and Laure will be auditioning in the afternoon and Carmen has auditioned while we were upstairs. I wish I could have heard her. I stand in the hall chatting with her, this very likeable contender, certain in my gut that she is the one who will get the part. Finally, anticlimactically, we are all told we can go home and they'll give us an answer very soon.

THE WAIT IS OVER - Friday, December 23, 2011

I'm doing a final pre-Christmas performance of Cinderella in the very theater where Sister Act is scheduled to open. Caro and Frank are with me in the show and waiting for an answer too. Caro has told me that if she is offered a part in the ensemble of Sister Act, she will refuse. I'm not certain I'll have her courage. I love the show, I want to work, I need the job, I have a child and a mortgage...

As we're removing our make-up, Frank rushes in: he's gotten THE CALL. He heads upstairs to talk to Eric, the administrator, in the office, leaving me to look morosely at my silent phone. Caro is gone, on her way to her mother's for Christmas. The rest of us head off for a little glass of champagne in the foyer to ring in the holidays. Suddenly I see a smiling Frank heading my way, closely followed by Eric, who is grinning at me and who pulls me into the hall, saying he has some good news for me. My heart beats faster. I am filled with hope but trying to prepare myself for any answer. Certain that he is going to make my day, Eric announces that they will be offering me a part in the ensemble and a chance to be first understudy for the role of Mother Superior.

Ensemble. I haven't been in an ensemble since I did Les Miz in 1992 in this very same theater. And I've never been an understudy. After nothing but roles for the past twenty years, this feels like a huge step backwards professionally. Eric assures me that, on the contrary, this is a fabulous step in my career and I should be very happy. I smile through the lump in my throat and thank him. And then, I confess, I go back and have a quiet cry on Frank's shoulder, bitterly disappointed.

Over the next month, the auditions continue and the final firm offer comes through at the end of January. By this time, I've come to terms with my disappointment and have started to look forward to being a part of such an exciting show. I tell myself that it's better to work than to sit at home twiddling my thumbs, that I'll still get to play a very exciting role from time to time, that it will be nice to have the financial security, that I'm going to love the rigor of working with such a highly professional production company. I'm especially looking forward to working with Carline and her French resident director, Véronique Bandelier, not to mention Simone, the music director. The few people I've heard who have also been accepted are exceptional talents. Frank is going to play Joey, Sara has a small role and will be understudying Sister Lazarus, Lola will be Sister Mary Patrick, and Mother Superior will most certainly be played by Carmen. And so feeling relatively light-hearted, I make my decision. I am going to love being a part of Sister Act. But now the negociations begin...


Those of you who have followed my career know that this was a turning point for me. In what other field of work are we expected to take a 20-year leap backwards and consider ourselves lucky? After months of drawn out negotiations (the salary was also a 20-year leap backwards!), I ended up refusing the contract and decided it was time to turn my talents elsewhere. This led directly to my reaching out to Disneyland Paris and enquiring about show writing for them and the rest, as they say, is history!

Did I regret my decision? Not for one second! Although I have to confess, I did have a little twinge when I saw the show. It was fabulous...


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