Choosing a slate of musicals is only one of many challenges Lyric Theatre faces each summer. And that’s a relatively easy task, comparatively speaking. If the rights to a show are available, it’s simply a matter of working out the details with the licensing agency.
Lyric’s season kicks off June 28-July 2 with “Dreamgirls.” The second slot, scheduled July 12-16, will feature “The Wizard of Oz.” The third production, which will run July 26-30, is “Fiddler on the Roof.” Bringing the season to a close Aug. 9-13 is “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
By early spring, decisions about who will direct and choreograph each show have been determined. The set, lighting and costume designers also have been decided upon. The next big challenge is casting the four musicals. Two sets of auditions are scheduled, one in Oklahoma City and another in New York City.
“I knew I was going to have to bring in a lot of African-Americans for ‘Dreamgirls,’ so I scheduled an audition specifically for that show,” said producing artistic director Michael Baron. “I always knew that was going to be a fun but difficult process.”
Actors from Oklahoma, Texas, New York and Germany expressed an interest in auditioning for the popular musical. Once the process was complete, the production wound up being the largest African-American cast in Lyric’s history.
For “The Wizard of Oz,” Baron thought he might have to bring in a New York actress to play Dorothy, but to his surprise, he was able to cast the role locally. The same applied to the two witches, both of whom were chosen from those who auditioned locally.
“It’s always fun when someone comes in to audition and makes the decision easy for you,” Baron said. “We also thought it would be fun to feature mostly kids as the Munchkins. The entire show wound up being pretty easy to cast.”
The theater community, though diverse and far-flung, is remarkably connected. For the role of Tevye the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Baron asked former Lyric performer Adam Heller if he’d be interested. The actor had recently played the role in a Goodspeed Opera House production, an important credit that gave him an advantage.
“I also cast a former student of mine to play Perchik,” Baron said. “He and the person playing Hodel are deaf actors who auditioned by Skype. Other performers in the show will voice their parts. Every performance will be accessible for hearing and deaf patrons.
“What we didn’t want this to be was a production about the deaf culture. It’s a production of ‘Fiddler’ that happens to have two deaf actors in the show. We’ll have ASL (sign language) interpreters at every rehearsal, and the entire cast will sign ‘Tradition.’ It will be an interesting experiment.”
Baron cast two actors who have worked at Lyric many times for leading roles in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Emily Skinner, a Tony nominee for her role in the 1998 Broadway production of “Side Show,” will play the title character. Monte Riegel Wheeler has been cast as the Latin lover Aldolpho.
Big Apple auditions
When Baron travels to New York for auditions, it’s not unlike the local auditions the theater schedules, although the process has become streamlined thanks to technological advances such as being able to see actors’ resumes and head shots online.
“We’re required by Equity to do a full day of open call,” Baron said. “We end up seeing about 400 people in one day. The next two days are for callbacks. We let agencies know what roles we’re seeking, and they let their people know.
“My decision on who to cast is based on many factors — in particular, talent and age. I also like to talk to the actors a little bit after they audition. I can usually tell if they’re going to be easy to work with.
“For actors I don’t know, many of them have worked with directors I do know, so it’s nice that someone else has trusted them with the part. Rarely do we cast someone with no experience.”
Based on the contract Lyric Theatre has with Actors Equity, the local theater is required to employ 25 professional actors during its summer season. Fortunately, Baron and his staff have the flexibility of plugging them into the most demanding roles. Not surprisingly, “Dreamgirls” features the largest number of Equity contracts this summer.
“The big surprise with auditions was that we were able to cast a lot of the ‘Dreamgirls’ ensemble locally,” Baron said. “And when we lost our original Deena, I worried that I might have to go back to New York for that. But then a Texas State University girl came in and blew us out of the water.
“I did audition people from New York for Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but Arden Walker (a recent Oklahoma City University graduate) was just as good. The rehearsal process is short and intensive, so we try to avoid as many unknowns as possible.”
Once the final pieces of this gigantic theatrical puzzle are put into place, Baron can be confident that Lyric’s four summer musicals can proceed without incident. And audiences can expect to see first-rate musical theater productions.
“This season will probably end up being more expensive than it should be for the economic downturn we’re going through, but it’s going to be worth it,” Baron said. “What we do at Lyric is more than just entertainment.
“We have lots of diversity in Oklahoma, and I think all of the arts should be inclusive. Having American Sign Language featured at every performance of ‘Fiddler’ is going to be huge. So will having a large African-American cast for ‘Dreamgirls.’ We are not-for-profit, so I think we should be serving everybody.”