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Ask the Casting Director  
Top West End casting director David Grindrod answers YOUR questions...
David Grindrod began his career working on the London Palladium production of Joseph

We recently caught up with the top West End casting director, David Grindrod, to pose your questions to him.

David has cast most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s London productions as well as other shows around the world.  He also cast the 2004 Phantom of the Opera movie.

Read the first instalment of this fascinating Q&A below in which we ask your general casting questions…  

How did you become a Casting Director? Do you need any special qualifications?

No. In my case I began as a Stage Manager and I then became a Company Manager on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium for Andrew (Lloyd Webber). It was the second time I had worked for Andrew – I had also company managed Starlight in Japan and Australia. Then things were changing at the Really Useful Group and by the time I had opened the show at the Palladium a vacancy arose at the RUG offices and I was asked if I would join to General Manage the shows. This involves sorting out the contracts, finances and generally overseeing the production. We then started producing a new show called Sunset Boulevard. The initial incarnation of the show experienced some casting problems and it became necessary to do a recast. Andrew asked my then boss if I could cast the show – despite the fact I had no experience of casting a musical at all! I had done some casting for non-musical plays before but I pointed out that I didn’t know a “tenor from a bass”. But Andrew assured me I could do it and started me on the road to casting shows! I had always enjoyed working with actors. I also knew Trevor Nunn – I was his stage manager at the RSC – and had worked with him a lot. I’m obviously working with him again now on The Woman in White.

After casting Sunset I took over Starlight, Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar and then every new Andrew show. In 1998 I decided the time had come to leave RUG and set up my own casting company. Andrew agreed we could continue to cast his shows, and we were then fortunate enough to get other shows such as Mamma Mia!.

Perhaps you could give us a rundown of the casting process.

If I’m doing a new ALW show we will normally do a workshop of the script or the songs he has written. This can either take the form of a recording or it can take place as a full workshop, normally at this annual Sydmonton festival. This is what we are putting together at the moment – actually with an old musical which he wrote about 40 years ago with Tim (Rice) which is The Likes of Us . There is a few songs and a few characters, although no script yet, and I am working with Simon Lee, the Musical Director, and Chris Luscombe the Director. We are getting the characters together and slowly working it through from there.

There can often be a lot of pre-planning for new shows. For example, with Sunset we did two workshops and it took two years to get the script right.

Sometimes, if it is a new show, you are having to make it up as you go along and sometimes things change even when you have reached the audition phase. When we do completely new shows like Mamma Mia! or Our House you will reach auditions and the Director may say “I like that person”, but there may not be a role for them. So we then see if we can make changes to incorporate new characters. The whole process has to be quite a fluid one in these instances. Then of course further changes are made in the rehearsal stages too. Sometimes what you start off with in rehearsals and what you end up with on opening night may not be significantly different, but the intentions have changed along the route.

If I am casting a musical which has come over from, say, the USA I will go and see the show. Then we will receive a character breakdown which lists what is required. We then put that out to all the agents – and we have our own ideas as well – then we get all the submissions in. We then begin auditions to see who would be good for what role.

I see ourselves as a bit like a “channeller” – we channel all the good talent through to the Director and the Choreographer.

When you are recasting an established show you obviously have a better idea what you want to do. But shows develop and grow – we have just finished recasting The Woman in White and some things have changed. Trevor Nunn’s really good because he will allow you a bit more input – rather than dictating that it should be a tall person, a short person, a fat person, a thin person. Sometimes that person DOES have to be tall, or fat or whatever but other times you do have more freedom to choose. When we do the Mamma Mia! recasts with Phyllida Lloyd I am able to make people tall or short, we can sometimes start to look at roles again which is far more interesting for us rather than be restricted to a 5ft 2in person with blond hair, etc.

What makes someone stand out from the crowd at an audition?

That’s the million dollar question! I cannot define it. They’ve just got “it”! Whatever “it” is!

I was auditioning for Jesus Christ Superstar with the Musical Director and it was something like 10am when Steve Balsamo came in and sang “Gethsemane”. I just knew straight away “That’s amazing!”. Poor lad, after 14 auditions he still had to do it because we couldn’t believe we had struck lucky so quickly… but there was something about him. The voice was tremendous and easy and it just happened.

There was another musical – I can’t say which one it was – but we went through two Directors. A young girl came in who I knew had the right feel for the lead, but the first director brushed her aside. When things changed and the second Director came in I brought this girl back without saying a word. He immediately said “Who’s that girl – I think she’s it!” and I knew she was. It was my gut reaction when I first saw her. You just know someone is right. It’s at times like those you say to yourself “I can do this job, I can do this job!”. It happens rarely though.

It’s not just the voice, there is a whole persona that comes in with them. For example the new girl we have to play Laura in The Woman in White. I hadn’t seen her act, I had only heard her sing and we brought her in for Trevor (Nunn) and he was completely blown away. And then when Sonia (Friedman) and Trevor saw her act we all agreed that she was perfect.

So there are many facets that have to be considered when casting shows now. When I first started with Joseph all those years ago it was much more a question of “Can they sing and dance?” but now performers have to do so much more. We have had to extend the requirements so that they have to be able to act, they have to be able to sing, they have to be able to move.

Are most Casting Directors willing to take chances with unknown talent or do they prefer to stick with the tried and true?

A good Casting Director is always after the new talent. It is great to be able to say that you “found” someone. That is what you are always trying to do. Some directors will always prefer to go for the tried and true and sometimes you have to slip in the odd “new” actor who will then hopefully make the grade. It is also very fulfilling to see talent grow. An actor may not be right for a particular role, but they then go away and think about the part. It’s great when you then you see them come back having worked at it and got even better. 

What has been the most difficult part to cast that you can remember?

With Andrew’s shows – and I have said this to him – every show is different. There are certain composers who have a formula, who have certain interchangeable characters which crop up in all their shows. When it comes to Andrews shows – Joseph, Sunset, Jesus Christ Superstar, Starlight, Aspects of Love, Whistle Down the Wind, Beautiful Game, Woman in White – they are all completely different. And then there’s The Phantom of the Opera which is different again. Andrew always pushes me to an extreme to find something else, something different. That’s why I really believe people underestimate the breadth and different styles of Andrew’s work. And then of course – although he didn’t write it he had a great influence over A R Rahman’s music – there’s Bombay Dreams which was yet another extreme.

You may find a person, as in when we did Aspects of Love with Michael Ball, who can sing a certain note. He can sing that B flat so we put the B flat in but then of course everyone else has be able to do that B flat! Andrew will change the music when he knows we have problems. He is willing to take music up or down, but of course we need to ensure that that is alright for his ears…

So I can’t think of one particular part. I think ALL of his leads are difficult – they all have to really sing! But then you need them to act and dance. 

Do actors and actresses tend to come up through the ranks before they land a lead role or do many get cast immediately as one of the major characters?

The new girl we have playing a lead in The Woman in White has come straight out of college – The Royal Scottish Academy of Music. Whether an individual can cope with that is a different matter and psychologically I think it is sometimes very difficult for a person who has never had any experience in theatre. An actor may have gone through all the training but they also need to have had the necessary life experiences and all that goes with it in order to prepare them to do an eight show a week lead role. It’s not as easy as everyone thinks it is and sometimes they cannot cope with that. 

It is OK to approach Casting Directors direct?

It used to be, now it’s not. There are just too many people out there. You can send in unsolicited mail but there is no guarantee it will be looked at. Although we try not to miss anything and to pick out new talent, the best way to ensure you will be considered is to wait to hear when new shows are being cast. That normally happens through the grapevine. Or your agent will send in the details. And it is not advisable to send in demo CDs either. Because we know these can be tampered with.

How do you find out about auditions?

In the US there are both equity and non-equity calls which have to happen as part of the casting process. In the UK open auditions are often advertised in The Stage. However, we don’t do that as much now, purely because there is so much talent out there we don’t need to do open calls. These happen more for touring productions regionally, but these announcements happen as part of the publicity campaign for the tour. Times have changed, nowadays people can also find out via websites.

Once you’ve cast a show – do you ever visualise in your mind how other people would have played the role?

I suppose it is a case of going back to what we discussed earlier regarding the flexilibity of the auditioning process. It is important to keep the balls in the air the whole time. I don’t go around saying what would “X” have been like if they had been playing instead of “Y”. What you have to do is stick by the product you have actually got – you have achieved exactly what the director wanted and what the composer wanted which is fantastic. However, when you come to audition the same show the next time around you can re-look at the requirements again and make some character changes if it is appropriate. 

If someone in equity is eligible but not yet in equity would do you still consider them?

Yes – in the UK. But in the US you have to be a member of equity and equity members get priority. But you can go to the non-equity calls in the States and sometimes you may be lucky and Casting Directors may see you but after they have seen the equity people. In the UK it is not such a closed shop in that respect.

What kind of song would you recommend singing at an audition?

Think about what the show is. If you were to go up for something like We Will Rock You you need a rock song. If you are going to go up for The Phantom of the Opera you need something more melodic to show your range. Andrew taught me that the best songs, ironically, are a Rodgers and Hammerstein or a Rodgers and Hart number. When we did the auditions for The Woman in White Andrew specifically wanted songs by those composers sung. What R&H did was to put the whole range in one song. If you can sing one of them you can sing anything!

Also, think about the show you are going up for and think of a song or songs appertaining to that style or that period which shows you have thought about it. Make sure the song has range to show off all the facets of your voice that you have.

What kind of advice would you give to anyone wanting to become a serious musical actor?

Go to college and train, train, train. A good basic training on an accredited musical theatre course is essential. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Spend three years learning technique, singing and above all prepare yourself. You need a lot of stamina. Remember – taking on a show with eight performances a week is like being an athelete going into a major race. It is hard work. 

And what about becoming a musician or Musical Director?

Again, training is essential. Simon Lee went to the Northern College of Music. All the Musical Directors I work with have been to musical colleges and have letters after their names, normally in piano playing. After your training, if you want to be a member of the orchestra normally the orchestra “fixers” numbers are in the show programmes and you can write to them direct.

How does someone from the US get to do a show in the UK?

It’s very difficult because you have the awful problems associated with work permits. If you are an established star you can normally get in under international star status. Otherwise, if we have auditioned every potential actor in England for a specific role and we still can’t find anyone there is still a possibility that an actor could come over from the US for the role. If you had a certain style, or physicality that we need you may stand a chance to come over, but normally it is very very difficult.

And it’s exactly the same the other way round – for actors from the UK to go to Broadway.

Is that just with the US or does that apply to other countries too?

Australia is also quite difficult, but now we are part of the EEC, Europe is now much easier. 

Posted on: 9th June 2005

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