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Casting a Soap Net

Soap opera casting directors are increasingly turning to theater stars including Jonathan Groff, Matt Cavenaugh, and Brooks Ashmanskas to spice up their shows. logo
Jonathan Groff
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Do you need an actor to come in for a few weeks and play a hilariously temperamental television producer who can take a legendary talk show host's mind off being the centerpiece in the romantic battles between returned husbands #1 and #13? Or what about a young actor who can sing like a nightingale yet might not be as sweet as he seems? If you're a New York based soap opera casting director, you need look no further than your own backyard: the rich talent pool of the New York theater.

Last week, Brooks Ashmanskas, a veteran of such Broadway hits as Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me and The Producers, started his recurring role of Leon, Erica Kane's new producer, on ABC's All My Children, while Spring Awakening leading man Jonathan Groff began appearing as teen singer Henry on sister soap One Life to Live. (The character was originally going to plot to kill his fellow classmates; while those scenes were taped, ABC has decided not to air them in light of the Virginia Tech massacre.)

"The talent pool in New York City is unrivaled," says All My Children's Emmy Award-winning casting director Judy Blye Wilson. "Theater actors are very well trained, and a well-trained actor can adjust to any medium." Indeed, AMC fans have seen such Broadway favorites as Becky Ann Baker, Michael Mulheren, Gregory Jbara, Michelle Federer, Kelli O'Hara, Erin Dilly, and Tony Award winner Christian Hoff show up briefly on the 37-year-old soap.

Now that daytime soaps are aimed at a young audience -- and young leads are frequently cast out of music videos, reality shows, even modeling catalogs -- theater actors of all ages can add deeper dramatic shadings to retain older viewer interest in the shows and help spice up increasingly bizarre plots.

That's one reason why you might see Mary Clay Boland, casting director of CBS' As the World Turns, sitting next to you some night at a Broadway show. Boland, who has done casting for prime time television shows including The Sopranos, says she is overjoyed to find so much talent in the New York theater world. "I go to shows at least once or twice a week. As a soap casting director, it's a gold mine for me," she says.

Some casting directors, such as Guiding Light's Ron Deana, even go outside the professional box, checking out college productions. "I found Tom Pelphrey, who went on to win two Daytime Emmys on our show, in a play at Rutgers. And that was before he was even a senior," notes Deana.

Soap casting directors need to be always on the lookout for talent -- no matter where -- due in part to the overwhelming number of actors who appear on daytime dramas. Most soaps have about two dozen contract players at one time. "Plus, we constantly need day players," says Boland. "Over the course of one month, I've had 40 day player positions filled by people from the theater. We also use theater actors to play short-term roles or even a character that is in and out of the show for several years."

Two well-known theater actors, Matthew Morrison and Matt Cavenaugh, recently played the short-term role of ATWT's Adam Hughes, who ended up buried alive by his girlfriend. (Cavenaugh, who had previously appeared in a significant role on One Life to Live, replaced Morrison when he had to leave to do a workshop of a new musical.) Boland says daytime soap roles offer some significant advantages to New York theater actors -- even those like Cavenaugh who has a steady nighttime job in Grey Gardens. "If they have a booming theater career, then they'll want to do soaps for the camera experience," she notes. "And if they're older and the offers for leads aren't coming in, soaps afford the kind of income you can raise a family on."

Indeed, Cavenaugh's recent double-duty stint was nothing new. In 1973, the late Ruth Warrick shuttled between playing a starring role in the Broadway musical Irene and the key role of matriarch Phoebe Tyler on All My Children, while the late Henderson Forsyth and Emmy winner Larry Bryggman spent virtually their entire soap careers doing both As The World Turns and Broadway shows.

More recently, Tonya Pinkins starred in the title role of Broadway's Caroline, or Change while appearing as AMC's hot-shot defense attorney Livia Frye, a role she has played off and on for over a decade. "She has incredible stamina, and stamina is the key," says Wilson of the Tony-winning actress.

Pinkins, who's now back on Broadway in August Wilson's Radio Golf, is shooting new scenes for AMC next week. "I just love being on that show; we have so much fun," she says. "I started watching it when I was seven years old, and it's such an honor to be part of that cast."

Perhaps the biggest hit of the soap year was scored by AMC when they cast former Tony nominee Jeffrey Carlson as Zarf/Zoe, a pre-op transsexual English rock star who decided to get a sex change operation. However, the character is being written off this week and Carlson is heading to Washington D.C. to play Hamlet. "Jeffrey really got the chance to contribute something unique to soaps," says Wilson, "and I know he walked away feeling very good about it."

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