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Thank You Very Much, Mr. Ostrow

In his new book, producer Stuart Ostrow offers recommendations for musical theater audition songs. logo

Stuart Ostrow
When I was working at Back Stage in the summer of 1993, I came up with what I thought was a good idea. The paper was running CD reviews of cast albums, and while they were a delight to read in the way they told us what was good, bad, and ugly about various recordings, I thought that cast album reviews in this publication should serve a different purpose. After all, Back Stage is first and foremost a resource for actors seeking work. So, I reasoned, the newspaper's CD reviews should focus less on what a performer might enjoy as a listener and more on what songs could serve that performer well at auditions. For example, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a must for leading men with great pipes (because it has a bolt-of-lightning ballad in "I'll Buy You a Star") and mature comic actresses (who can have a ball with "He Had Refinement").

Soon after I got the idea, I got my job at The Star-Ledger and left Back Stage, so my plan was never implemented. Maybe it never will be. But one of my favorite producers, Stuart Ostrow--who gave us such adventurous fare as 1776, La Bête, and M. Butterfly--had a similar idea, which he put in his new book, Thank You Very Much: The Little Guide to Auditioning for the Musical Theater (Smith and Kraus; $11.95).

Little it is, ringing in at a mere 76 pages. Given that Ostrow was once a veep at Frank Music, Inc., which published The Music Man, I wouldn't be surprised if our author made a concerted effort to see that the number of pages in his book equalled the number of trombones in the Meredith Willson hit. There is the standard auditioning advice here, such as wear-at-callbacks-what-you-wore-to-the-first-audition. But Ostrow goes on to ask firmly (not cruelly), "Why are you on this journey? If you can answer the question without using the words 'money,' 'glamour,' 'fame,' 'romance,' or 'sex,' you have the right to be taken seriously." He puts the book's final line in italics to make his point with no-nonsense clarity: "If no one pays you for singing, acting, or dancing within three years, find another life."

However, he'll do his damnedest to help you avoid that fate. The middle of the book is where Ostrow says what he thinks would be terrific audition songs. He does include both the aforementioned "I'll Buy You a Star" and "He Had Refinement," for this guy has been around since Frank Loesser made him his protégé in the early '50s and so was able to experience the gestation periods and Broadway runs of The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed. Loesser, Ostrow says, gave him $10,000 to produce his first show. (He doesn't mention that it was We Take the Town, a musical about Pancho Villa starring Robert Preston, and that it closed on the road.)

In addition to 1776, Ostrow produced The Apple Tree, Bock and Harnick's penultimate show, an underrated musical trilogy; Pippin, which sure has its admirers; and Here's Love, a musical that should have been better than it was, given that its source material was Miracle on 34th Street. This means that Ostrow spent a lot of time in darkened theaters watching many an auditioner show his stuff. So when he recommends 89 ballads and 51 "up-tempo and/or comedy songs," attention must be paid.

The ballads on his list include "Alice Blue Gown" ("a lovely authentic curio") and "All of You" ("fills the noticeable absence of heterosexual show songs for men"). The up-tempo and/or comedy songs include "Tonight at 8" ("requires a singer with world-class lungs") and "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" ("not for rock stars"). Note that the latter is an example of a quite old song: Ostrow endorses many that date back to the '20s and '30s, and shows why they're worth rediscovery. He wisely points out that "Who's Sorry Now?" still works because "revenge is never out-of-date."

He also gives an actor some subtext he can bring with him to the audition, such as when he describes Dietz and Schwartz's "By Myself" as "something Hamlet might have considered." He calls "Don't Blame Me" "a very good choice for a character actor who is seldom thought of as a lover," and suggests that young females might consider "Guess Who I Saw Today" because it's "a chance for an ingenue to become an adult in 32 bars."

Ostrow has a way of looking at things that may escape an actor. When suggesting "Far from the Home I Love," he says, "Find out how many fathers will be at the audition. They'll be pushovers for this song." For "Just a Housewife," he advises, "Do not sing it for conservatives"; similarly, "You Can Always Count on Me" shouldn't be sung for a feminist director. En route, he gives some passing Broadway history. He mentions that Frank Loesser called "Till There Was You" "Meredith Willson's deaf, dumb, and blind song"--because, of course its heroine admits that she never heard the bells on the hill or saw the birds in the sky until she fell in love. Ostrow claims that he published the script and score of the 1959 flop The Nervous Set specifically because he admired one song, "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men," and that he "managed to persuade Columbia Records to record the cast album." (Thanks, Mr. O!) He also says that he and director Mike Nichols almost hired Dustin Hoffman as the leading man for The Apple Tree--until Alan Alda came in and sang "If I Only Had a Brain."

Anyone who's read me for any length of time will know why I thoroughly enjoy Ostrow's making some cute allusions to show songs. For example, when he endorses "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" from Kismet, he says it's "a great audition song for women with an iota of iambic, a tittle of trochaic." (Those last eight words quote "Rhymes Have I," Kismets's opening number.) In assessing "But Beautiful," he says that "Van Heusen's melody wears like a good shirt"--a sly reference to the fact that the man who was originally Edward Chester Babcock changed his name to the name of the famous shirt-making company Van Heusen. Ostrow also calls "Beautiful, Beautiful World" from The Apple Tree "a diversified, curious, fascinating, bountiful, beautiful, beautiful song"--thus homaging Sheldon Harnick's lyric for it.

But the most intriguing entry is for "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin. Ostrow calls it "the representative 'I wish' song from the '70s which will score well with those looking for life's answers" before adding, "Don't audition it for me." Now, does he say that because "Corner of the Sky" became the most over-used song for auditions, or because Stuart Ostrow believes that he indeed no longer needs to look for life's answers? One thing's for sure: He's certainly answered a lot of questions for musical theater performers.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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