Nora Brennan, the casting agent for Broadway's version of the British super hit "Matilda, The Musical," is thin and graceful, with the narrow face of a deer. Brennan's casting method is to find "types," she says, which sometimes means the difference between a four foot one child and a child who's four foot two.
"The director and the choreographer are very specific,” Brennan told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. “It’s not so much look, but type. They’ll say four foot one for this character, or up to four foot five, but no taller. It probably looks random, but it’s so not random."
If Brennan is any type herself, it's that of Miss Honey: the deer-faced teacher who catalyzes the plot in “Matilda, The Musical” (which is based on the Roald Dahl book, “Matilda”). Last week, as Brennan peered over the top of her glasses at a sea of girls and some boys clad in tight shorts and tops and half-tops, each one shuttled from various parts of the U.S. to this particular ballroom deep in a Times Square hotel, she had a very gentle-but-firm, Miss Honey-like air.
“We all know you can dance beautifully. You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t,” she told them. As if in agreement, one of the smallest girls, whose nametag read Sydney, lifted one leg to the sky from her cross-legged position on the floor. Sydney pressed her head against her raised knee as Brennan finished, “But now we want to see you act!”
The dancers in the ballroom were there on the invitation of seven members of an organization called the New York City Dance Alliance. For 18 years, the Alliance’s panel of judges has criss-crossed the U.S. during the months of a traditional school year, searching for talents between the ages of 7 and 18 to enroll in workshops led by veterans such as Brennan.
Held in short order for a week in the summer, the ballroom workshops are part of a prize bucket that includes the possibility of college scholarship money, as well as a voluntary competition against fellow attendees. The hundreds who qualify for the bucket (this year, upwards of 1,500) must first make names for themselves at mini regional versions of the same setup, in Salt Lake City, Dallas, Baltimore, Las Vegas. Hopefuls not from these or any of the 19 other cities the Alliance panel visits (on a Mobile-to-Lansing-to-Orlando tour of America's greater and lesser metropolises) are known to truck in to the nearest of the chosen cities for their shot, where full price for solo entrance into a competition is $90, and $270 covers a workshop for five to 15 students plus a teacher.
Local dance teachers act as informants: they might tip the judges off to a particularly special child, or warn them about particularly pushy parents. The dancers that make it through go to New York -- some on scholarship -- to a bigger version of the same thing.
This year’s New York workshop leaders count among them Brennan, who saw only children between 8 and 12 for "Matilda," the Tony-winning “Newsies” choreographer Christopher Gatelli, and Nicole Lamontagne, a headhunter for Cirque du Soleil. Their task was to teach the dancers while openly doubling as scouts.
“All the girls here want to be Matilda, of course,” said an Alliance point-person, laughing and lowering his voice as he said it. Of course, everyone was thinking it. That the workshops also act as informal auditions for destinations as diverse and major as the NBC Broadway drama “Smash,” the Juilliard School -- and “Matilda, The Musical” -- inverts the tension of a fight scene played out with real bullets. At any moment, the unthinkable could happen. A life could be made.
In 2006, Brennan was just starting her two-year search for the first North American Billy Elliot when her friend Joe Lanteri, who founded the Alliance, recommended she audition an 11-year old dancer from Albany, NY, named Corey Snide.
“Darling just loved him,” Brennan recalled. Peter Darling, English choreographer of “Billy Elliot,” and now “Matilda, The Musical” is known for championing what Brennan calls “quirky” casting choices. But despite a shared conviction that Snide was the one, there was still the hurdle of type.
“We knew [Snide] would be too tall to get into the Broadway production, because we weren’t opening until 2008. But he was so outstanding, they decided to send him to London," Brennan said. "It was wonderful: he went to London and played Billy Elliot.”
After that experience, Brennan became a summer workshop regular, fishing three more Billys out of the Alliance pool (Snide stuck around too -- now a 19-year-old Juilliard student, he assisted Brennan during the “Matilda” workshop).
In casting both “Billy Elliot” and “Matilda,” Brennan says the fun has been changing the standard parameters of type by way of Darling’s preference for dancers who “aren’t what you’d call the traditional ballerinas. They’re extreme in one way or another. Skinny, or chubby, or off-beat."
The idea is to assemble a cast that fits together like flowers in an arrangement, each one setting off the other while also standing out, "so it’s very clear as an audience member who they are when you have a group of 10 on stage.”
“Matilda” brings in the added quirk of the book’s original illustrations. The triangle-nosed characters of Quentin Blake, Dahl’s longtime illustrator, bear unpretentiously stringy hair and beady eyes, whether they represent Miss Honey or the gargantuan, villainous Headmistress Trunchbull. Darling, Brennan said, is referencing Blake's aesthetic.
“When you look at those drawings, you can see why we get to keep the kids who always get cut, the unconventional looking ones. We keep them, and you see their little faces light up," Brennan said.
This time at least, that joy might be harder to spread at the Alliance workshops than elsewhere. Brennan’s description of the type she’s seeking for the title role of Matilda runs directly counter to the cause: “She’s about four foot two, and she’s not a dancer. She’s just a natural child."
WATCH dancers workshop part of "Revolting Children," from "Matilda, The Musical":
CLICK through a slideshow of the "Matilda, The Musical" workshop:
Information on how to audition for "Billy Elliot" or "Matilda, The Musical" can be found at norabrennancasting.com.