Mark Thornburg can't believe the timing.
Three days before auditions for “Les Misérables” at the Omaha Community Playhouse, Thornburg has hit the low point of a monster cold.
He has no voice. Just a little squeak.
The show is all sung — no spoken lines. Because of a scheduling conflict, Thornburg can't wait a week for the second day of auditions. So he does what he can. His doctor puts him on antibiotics and a steroid. He drinks weak tea and honey. He downs cough drops like crazy. He stops talking.
The 49-year-old father of four, a man with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye, typically exudes friendliness, energy and positivity. An agricultural seed salesman from Papillion, he fretted over whether to try out at all. He knows auditions for the iconic musical will draw scores of singer-actors.
(In fact, a record 350-plus auditioned for “Les Misérables” over two Saturdays, far surpassing the usual 60 to 100 for a Hawks Mainstage musical.)
The sweeping story of redemption, romance and revolution, set in 1815-32 France, won eight Tony Awards and overflows with great songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home” and “One Day More.”
Thornburg has his eye on the plum role of Javert, a hard-hearted policeman obsessed with capturing the show's hero, escaped parolee Jean Valjean.
But this is son Ben's senior year of high school. With three kids still living at home (eldest daughter Liz lives in Phoenix), maybe there's too much going on to commit to 15 weeks of rehearsals and performances, he tells himself.
Ben made a different call. He knows his parents performed together in musicals in Ralston after marrying in 1987, until raising four kids took over their evenings.
“Dad, you need to do that,” Ben had told his father. Ben and his sister Alex, who works at Pier One, have sung with their father onstage in Papillion. Daughter Gabby is a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Thornburg also got an OK from work and from his frequently booked barbershop quartet, Omaha Prime. Final approval came from wife Barb. The two met in the Scarlet and Cream Singers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
So Mark, who was Tevye in the Playhouse's “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2010, practiced for weeks, singing alone in his pickup as he drove between rural customers.
“It gets interesting when a farmer hears show tunes coming out of my truck,” he jokes.
He had carefully chosen his audition song, “Falcon in the Dive” from “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” sung by an intense character similar to Javert. It could show his vocal and acting range.
But that was before this miserable cold. Out with “Scarlet Pimpernel.” In with the title song from “Man of La Mancha” — still about justice and rightness, but it wouldn't show off his upper range.
He doesn't have any upper range at this point.
The day before the audition, his voice starts to return. He sings with Barb at the piano, lowering the key to suit the cold. There is hope. One day more.
Auditions begin at 11 a.m. Thornburg arrives more than an hour early, hoping to sing in the first group. A lifelong extrovert, he reins in his urge to chat as the day's 100 fellow auditioners fill out forms.
Their turns will come in the order they arrived. Thornburg, No. 20, enjoys auditions as much as performing.
“You're singing for a fairly discriminating audience, small and intimate,” he says.
He doesn't mind a bit of nervousness. No adrenaline, and the audition can fall flat.
Other veteran actors, waiting just outside the audition room, agree.
“My wife says I look 10 years younger after I come home from an audition,” says Joe Dignoti, also vying to play Javert. “It energizes me.”
As “Les Misérables” co-directors Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins make last-minute preparations, they greet actors they know in the hallway, happy with the turnout.
The large audition room, used for dance rehearsals, is lined on all four sides with chairs. On one end, Beck, Collins, music director Jim Boggess and choreographer Roxanne Nielsen sit at a long table amid forms. On each side, 14 chairs. They will call 25 auditioners at a time to sit in those chairs. At the far end are five more chairs, facing the directors.
Beck and Collins explain to each group of 25 that they will call them, five at a time, to those chairs. Then each will stand, give music to the pianist, say his name and song title, and deliver. But not the whole song. Too many people for that. Just 32 bars to make your impression. No applause, please, until all 25 have sung.
You can feel the tension, though they're getting off easy. For shows with fewer auditioners, you'd typically have to sing in front of everyone, not just 25. Then you'd have to dance. And you'd have to read lines.
Boggess does his best to relax things with reassuring patter, a wisecrack or a helpful hint. When auditioner No. 2, a young woman, falters, he jumps in: “Want to get a fresh start, honey? Why don't you set a tempo with the pianist before you start.”
Beck and Collins follow up with frequent compliments, no matter how well or not so well someone sings. “Very nice, thank you.” “That was lovely, thanks.”
Thornburg needs no prompts. He snaps his fingers to set a tempo with the pianist, saying, “That way we get 'er done quick.” All at once his bass voice fills the room, no strain apparent. He moves just a step or two, expressively using his hands. And he holds the last note, shaping it nicely.
“It wasn't really too painful,” he says. “I powered my way through it. If you push well with the diaphragm, you can produce sound. My concern was how pretty it was going to be. It worked out about as well as it could have, considering.”
Landing the role of Javert would be the ultimate. But his goal is to get into the show, and he's more optimistic now about his chances. He says he remembers only one time he wasn't chosen for something after an audition.
Not everyone leaves with optimism. They forget words, miss entrances, drop the pitch, squawk on high notes.
A little girl no more than 8 or 9 starts the intro to her song, but it's not going well. Boggess coaxes her to restart, but she's lost her nerve. She runs to her daddy on the side and bursts into tears. Collins immediately reassures her.
“There are people four times your age who wouldn't have the courage to do that.” The remark triggers a round of applause.
Collins wasn't kidding. A few auditioners lose their nerve after filling out the paperwork and pull no-shows. Others sing in voices so small, they're barely heard.
Many haven't prepared like Thornburg, either. Some bring no music and sing without the piano, but that doesn't show they can match the piano's pitch. Some struggle to stay with the piano, or start in the wrong key, or the wrong place.
Some pick songs nothing like the show or part they seek. Opera, pop tunes, hymns — you name it. Most pick tunes from other musicals, though. A few choose songs from “Les Misérables.” Does it matter?
“I'd kinda rather they didn't sing from the musical they're auditioning for,” Boggess says later. “They're pigeonholing themselves, when there might be other roles they're suited for. I'd rather they gave themselves more of a chance.”
Beck says he goes nuts hearing the same song over and over — a good reason to pick another show. Best to choose something in the spirit of the show but not from it.
Collins says she's looking, in those brief moments, for whether each auditioner is into the song emotionally, whatever he or she sings.
A week after the last audition, Thornburg is immensely relieved to at last get an email after checking multiple times each day. He has made the first cut — along with 70 other hopefuls. His odds are much better now to snag one of the 33 roles, 16 of them adult males.
Then another message, unlike any he's ever gotten before for a callback audition at any of the several theaters in town where he's appeared.
They tell him the exact music from “Les Misérables” they want him to sing, and it's Javert's. That focuses his preparation.
Once again, out on the lonely road, he sings along to the soundtrack, memorizing. He considers what Javert is thinking, feeling with each phrase. In one passage, he is torn and confused as he confronts the escaped Valjean. In another, Javert sinks into suicidal despair.
“I got a better understanding of who Javert is, what he's struggling with. He became less of the evil person I thought he was at first.”
He practices movement and expression before a mirror, before his wife. He gets three full weeks to get completely well and to prepare what he wants to show.
On callback day, nine people enter the room to sing for the role of Javert. Thornburg is in fine voice. The mood is collegial, upbeat.
He's up first. After a false start, he is coached by Boggess where to come in. He needs no music. He stands very erect, using arms, hands and face to express the song's emotion. It's a full performance, with a big bass voice on perfect pitch.
“I'd done everything I could do and wanted to do for them,” he says later.
Other possible Javerts have different interpretations and physical demeanors. This one looks older, that one stronger, another meaner. One is less operatic.
All are strong singers. Some never look up from the music. Some never move. Some miss lyrics or muff the tempo.
Thornburg learns his fate seven weeks after his first audition, when he reads the casting email in his truck in the field. He's offered small character roles, including the bishop who reprieves Valjean and a thief whose gang plans to rob him. He accepts without hesitation. The directors cast Dignoti as Javert.
“Of course there's disappointment you fall short, but also relief you're in the cast,” Thornburg says. “You keep some humility. A lot of people who auditioned would have loved to be in that cast. And there's a certain relief I don't have to hit an F-sharp night after night.”
Sometimes, he says, it comes down to a look.
“I don't know if my demeanor is as intense or ... 'cruel' is not quite the right word. I have no idea if that's what it was, or if it was vocally.”
Sometimes not getting picked for a role doesn't mean you're not right for it. It just means someone was better, at least in the director's eye. Too often, that gets forgotten, he says.
He is preparing again, out in his pickup truck, singing and looking forward to developing several very different characters. Rehearsals begin July 14 — oddly enough, on Bastille Day.