Auditioning for Beach Blanket Babylon

“You want pre-show music, Kenny?”

Pink's “Get the Party Started” fills Club Fugazi, where dozens of eager comics, hams, and thespians are waiting on a Saturday afternoon to audition for Beach Blanket Babylon, arguably San Francisco's premiere theatrical institution. The song does nothing to calm anybody down.

While things are getting settled, I chat with as many auditionees in a 5-foot radius of my seat as I can. They're so anxious that they're infecting me with their anxiety, some of them talking nonstop, others singing Cyndi Lauper together to burn off a few kilowatts of nervous energy. Most of them have worked in theater before: little things down by the Wharf, or murder mystery dinner shows. A guy named Zach who has a big laugh and owns his own tutoring company has most recently been in Theater of Others' The Taming of the Shrew. The sole exception to the jitters is a San Francisco native named Bessie with a “desk job in intellectual property,” who has never auditioned for anything in her life.

The others would do well to keep their cool as Bessie does, because as director Kenny Mazlow says, several times, they're looking to cast specific roles.

“It is no indication of your talent,” Mazlow repeats on behalf of the directorial team. He says it several more times. It is also not an easy lesson to absorb.

Beach Blanket Babylon, the Bay Area's equivalent of The Fantasticks — or possibly Guiding Light — has run for over 15,000 performances, making it the longest-running musical revue in theater history. The ostentatious headpieces and broad, bawdy humor have kept this show a mainstay for decades even as its cultural references have morphed underfoot a dozen times over.

When Mazlow calls the first 12 people onstage — numbered 2-12 plus 14, as nobody wants to be first, and 13 would send a superstitious actor into a fit of apoplexy — the house hushes. One by one, actors rise from their chairs, hand their sheet music to the piano player, and grin widely into the dark. Most are in their 20s and 30s, and enunciate like pros.

There's very little chatter in the peanut gallery, although when one woman states that she'll be singing Beyoncé, I overhear someone mutter, “I hope she modulates.” (She does, but she's way off-rhythm, and returns to her chair conspicuously quickly.) However cutthroat the competition, people are respectful.

A woman who appears to have been destined to play the part of Snow White since she was a blastocyst launches into “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” It's polished, and she's asked to do it up an octave, and then up a further third, making it obvious what one of today's sought-after roles is. (A Snow White understudy has gotten pregnant, I learn later.)

To determine who merits a callback, the producers don't shy from throwing curve balls. It might seem a little malicious if you're the one on stage, tasked with extemporizing “Dentist!” from Little Shop of Horrors in the style of Richard Simmons, but it's just meant to demonstrate your chops. A zaftig redhead in a goth skirt did not blink after being asked to sing Heart's “Alone” as Barbra Streisand, Miley Cyrus, and then Liza.

Sensing this, people giddily play to type, a self-reinforcing mechanism that cuts through the theater generally. A John-Travolta-as-Danny-Zuko lookalike does “Hanky Panky” from Leader of the Pack. A lithe woman attacks Avenue Q's “It Sucks to Be Me” with technical proficiency but with an exaggerated tonal harshness. A Stephen Colbert body double bangs out Sinatra's “Fly Me to the Moon.” Virtually every African-American woman with any talent to speak of is asked to “Do it like Aretha.”

While a woman who sang “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” mimed a handjob with the microphone, the most spectacular fail of the afternoon comes when a guy with slicked-back hair, a burgundy velvet jacket, sharkskin pants, and no socks glues on an Italian organ grinder mustache to sing a song from Gypsy, only to choke completely.

Such spectacles roll right off of Jo Schuman Silver, the very-much active widow of Beach Blanket Babylon's creator, Steve Silver.

“Each one is coming because Beach Blanket is such a fun, unique place, that they're all looking to stand out with a gimmick, which is not really what Beach Blanket is,” Schuman Silver told me later by phone. “We enjoy it, we love it, if we think there's some talent, we'll call them back, and we always keep the ones we like on file. We always tell them — or I tell Kenny to tell them — 'Don't feel bad about this. Come back and audition again. We're looking for specifics.'”

Noting that the show wouldn't last 40 years by crushing the spirit of San Francisco's theatrical talent pool, Schuman Silver adds, “We tried to do them like Steve did. Of course he was looking for talent, but all he wanted was for everybody to feel at ease and have a great time. The people who didn't get into the show sent him thank-you notes. We try to put everybody at ease and have fun.”

And it is fun, in spite of the palpable fear. I asked the guy with the organ-grinder mustache how he was feeling, and he was candid and surprisingly upbeat.

“I buckled,” he said. “If I knew what it was he was asking for, I would have done it differently. I only picked the song two days prior.”

Will he come back?

“Oh, definitely!”

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