Podcast Episode 16 Transcript – Bernie Telsey

Ken: Hi everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Today I am in one of the busiest offices on Broadway. I literally tripped over about a hundred chorus boys and chorus girls on my way into this office. I’m in the offices of Telsey + Company, talking to the founder of that company, Broadway casting director Bernie Telsey. Welcome, Bernie!

Bernie: Hey, how are ya?

Ken: This is where I would start listing the credits of my guests and if I did list Bernie’s credits you could probably listen to this podcast on a flight from here to China and I’d still be rattling them off, so I’ll name just a few.  Rent . . . never heard of it . . . Spiderman, Wicked, I think you’re getting the picture. This season alone, Berne is responsible for getting jobs for actors in The King and I, Finding Neverland, An American in Paris, as well as a host of plays like Hand to God, Love Letters, This is Our Youth and plenty, plenty more. Check out their Playbill Vault page for the long, long list of credits. In addition to that, they also cast regional productions, television, like the telecast of Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, as well as everyone’s favorite TV show, Smash, which we all miss, I know, Masters of Sex. They also cast movies, commercials and a ton more. It’s ridiculous. This resume reads like a Broadway World thread of “shows I want to work on.” So, Bernie, we’ll start at the beginning.

Bernie: That was a great intro, by the way, thank you.

Ken: So with all of that long list, tell me about how you got your start, how you started in the fabulous world of casting.

Bernie: I’ll give you the short story. I went to NYU for the Theater Management program and my professor at the time was Barbara Hauptman who was running TDF, and then she went on to SDC and she ran Twyla Tharp’s company, and she introduced me to Meg Simon and Fran Kumin right when I was graduating from NYU, who were two wonderful, wonderful, strong casting directors who did a ton of the Broadway plays and regional plays and Ryan’s Hope . . . television . . . and I worked as their assistant doing their bookkeeping and their books. And then I wound up staying there six years because after the first month I just loved it. I started going to the theater all the time with Meg and Fran and getting to watch auditions and started realizing that this is something different than producing, but that I really had a knack for and a love for and I just worked for them for the six years. And then I worked a little bit afterwards for Billy Hopkins and Risa Bramon, working freelance on movies and commercials and then, in about ’88, I opened up my own office.

Ken: What was the first client you had?

Bernie: It was a diet Dr Pepper commercial because I had done commercials at Risa and Billy’s, so the commercials took off and they said, “Go open up your own shingle and do the commercials.” At that time I had also met Bob LuPone and Will Cantler and we were starting this club called MCC, and so doing the commercials was the perfect way for me to also do the MCC thing. So I did commercials for a few years, and then some regional theater, which then led to Hartford Stage and the Goodman Theatre and then led to Rent.

Ken: One of the things that I find as a producer is whenever I meet people, which is usually on a golf course . . . or not in our industry . . . they ask me what I do and I say, “I produce Broadway shows,” and then they say, “Cool! What does that mean?” I imagine you get this question a lot.

Bernie: Yes.

Ken: You meet people outside the industry and you say, “I’m a casting director,” and they say, “Cool! What does that mean?” How would you describe what you do?

Bernie: That’s a good one. We’re the people who help provide the acting choices for the producers who we’re working for, or the directors or the writers, the whole creative team. Sometimes it’s the studios if it’s a movie or television . . . but basically we provide them with the casting ideas. And sometimes it’s two years of auditions, sometimes it’s a list of ideas that we’re going to make offers to. Or we’re doing a search for something like Rent, so you can work on it for nine months, for the Off-Broadway production. But basically our job is to know the actors who are out there who could possibly be a choice for our team, depending on the list, the project, and how we do that.

Ken: We’re going to get back to Rent in a second, but the casting director position hasn’t always existed on Broadway. As Broadway shows have gotten bigger and bigger it was born. Do you know a little bit about when that happened or why it happened, even?

Bernie: If I go back to the early casting directors, even before the Broadway stuff, it used to be done out of the offices of the producers, and a lot of times it was the producer’s secretary or the producer’s assistant. Those are the sort of old war stories of where casting came from. I don’t know actually what was the first show on Broadway that actually had a casting director, but it was probably Johnson-Liff . . . they were around, and so were Meg and Fran. I want to say the ’70s but that’s probably just because that’s when I started paying attention. I’m sure even before then, whether or not it was a casting director’s office or whether it was the producer’s assistant . . . I don’t know about the ’60s . . . but in the ’70s people like Vinnie and Geoff were casting and Meg and Fran were casting . . . there was a slew . . . Juliet Taylor was doing Broadway shows . . . there was a slew of casting directors. I just think it’s become, in the last 10-15 years, a bigger profession, or people know it’s a profession, it’s not just a job. There were always casting directors but we were probably the best kept secret, and now people are aware of what goes into it and that probably started with the CSA, the Casting Society of America, promoting our profession. And now we get title page billing in Playbills or main title billing on movies.

Ken: A Tony Award, maybe, in the future.

Bernie: In the future, in the near future.

Ken: When you think about it, it’s amazing, because you are designers of shows, in a way. I say often on the blog that plays and musicals were not meant to be read, they were meant to be seen and heard, and you are adding such an important element to that.

Bernie: We do think of ourselves as part of the creative team and part of the design team, very much so.

Ken: When you’re at an audition and someone walks in the room, have you ever had an experience where you’re like, “Oh, that person. That person right there. There’s something . . .”

Bernie: Oh, all the time. You start to feel it inside, you get the shivers. It’s that instant attraction that happens on a blind date, but in an audition room it’s because you know what it is you’re looking for . . . sort of like on a blind date, you think you know what you’re looking for in the opposite you want to attract . . . but we know all these things. We have this breakdown, we have this type, we have this personality, and sometimes you can just see it when they walk in the door, even before they start acting. It’s not as quick as that because also we know that actors work, so it’s that mixed with seeing them in the light of this character that we’re actually looking for today. Sometimes it’s an instant feeling.

Ken: Any stories of watching a star-to-be come in the room? Any of the people that you’ve discovered over the years.

Bernie: One I’m sure your listeners know . . . and it happens all the time . . . maybe because you said Rent but I’ll never forget the day Idina Menzel came in down at the New York Theatre Workshop. And she was some Long Island girl who was singing at bar mitzvahs. Everyone knows that story because they’ve read it, but she had gone to NYU and was singing at bar mitzvahs. Even resume-wise, that’s all she had on her resume. But she walked in with this unbelievable plaid leather-suede skirt that was just totally East Village and just perfect for what we all knew after months and months of auditioning for Maureen. And she just had that energy. It’s those kind of moments that you then go, “Oh, I hope she can sing.” Because that was the show where we were seeing unknowns all the time, so it was almost better when we didn’t know their credits and they didn’t have four Broadway plays, because the same thing happened with Wilson Heredia and the same thing with Adam Pascal. And then you had your Anthony Rapps and your Jesse Martins, who were known actors that you knew in the regions, but when Idina came in or when Adam came in it was like, “Oh my God, they’re it.” And then they start singing and you’re like, “Oh, they’re really it!” And then they start acting and you’re like, “They’re really, really it!” And then they get cast, and bingo.

Ken: I would have loved to have had a camera in that room when they left, when they walked out the door and the door shut and you guys looked at each other.

Bernie: Oh yeah, it was unbelievable. It was an unbelievable experience because it took so long and then, when the right people came in, it was magic.

Ken: Let’s tell the opposite story. Any example of times when people have come in and you’ve known they’re perfect, but everyone else disagrees with you and you’ve had to lobby so hard to get everyone to see that?

Bernie: That’s the challenge of the job and it’s what I look forward to most because it’s really then about the collaboration that I and my staff have with the creative teams that we’re working with. Because it’s a really hard thing, casting, and I don’t mean our part of the job. The day that you’re in a room with anywhere from 5-12 people on a creative team and you’re having to make a decision and all agree . . . that doesn’t happen in most industries. There’s a hierarchy and you do what that boss says. Yes, there’s a hierarchy here in that the director or producer has the final say, but it’s such a collaborative industry, no one wants to wear that power so they want to, as a room, collectively decide, even if we’re leaning towards the end being the director. So it’s a really hard decision. I always say it’s like your whole entire family the day after Thanksgiving and now you’re just going to order a pizza and everyone agreeing what to get on the pizza. No one wants the same thing. In this case, casting usually happens before the team has really learned to mold and collaborate together because they’ve all been working independently. And now they’re going to begin to work as a unit and so they don’t have the history that they have by the time they get to opening night, they don’t have that shorthand. And if it’s a lot of new people, and half the time there’s some new people, there’s tiptoeing. And then you have, on the other end, the experience of the whole idea of auditioning, that decisions are made based on a good audition or bad audition. So I feel like it’s our job to make sure that at least everyone in the room knows the person’s work, because sometimes the resume is not making its way across the table. Or it’s our job to say, “They really did that last night,” or, ‘”They really can sing higher, they just didn’t do it in that song choice.” I feel like there’s a million things that we can say. First, it’s got to be about informing and then sometimes, if I feel like this actor really is what I’ve heard this director and this team really talk about wanting and they’re just not seeing it, then you start to lobby and campaign. It’s not about lobbying for my choice, because I know I’m there to serve that director’s vision. Even if I disagree, I’m hired to find the people for the story that they want to tell, and everyone tells different stories, so I only start to lobby if I really feel like that actor has what it is that you’re talking about and that’s different. Rather than me just lobbying for Jimmy because I love Jimmy, I’m lobbying for Jimmy because he is what you’re talking about, and that’s what I have to help you understand. So it doesn’t make it personal, and those conversations are what you love about certain collaborations that you have with people. But it’s hard, because at the same time you need the actor to do what they need to do in an audition, which is persuade the room, not just have me and my staff persuade the room.

Ken: That’s what I think about auditions all the time. We expect these people to come in there and deliver an opening night or even a year into the run performances.

Bernie: That’s the tricky part and that’s what I have to remind teams. It’s a process. They haven’t been through rehearsal, they’ve maybe been given a few tips by the casting office or not at all, so how do you expect them to be at that result already? And yet, understandably, everybody behind the table is nervous. They don’t want to have to reject people . . . that’s what I say to actors all the time. Think about it, you could see 50 people, 9 people, 100 people, only one person gets the job. That means everyone behind that table is rejecting people. I’m used to doing that and I still don’t think of it as rejecting, it just means that you don’t get hired. But it’s really hard for the creative team to just pick one person and not pick all the others. So it’s crazy, and sometimes you have to say to the teams, “It’s a process. That actor needs to go through rehearsal,” and at the same time you tell the actor they’ve got the deliver.

Ken: We always forget that it’s under a time crunch too, often. You’ve got rehearsals starting and you’re searching for the perfect one and your producer or director is saying, “That’s not it. That’s not it.”

Bernie: “Keep going,” and sometimes it’s great to keep going because that’s when you find the person, but sometimes it doesn’t matter how often we keep going. This is who’s out there that’s available and interested in the project today. We need to make a decision and go with that leap of faith. And there’s a million people that you then see opening night and they get the best reviews and the team loves and you go, “Oh my God, they almost didn’t get hired,” or, “Everyone hired them under duress and now look.” You have to remember, people change, people grow, actors get better. But it’s a very sensitive, nervous making part of the process, casting, for the teams.

Ken: You mentioned a very interesting point about who’s interested and available for this project right now, because one of the things I hear from people is, “Ken, I’ve got this great show, I want Hugh Jackman to play the lead,” and of course that’s what everyone wants.

Bernie: Everyone.

Ken: I do too, I’ll admit it, but we have to understand where we are. What’s your producer relationship like in those cases, where you have to manage expectations of who’s going to do your show?

Bernie: That’s exactly what we have to do, and it doesn’t mean that we’re making any judgments on that show by saying, “Hugh Jackman’s never going to do it.” We have information, we’re talking to the agents and the managers every day, whether it be about a movie, television, a play or something upcoming. And so much of the job is managing expectations, and there are ways to do it. It’s a relationship and you have to finesse and you have to be careful and you have to make sure that your team understands, and not being available or not being interested sometimes has nothing to do with even whether they like your project or not. It’s just, they’re not going to do that because that actor, I’m not saying Hugh Jackman, but this particular actor is only going to work with these three directors. There are so many pieces that we’re on top of and we know but, at the same time, as much as I say that, you go, “Let’s try.” We just had it recently, never would have thought this person would do this television show. I didn’t get to the point of saying that, thankfully, but in my mind I would have been like, “Here are the ten reasons they’re never going to do it,” and they’re doing it. So sometimes you don’t know and sometimes you go, “Let’s try,” but let’s also be realistic and let’s also be open to other ideas.

Ken: What do you think about the current state of stars on Broadway?

Bernie: There’s a lot of them. I’ve got to say I’m twofold. They’re good. I can’t sit here and even if we weren’t live or recording I can’t name even a handful of ones who I think were bad in that particular play or musical. In fact, they were good, so I get it. Why shouldn’t the good star get to work just like the good non-star? And I get it, with the price of tickets you need something else that’s going to attract the ongoing audience that’s going to come eight times a week for six months, so I understand that the business and the economics are different than they were ten or twenty years ago, so you need that. But, at the same time, it’s not about feeling bad. There are so many other great stage actors that you remember the day, even when I was casting, when that was enough, for them to star in that play. Because the play was so good and the play was what people wanted to see and, unfortunately . . . it’s not the producer’s fault, I don’t think . . . it’s just the way the economics have been, that a good play sometimes isn’t enough. But then you have moments like Hand to God, where someone has the balls to go, “I’m going to do this because the play is that good and we’ll demand that people recognize it even if it doesn’t have stars,” and, bingo, it seems to be working quite well. So it’s easy to sit here and go, “Why can’t we have all four plays be like Hand to God? It was like that in 1982 and 1992.” But I get it. It’s made the not-for-profits in New York that much stronger because they’re doing all the new plays, they’re the ones winning all the Pulitzer Prizes over the last few years. Drama Desks are going to the Off-Broadway plays. They’re just not getting the Tonys because it’s hard for them to go to Broadway.

Ken: Speaking of people having the balls to take plays like that to Broadway, you’ve worked with a lot of producers over the years. Without getting too specific, although if you want to mention names you’re certainly welcome to, who are some of your favorites or least favorites, or what do you think are the skills that are necessary to produce a show on Broadway now?

Bernie: Well I don’t do that for a living, I do the MCC thing, but it’s a lot of work to produce a show on Broadway, whether it be a play or a musical. And you have to be all consumed all the time because sometimes a Times review is not enough. There are so many things to do, marketing . . . I think that you have to have balls. That sounds crass, but I think you have to have real passion and real strength. You have to have access to economics and financial wherewithal, proper budgets and proper reserves. And you have to do whatever you possibly can to get the word out there besides the New York Times review. There’s people I love casting for, or I love watching, because there’s people who do that really well. And then sometimes they just rely on the reviews. Again, if you’re lucky enough to be able to do that, great. But it’s a lot of work, my heart goes out to all of our clients who we cast for and they’ve all become dear friends and they come to MCC and I learn from them and I really respect what they’re doing, because it’s really hard. I mean, there are so many other businesses where they could be making much more money using their brains. So I’m pretty impressed by every lead producer that we’ve worked for, the ones who are really on the ground and doing the work.

Ken: Let’s talk about your other gig. For most people, casting most of the Broadway shows out there would be enough, but in the meantime . . .

Bernie: I have a great staff that helps do all the casting.

Ken: On the side, for those of you who don’t know, Bernie is also the artistic director of one of Off-Broadway’s coolest theaters, MCC, which helped launch Hand to God and is actually about to premiere Permission by Robert Askins, the author of Hand to God. How do you juggle these two massive jobs?

Bernie: It seems easy, but it’s tricky. I run MCC with Bob LuPone and Will Cantler, who are the other artistic directors, and Blake West, our executive director, and there’s an amazing, amazing staff at MCC and a great board of directors. But I think because they’re so different I get to wear such different hats at both of these places that I truly love and am passionate about, and I just make it work. I definitely work all the time and probably have less friendships. I find myself free on the weekend with nothing to do because I have no one to call. That’s my sad story.

Ken: That was my story this past weekend too, Sunday night.

Bernie: We should have called each other!

Ken: Exactly!

Bernie: I don’t know, I just really love it. We’ve been doing MCC almost 29 years and it’s just a thrill to be at the back of the house with Bobby and Will and watching preview eleven and realizing that we’re helping make this happen and introducing the people to Rob, or getting to do the eighth play of Neil Labute’s. It’s a real turn on and then we get to see it in all aspects, from the marketing to the development to the fundraising. I don’t know, it helps me personally, I think, because it’s such a balancing act and they’re both so different. It makes me excited about casting when I don’t have to do all the stuff except just cast and then it makes me excited at MCC that I get to do the things that I can’t do when I’m just casting. I don’t know, it just works and I have a very supportive family.

Ken: When I did my podcast with Todd Haimes he actually described the role of an artistic director as a producer. Do you agree with that?

Bernie: Yeah, very much so. Bobby and Will and I, none of us direct or act. We really just produce.

Ken: Todd’s the same way, he doesn’t direct either. I find that fascinating. Would you ever produce on Broadway?

Bernie: Sure. The theater’s had shows move and we’ve been involved but, right now, with the raising the money thing . . . because of raising money all year for MCC, which is different, not for profit and charitable . . . it’s so different than raising money commercially. It’s just about that kind of time I don’t seem to have, between casting and the not for profit. But the idea of producing for Broadway? Totally, in a heartbeat.

Ken: Let’s get back to the casting part of it for a second. Any difference between casting for theater versus film and television in terms of the style of acting and what you look for?

Bernie: In some ways, no, you’re looking for great actors. I was just teaching the Julliard graduating kids, saying, “No, we’re looking for great actors and I want to believe you can do film, TV or theater.” But just like the way that it’s clear that a musical is different than a play, they are different mediums. One is acting for the camera, versus acting for the stage. I don’t want to say there’s techniques or little rules, but I definitely talk about that in class. When you’re acting for the camera you really need to focus. Your work is in a small little box and that camera is right on top of your eyes and you really have to be in the moment because there’s no lying. Because the camera will see even if you’re thinking about something else. In the theater, you’re acting with your whole body and the camera isn’t on your face, it’s watching your whole being. So in some ways your whole body has to be physical, but it’s much bigger. I don’t mean that it’s overacting versus underacting, but the camera is much more intimate and some people are really good at that. I think anyone can be good at it, but it takes a few more auditions for film and TV, I’ve noticed, because a lot of theater actors, they don’t even know where to look and the camera has already lost them, if that makes any sense. So I think it’s just about learning the technique of auditioning for film and TV more than it is about acting for film and TV, because those auditions are done just on the camera. No one’s in the room, and you really have to learn how to play for the camera. But we’re looking for great actors all the time so it’s the same in that sense.

Ken: Is there a trend in the style of talent that people are looking for? For example, when I was at NYU, when I was at Tisch, it was the early ’90s so we’d just had the British invasion, if you will, so all we were trying to do was sound like the singers from Les Mis. That’s what we thought everybody wanted. After Rent, did everybody come in trying to do Roger and is that what Broadway was looking for?

Bernie: I think Broadway, not that we haven’t had rock musicals in the past, like Hair, but I think since Rent, now they don’t just come every ten years, they’re coming every season. Every season there’s a pop musical or a rock muscular or now there’s a hip-hop musical, so you’re looking for contemporary singers all the time which is much more different than Rogers and Hammerstein, as you said, Les Mis, or even Sondheim. There’s different qualities now and anything goes so you are looking for people, at least in the musicals, who have a real pop sensibility which, 20 years ago, you would have never thought would work. So there’s that. And it happens every few years, but the New York talent pool has really had a resurgence because there’s also so much television now happening in New York, more than ever before, and that means they really want people from New York. Hollywood and LA always wanted New York talent but now that the New York TV shows are shooting here, they have to have the New York talent so it’s given even more people a shot. Look at the cast of Orange is the New Black. You would never think that’s a group of people who are going to do typical television. And there are so many of those kinds of shows happening here and we’ve been doing a bunch more television in the last few years and it’s just exploding, which is great for the New York talent pool. Ten years ago it was like Law and Order and that was it. It used to be the joke that if you were an actor you’d better be on Law and Order, and now it’s every night, and forget about the cable. So I think there’s a real hunger for New York talent now. At least I feel that way in film and television, and of course it always was for theater. And the British invasion? I mean now the rules for SAG and AFTRA and Equity have gotten so much more lenient. It’s really about talent anywhere, and because of the internet we can now, within an hour, audition someone in Australia or London which I think, personally, is great and the film and TV world is universally open to that. Equity still has crazy issues about green cards and stuff like that and that makes it harder for non-US citizens to work in the theater, which hopefully will fade away as time goes, because I feel like a good actor should be able to work anywhere, even us working there.

Ken: Have you cast anyone big from a video submission?

Bernie: Oh yeah. We just did it for this television pilot that we just cast. I’m trying to think of a story I could tell you. We just hired these two kids out of Julliard. He came in, he went on tape and the next day we sent it . . . and he’s the lead of a new television show. He didn’t fly to LA and have to be seen by 20 people. It was right here, in this room where you and I are talking, on tape, his first audition, not even graduated from Julliard, and he’s the lead. The lead! You go, “Oh my God,” but you know what? It happened again yesterday on something else. It happens all the time, which is great, because nowadays you can really trust the taped audition, which is why you don’t want to not be able to do that for plays. I know it’s live theater and they should be in the room but I don’t want director A to not see actor A just because he’s working in St Louis. We’re not going to eliminate the live auditions, but when you have a great actor and he’s just not able to be in the room you still want to be able to audition him and that’s where I think the internet has really been great.

Ken: Any advice for all those actors? I’m sure I have a lot of them listening in today.

Bernie: Sure. I say this all the time . . . be prepared. You go, “Okay, what does that mean?” It means know what you’re auditioning for. You have to be a detective. If someone just said, “Here, read this one page of dialogue and go to Telsey’s office tomorrow,” it’s your job to treat it like it’s a gig and all that great stuff you learned in acting school about the research you do if you got cast, you need to do that same thing. Know who you’re auditioning for, know who might be in that room, know the kind of material or the kind of work that they do. Know what the sides are . . . is it from a movie that you could have read ahead of time that could inform you of something about the role? Or if it’s from a new play, read the play, because the sides sometimes aren’t clear enough. Find out what the breakdown is. There’s so many things rather than just the material, and I feel a lot of young actors don’t know to do all that other homework besides, yes, go be an actor and do good material. Do a good audition, but dress appropriately. It’s all of that kind of stuff. Be accessible in the audition. Be able to take direction if someone throws something at you. It really has to be like your best blind date. I said that earlier but it really is that, just like if you were really going on a blind date, you’d be thinking about what you wore. Even if you’re a t-shirt person you still would have hopefully thought, “What’s the best t-shirt I look good in?” It doesn’t mean wear a costume, but just think about everything besides just the material.

Ken: Our last question, which we’re now calling the genie question on these podcasts . . . I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes down and comes into your office and says, “Bernie, you’ve been such a great casting director, I’m going to grant you not three but one wish. With the snap of a finger I can change one thing about Broadway. Whatever keeps you up at night, whatever frustrates you, whatever drives you crazy that you wish would just instantly go away or change or be better, you can do it with a snap of my fingers.” What would you ask that genie to change?

Bernie: Paid health benefits for casting directors on Broadway. And I would say find a way to get the younger generation, and I don’t mean kids but those 20 year olds, to the theater somehow, besides just the musical theater fans who wait on the lottery. Somehow make it really accessible for someone like my son, who’s 26, who grew up going to the theater and actually loves the theater and wants to go all the time but only goes when I take him because he can’t afford it and he works in New York and has a life. I feel like that’s an audience member we’re losing because if I wasn’t still doing this we would have lost him, because he’s not a musical theater freak or lottery fan but for ten years he’s been going and loves going, but is never going to buy a ticket on his own or doesn’t know about the lottery because he’s not a Playbill.com kid because he’s an architect. That worries me. I see them in our theater, in MCC, because it’s half the price of Broadway, or a third of the price of Broadway, still expensive. I don’t blame that on anyone but I would love to be able to figure out a way of how to get back to that 20 year old, 27 year old New Yorker and get them to the theater. Because they’re right here and they’re all going to the Angelika for $15. And then health benefits for casting directors.

Ken: I’ll take health benefits for producers too, while we’re at it, genie, please! Bernie, thank you so much for spending time with us. Everyone, I think you can see why there should be a Tony Award for casting directors. Thanks so much for listening. We will see you next time!

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.