Podcast Episode 89 Transcript – Tara Rubin

Ken: Hello, everybody. Ken Davenport here. You’re listening to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Today we have someone very special – a woman on the show who makes Broadway dreams come true for so many people out there. One of the most important and influential casting directors on Broadway today, Tara Rubin. Welcome, Tara.

Tara: Thank you.

Ken: Tara Rubin Casting has been casting Broadway shows since 2001 – check out their website for more details on the history – they’ve cast some of Broadway’s biggest hits, including in the past few seasons alone Les Mis, Aladdin, Cats, School of Rock, Jersey Boys, Billy Elliott and this season’s upcoming Dear Evan Hanson, A Bronx Tale and Miss Saigon. So, Tara, why don’t we start with how did you get into the casting game? Where did this all start for you?

Tara: I worked for a producer named Lester Osterman, who you probably are one of the only people who know who he was.

Ken: Sort of.

Tara: He was a producer and a theatre owner and quite a character. I worked for him for a little under a year. At the time I was working for him he was working out of his apartment on East 54th Street and he had the rights to a play by Emily Mann called Execution of Justice and it was a brilliant play, she was the director, and it was about the trial of Dan White, the man who shot Harvey Milk. This was in 1985 or 1986. I’m quite proud of the work that we did on that because it was Mr. Osterman, me, this crazy general manager who had worked for him for years and years and years and a living room on East 54th Street and Mr. Osterman had owned the Brooklyn Dodgers for a while, he was the Bond Clothing heir, he had produced Lillian Hellman’s Candide, he owned the Morosco Theatre. He had done just a million things in his life and so he was so helpful, he would walk past my desk, take my hand, dance me around for a second and I’d sit back down and go back to work at his electric typewriter. I learned a lot from him and because I had just started in the theatre – prior to that I had written advertising copy and I had to edit it and some radio commercials at Arista Records and I had been a copy editor for Fawcett Books – and so, because I was the classic Girl Friday, if the advertising copy came over and he didn’t like it I would rewrite it and say “What do you think about this?” so it was really probably one of the most exciting years of my life working with him and our casting directors were these two guys named Geoffrey Johnson and Vinnie Liff and so when the show closed and Mr. Osterman moved up to Fairfield, Connecticut – he was, I think, 70 at that time – I went to work for them and I stayed there for 15 years. That’s a long-winded background, sorry!

Ken: This Osterman character, he intrigues me. What was the most important thing you took away from your time with him? Any big lessons you learned? I’m obsessed with the ideas of mentors.

Tara: Yeah, well he respected everybody’s voice, so if a potential investor came over, and he was a 22-year-old who had never really raised any money before, he would sit down and give him his whole pitch and treat him the way he did all the other investors who were currently investing on Broadway. He would listen to me – he would ask me to do things and I wouldn’t think I would be able to do them but I could – and he ran things on a shoestring, they would always go to lunch, 11 o’clock they went to lunch, and they would say “You’re not going to lunch?” and I’d say “No, I have a lot of work to do,” I’d have a can of V8 or something on my desk and he’d say “Get a proper lunch.” He was just such an old fashioned gentleman, he was a really interesting man and I have a lot of love and affection for him.

Ken: So what drew you to the casting process? What excited you about it?

Tara: Well, it was something I could do. I had a background in theatre, I had studied dramatic literature and I had studied theatre academically and I had also gone to acting school for two years so I had a good background to be in casting, I understand the vocabulary of talking to actors and talking to directors and I could read plays well because I was an English major so I read a lot, I wrote a lot and I loved both of those things. So I think I did have, thinking back, a good background for it. What I didn’t have was a musical background – I don’t read music and I had never really been the person, except for the Sondheim cast recordings, who sat in my dorm room listening to cast recordings – I was listening to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones – so that was what I had to learn very quickly and it’s not something you can learn quickly, the history of musical theatre and how to cast a musical and what a musical theatre performer should bring to a project, so that was, I would say, my first five years, was really concentrating on how a musical is put together.

Ken: So you work at Johnson-Liff for?

Tara: 15 years.

Ken: 15 years. It was the big powerhouse agency of that time. I remember sending my picture and resume off to them so many times and I’m sure it went in the garbage can. Then you jump out on your own in 2001 – was that scary for you, going out on your own and hanging your own shingle?

Tara: It was scary but I know it was the right time. 15 years is a long time to make up your mind whether or not you’re going to go into business. I hadn’t even really been thinking about it. I started to think about it, I had a very sentimental attached to Vinnie and Geoff but I needed to earn more money and I was in my 40s and so it was time to start – “What am I going to do with Act Two if I don’t start now?” So it was actually easy to make the decision because I waited so long to do it and I knew the time was right and I knew I had to.

Ken: So tell me how the casting process has changed since your days at Johnson-Liff – what’s the biggest changes you’ve seen in the process?

Tara: The internet and having everything done through breakdown services. I was just talking about this earlier today – when I was the casting assistant, when I knew that Trevor Nunn and John Caird were coming to town for Les Mis auditions I had to start a week in advance making sure I had all of the pictures because the pictures came by messenger from the agents and they were beautiful glossy pictures, black and white, they were gorgeous but I didn’t print them out, I couldn’t get them in a second the way I can now, so things like that are completely different today, and research, you know, I used to lug around theatre indexes, to go home and read theatre indexes, trying to think “Who are the guys who would be in their 40s now?”, and this is what Vinnie taught me, I’d go back twenty years in the theatre index and see “Who are those guys then? The guy who played that part twenty years ago is exactly the kind of guy I need now,” so I was lugging heavy books around trying to do my research. Now I can do all of that in a second. So just from the practical point of view of being a casting director I would say that is one of the biggest changes and I think the other change is, of course, there’s the whole star-driven part of it, but at the same time I also think that Broadway is more welcoming of newcomers than they’ve ever been. I mean look at your Spring Awakening last year – except for Krysta and maybe Andy, that company was largely unknown and they were embraced and they were embraced individually and as a company. I think there’s a lot of emphasis on star casting and I understand why but I also think there’s an openness – you know, we opened School of Rock with Alex Brightman in the leading role and he’s brilliant and it didn’t even seem risky or like we were taking a big chance because he was so good.

Ken: Is there anything about the process from yesteryear that you miss? Anything that hasn’t gotten better or that you think we’ve lost?

Tara: I would say I miss having more time. Everything needs to be done in an instant – “Get me a list. Get me five people. Set up an audition for tomorrow.” It’s possible to do it because everything can fly out in a second but I miss someone sending us a script and we’d all read it and then Vinnie and Geoff and I would sit in the conference room and the director and producer would come by and we’d talk about the play and what the plans were and get to know the director a little bit and sometimes we meet the director for the first time the first day of casting, you’ve probably had a conversation and you’ve communicated and then, a week later, you would probably meet again because we’d all been thinking about it, we’d all made lists and we would put the lists together, so there was time for reflection and consideration that I miss sometimes.

Ken: Has the relationship with agents changed over the years? Because you deal primarily with an actor’s agent when you’re getting that appointment or letting them know that they’ve got the job – has that changed in the last twenty years?

Tara: Yes.

Ken: In what way?

Tara: They have a more aggressive role in the process. They’ll say “Well he’s not coming in to audition twice; he’s going straight to the callbacks,” and “I don’t understand why this person isn’t getting an offer.” There’s a much more active and, I say aggressive and I do think it is aggressive but I don’t mean aggressive in a pejorative way, necessarily, I actually am using the word rather objectively, but I guess they have more power than they used to. Everybody has an agent and actors who don’t need managers have managers, you know, everybody has an agent and a manager so if we’re auditioning someone in the early stages of his career the agent and the manager, understandably, want us to treat that person as if he has more seniority in the field than he really does and so there’s a tremendous amount of talking to the agent and talking to the manager. In the old days I would have phoned out that appointment, it would have been taken or not and that would have been the end of it. There are a lot of people who are very early career that we’re being asked to treat as though they are a little more established than they actually are, I think sometimes. I love actors so that part of it is okay, it’s just time consuming.

Ken: Talk to me about this, what I call the dreaded “offer only” which, for those of you who may not know, this is when an actor won’t come in for an audition but says “But I’ll take an offer.” Do you find that that offer only is more popular now than it was before? Are you hearing this from more people?

Tara: Sure. In 1990 Bernadette Peters was offer only for a play or musical. There was a very short list of actors who required an offer in order to participate in a project and now it seems as if, as soon as an actor has any measure of success or acclaim or praise, the sense that that person is at the very top of things is accelerated, shall we say. So one success and the person is offer only, or offer only for regional theatre, and I have to stop and say “Did you read this? It’s Sarah Ruhl’s play,” and usually I can turn it around and get people to understand but to categorically say “Offer only for regional theatre,” we’re talking about some of the finest that’s happening in the world and the American regional theatre, so the idea that someone would categorically not be able to audition for that, that seems a little ridiculous to me.

Ken: Talk about the audition process itself – what do you look for when someone walks in the room for that first time? What are you looking for, hoping for?

Tara: Each project is different so you’re looking for different types of people for each project and that’s probably the most important thing you need to do to get started, is who are the right people to tell this story and what are those people like? Are they bright, are they people made of primary colors, are they people made of pastels? So there’s that part of it, but as far as the individual – I think you mean when an individual walks in the room – I would say probably the actors that have that gift of being able to share who they are easily, you get to know them easily, you get to figure out who they are and where they fit in either the world of the play or just the world of my office and projects that I’m working on, so I think when that can happen we jump ahead a lot of steps. I might have to see them again in order to think “Is that just an off day?” or “Who is he, really? I couldn’t quite get if he was really super soft inside or is he cold or is he shy or is he warm, a little too warm?” I guess being able to show me who you are, I love that, I look for that.

Ken: Besides obviously being extraordinarily talented, is there anything that an actor can do from a marketing perspective to get the attention of someone like you?

Tara: I always say hard work is the best thing that an actor can do because gimmicky things or mailing campaigns – actors used to do that, I remember a woman who sent a letter in a lavender envelope every Tuesday and she wanted to be in Les Mis, I think – those kinds of things make us think that you’re really not taking it all very seriously, you think that it’s something where you can use a marketing tool to show how great you are. I think when an actor comes in and she’s prepared and it’s clear that she has brought her full self to the audition, that’s the best way to get my attention.

Ken: One of the things I am always amazed by whenever I work with casting directors – including when I’ve worked with you – is that you not only have to be able to find great talent, dig through all these corners and down these alleys to find these great talents, but then you have to be in the room with many different types of people – directors, producers, writers – and you have to mediate these discussions, right?

Tara: The hosting.

Ken: Yeah, talk to me a little bit about that part of the job and how you have to be the ultimate diplomat and negotiate to try to find the best person for the job. How do you work with writers and producers?

Tara: Well, I feel incredibly fortunate because I work with so many people who are really at the top of their field and it seems to me, in my experience at least, that those are the people who are the easiest to work with. If you sit down with Des McAnuff, Jerry Saks, Susan Stroman, you’re going to have a pleasant day because they’re so experienced and their imaginations are limitless and they are collaborators and so, for the most part, I don’t feel like there’s a tremendous amount of negotiating that goes on. In musicals there happens to be the fact that people have to dance and people have to sing and people have to be able to – because of the economics of the theatre – cover all the principle roles, so that negotiation has to happen because we know the dance department has to be able to put together dance numbers that are brilliant but the score needs to be served and when the star is out that guy needs to go on and play the leading role. That’s when I find that negotiating happens but I think most casting directors are people who can read signals and live in the questions and the lifey behavior and the ineffable stuff is very clear to us and so there are ways to see that, I’m making this up, but the dance department is feeling a little slighted so there are ways to try to steer the discussion towards that, that one great dancer who we can highlight right now and see that they’re actually going to have bright people to work with. I always say that the secret to my success is letting people think it’s their idea, so like just put that photo resume on the table and then someone says “Hey, wait a minute, what about him?” and I say “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea!” Now I’ll never be able to do that again because I’ve said it publicly, right?

Ken: What do you do if you disagree with the way that everyone is going? I’m sure that’s had to have happened a few times in your career, where everyone else is like “This person, this person!” and you know in your heart that that’s just not the right way to go. What do you do?

Tara: It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking because it has happened more than once, not frequently but you have to hope that you’re wrong, even though you know you’re not, and you have to trust that your team will make it as good as it could possibly be even though they’re making a mistake and let it go, hope that it runs long enough that maybe the person you know is the right guy gets his opportunity to do it. It’s like in drama school, I remember a teacher who said “When a director gives you a note, always say thank you and take that note and do it to your best ability. Don’t resist it, don’t criticize it or analyze it, because it will be clear if the note works if you do it properly,” so I think I’ve always applied that to my work in casting, when I take a lot of notes from directors and writers and I try to do exactly what they’ve told me to do sometimes and then hope that there will also be enough bandwidth in the imagination for a few other suggestions that weren’t necessarily in their imagination at that time and maybe able to open things up. I don’t think I have ever said to a director “I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think we need that person.” I wonder if there is a casting director who’s done that, who’s said “I don’t think it should be that way, I think it should be this.” Even if I think that, I’ll find another way to see if I can prove it or not.

Ken: It sounds like a great way not only to work but also to live – someone tells you something, “Okay, let me look at that and see how to make that a little bit better.” What’s the biggest mistake that actors make when they walk in the room?

Tara: I think the biggest mistake is when they don’t read the signals, when they don’t understand that no one reached out to shake your hand so it isn’t necessary for you to approach the table and shake everybody’s hand. Let us set that tone. Some teams like us to introduce every person and if there’s somebody illustrious at the table we will say “Here’s Susan Stroman to see you today. Here’s Jerry Zaks.” You know that it’s an event for the actor so you want to make sure that that introduction is made, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to shake hands and spend a minute and a half talking to each other, so I think actors should try to read those signals and understand that we are going to help them by setting the tone that works for our team, so I think that being overly friendly and assuming maybe a closer relationship with the people in the room than actually exists, that’s sometimes a mistake. The person is probably a wonderful person and it’s just maybe nervous behavior or whatever but the fact is that the team only has that behavior to judge you by so I think that’s probably it.

Ken: That’s a good one. I’m laughing over here because it bothers me when they come to shake my hand and it just takes so much time and I want to get on with it and I’m laughing because I’ve been in audition rooms with you where you guys are so good at “Hey, this is the team. Okay, there you go, we’ll direct you over there and you can sing your song,” which I love. So we talked a little bit about star casting – do you enjoy this process? Tell me a little bit about this process – I call you, which I have, and say “Hey, I’ve got the rights to this play. I need a star.” Then what?

Tara: Initially it’s really exciting. I think it depends on how realistic the creative team is. There are some teams for whom the process of star casting works. Even with your star directing team you don’t always get it to the place where you want it to be because stars really don’t enjoy working in the theatre all that much – they have to do eight shows a week, they don’t get time off, they have to live like monks in order to be able to get through it all the time and they don’t earn as much money so the incentive for stars, as one manager said to me one time, “to take time off from his career to be on Broadway”. I just always hope, when a team comes to me and says that we need to attach a star, that they understand that all of that is a given, that stars like to work with directors who they feel they’ll be in good hands with, directors who have a lot of accolades so they feel like “If I’m going to do theatre, I’m going to do it with someone who is at the top of the field.” So there’s that part of it and also the names have to be realistic for what it is. I can’t tell you how many times people have said “Do you think we can get…” and Hugh Jackman’s name comes up a lot in casting conversations and it’s kind of hard to deter people. I think that’s the hardest part for me, when there’s not a sense of realism about how this is really going to work, and also I think sometimes people think “We’ll do it when we get the right star.” Well, I find that when it’s that nebulous you don’t make much progress, because you just keep in this loop of “Yeah, he’s available, he might do it…” and you just never make the kind of progress you want to make if you’re saying “It’s next year, it’s January 10th, it’s for six months,” and of course they want to know that you already have a theatre and financing is there. There are just so many layers to it. I kind of enjoy it on some levels as long as there is a sense of realism about where we might end up and how we’re going to get there.

Ken: Do you think casting directors should get Tony awards?

Tara: I do.

Ken: Alright, here’s your pitch. Here’s your chance – lobby for it. I let Bernie lobby for it, it’s your turn now. Why?

Tara: Here’s the thing – because casting directors design the cast. We have Tony awards for all the other designers and the casting director collaborates with the creative team in the same way. The opposition to there being a casting director Tony award usually goes like this – “They don’t really make the decision, it’s the director, no one would know how to vote because you don’t know what they really do.” Well, I don’t think the average Tony voter knows what the sound designer does, I don’t think they know exactly how William Ivey Long goes about his process but they see the costumes on the stage and they know whether or not they’re appropriate and exciting for telling the story and that’s exactly what casting directors do – and, yes, sometimes a star is attached, but unless it’s a one-person show there’s still an enormous contribution that the casting director has to make. We have to find the people, we have to make the village that’s on the stage, so yes, of course I do, Ken.

Ken: I knew the answer but I wanted you to say it. Of all the casts you’ve put together, do you have a favorite? I know, it’s like a favorite kid. You don’t have to name a specific performer, but of all the shows you’ve cast.

Tara: They’re different. I could name a couple. I really loved casting Contact, that was really exciting because we made it up so that was just brilliant, great dancers, and I’m sure it was all completely technicolor in her brain already but that was really exciting. Billy Elliott was really exciting, that was a long process, trying to find guys who could dance the way they needed to dance and still seem like minors and seem like denizens of a world that was really different than New York City and the political message was really meaningful to me so I think that cast was really important. School of Rock was so fun because we had never tried to find kids who played instruments before – we had cast a lot of children over the years but I’m proud of that cast. I’m really proud of the Bombay Dreams cast.

Ken: Oh my gosh, I love it!

Tara: We had casting in Toronto and Vancouver, LA, New York, London, Chicago, and we cast people in every city and I was proud of that cast, I thought they were really good and I never felt like they got the attention they deserved.

Ken: Being half Indian, my roots were very proud of that production and all my people up there on the stage. So you’ve been working on Broadway for several decades now – how do you think Broadway is doing today versus when you got into the biz?

Tara: Oh, I think it’s so healthy. I thought last season, I mean even if Hamilton hadn’t happened last season, look at what else happened last season – from Spring Awakening to School of Rock to Color Purple, that production was amazing. I think we should have Holler if You Hear Me and we should have She Loves Me and we should have everything in between and we pretty much do.

Ken: Are you finding that the diversity in casting issue is getting better on Broadway? Are more people coming to you more open to different pastel colors, as you said, on stage than before? Are we making progress?

Tara: I think we’re making progress. I think that these are critical years because we have to make sure that last year was not anomalous and that we continue so I feel like the time is now to catch up to where televisions and film are – and particularly television, it’s way ahead of the theatre in terms of diversity and, just looking at the old fashioned colorblind casting, they’re just so much further ahead than we are, but I’m proud of the strides that have been made.

Ken: Anything we can do? Anything you think the industry can do? Just have wider eyes when we look at this stuff?

Tara: Producers taking a strong position that there must be diversity in the cast is critical because it’s hard for the casting director to make the point with the creative team because they’re creating it but if the boss says “Sorry, we’re not doing it,” even if it’s just simply that, “We’re not doing it unless some of these characters reflect really what is happening in our world today,” so I think that you could take that role, you could insist upon it.

Ken: Okay, my last question, which is my Genie Question, which is perfect for you because you cast the genie – so I want you to imagine that the genie comes to you and says “I want to thank you for giving me a job, and also thank you for your tremendous dedication to the theatre and all the work you’ve done and I’m going to grant you one wish because of all your hard work.” What’s the one thing that drives you nuts about Broadway, that gets you mad? And you’re such a sweet, lovely person and so nice to work with and also just chat with. what makes you angry, pounding the tables because you’re so upset, that you would ask that this genie wish away?

Tara: The lack of opportunity for women and people of color. The fact that a lot of the institutional theatres still aren’t hiring women to be directors and still aren’t producing plays that are written by women. The broad mosaic of our world, we have to push it forwards. I think that would be the thing. If we didn’t have to push it forward and it already existed, I think I would be happy about that.

Ken: Me too. Thank you so much for joining us here today. Thanks to all of you for listening. You’re listening to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. 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.