BARBARA LYONS came offstage and the stage manager told her right away: She made it past the first cut. She covered her face with her hands, and her eyes filled with tears. "It was my first audition!" she squeaked. Not only that, the song she began with was one she had made up yesterday morning with the help of a piano player she met in the lobby of Lisner Auditorium. Was another star about to be born?
"Dreamgirls" came to hold auditions in Washington yesterday, bringing its Broadway sparkle and the opportunity for more than 400 people to experience both gripping nausea and high-spirited expectation. Michael Bennett, the producer, director and choreographer of the show, is looking for about 75 men and women for two national touring companies as well as understudies and "second covers" in New York.
The show is about a group of young black women singers and the adventures and miseries of their climb, Supremes-like, to the kind of success that only show business makes possible. The kind of success that nurses' aides and government secretaries and security guards dream of, too, and call in sick or take a day off to pursue in a 30-second audition.
Most of the women who showed up at Lisner yesterday looked as if they were on their way to church, but there were two in sequinned dresses and others in harem pants and other fanciful get-ups. A security guard came in uniform.
One by one they stepped out for the long walk across the stage, aware every movement was being studied.
A woman in an orange ruffled shirt, with a good walk and an adorable face, opened her mouth and almost nothing came out. What did was flat.
"Thank you, sweetheart."
A younger one in a full denim skirt walked out awkwardly. But when she opened her mouth, she blasted out the knock-out solo from "Dreamgirls," "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." Bennett paused in conversation to listen. "How old is she?" he whispered to Cleavant Derricks, the vocal arranger. "Eighteen," came the reply.
"She's too young. But we'll call her back anyway. Think where she'll be in two years."
An open call is a form of self-torture unique to show business. Anyone who fits the description of casting requirements can show up, sheet music in hand. Members of the actors' union, Equity, get to try out first, but everyone gets a number and waits to walk out on a bare stage and sing for an audience of dark and disembodied voices. Some aspiring performers sign up and chicken out before their names are called. Others, like one woman yesterday, lie and try to sneak in for a second try. (She was found out, even though she changed her dress and her name. "Who could forget that hair?" said Geneva Burke, assistant choreographer.)
The fear before an audition is a kind of sickening trepidation that seeps, in the form of shaking hands, clenched shoulders, perspiration and a queasy stomach, throughout the body -- which is exactly where it isn't wanted. A nervous singer is not a good singer. The nerves caused some people yesterday to bounce while they sang, and others to glare hurtfully when they were told to stop, and some to sing too softly to be heard.
Bennett and his team were looking for "black female singers who move well" and "black male singers who dance well," between the ages of 18 and 32. They were looking to fill parts like those described on the cast list: "Deena Jones: Terrific voice with a flexible middle range. Should be vivacious, bright, aggressive, ambitious, really pretty and with lots of sex appeal. Looks out for herself."
Three sisters, Deborah, Liane and Evangeline Buckmon, tried out together yesterday. The three, a cosmetologist, a nursing assistant and a government worker, sing together in a group known as The Special Touch. "We figure it would be an advantage to hire sisters," said Liane. "Then you wouldn't have to teach them to work together." They didn't make it. "They sounded great," said Burke. "Together."
A number of the women who showed up yesterday clearly hoped for the part that brought fame to Jennifer Holliday, the star of "Dreamgirls" who was discovered by a dancer in Bennett's "Chorus Line" while singing in a church in Houston: "Effie White: Battleship singing voice -- has to do it all. Incredible range from low to very high. Gospel background is good. Must have emotional as well as technical range. Great soul. Can be chubby, but should not be a real fat girl. Should have character and must have strong dramatic facility and weight."
Mildred Smith tried. She's a gospel and blues singer who works as a quality control inspector for an electronics firm in Falls Church. She was judged to have an excellent voice, but her range was not high enough and she was too stout for the part. "Thank you, sweetheart."
"Auditions are kind of cold and empty. You can't see faces out there, you can only see a stark emptiness," said vocal arranger Derricks, who also won a Tony award for his performance in "Dreamgirls."
Derricks, 29, who graduated from Cardozo High School and almost graduated from what was then called Federal City College, was the man saying, "Thank you, sweetheart." He started singing as a child in his father's church, Pleasant Grove Baptist, then at 8th and R streets NW.
"I try to be nice, because I know what it's like up there," Derricks said. "The part I can't deal with is the look of devastation when you tell them they aren't called back, so I don't. The stage manager does it."
Derricks had a signal to let the stage manager, Fritz Holt, know which ones to call back for today at 10 a.m. for some dancing and, if they pass that, more singing. About 45 were tapped for a second chance.
Bennett and his staff are going to nine cities, including Washington, to hold open calls and discover the raw talent that lurks in churches and local theaters. The New Yorkers were very impressed by the high caliber of talent in Washington, which they said was on a par with Los Angeles and better than Philadelphia and San Francisco. Even open calls in New York did not produce enough talent to satisfy Bennett.
"Everyone knows there's a lot of talent in Washington," said Derricks. "People seem to work harder here. For example, most people came to this audition prepared. They may not be right for the show, but they're good."
And for those who think the possibility of stardom resulting from these auditions is just a dream, well: A woman who works for the phone company in Los Angeles is about to quit her job and move to New York, transportation paid by "Dreamgirls," and start work as an understudy on Broadway. She was found at an open call just like yesterday's. Eighteen other people have been gleaned from the auditions held in four cities before Washington, 18 unknowns who, Bennett said, will "definitely be used."
"There's a lot of talented people in America," said Bennett, who also searched the outbacks for his previous, and still running, hit "Chorus Line." "I prefer musicals where I create stars rather than employ one big one. The tendency then is that the director is working for the star, and the show is tailored for her. Plus, I work very slowly -- 'Dreamgirls' took two years and four workshops -- and what star is going to commit themself to that?"
He loves to make stars. But he is also aware of the hand of fate that he waves in the lives of people whose drive to perform makes them vulnerable to manipulation and the fickle demands of show business. Both "Chorus Line" and "Dreamgirls" are about show business, and both have induced countless neophytes to join the multitudes of would-be professionals in and out of New York. One message implicit in both shows is: Yes, it's hard and it's heartbreaking, but there's nothing like the thrill of performing.
Barbara Lyons didn't even know about the auditions until yesterday, when a customer told her about them. Where does she work? She leaned over and whispered in a reporter's ear: She's a go-go dancer in Northern Virginia.
"I've never sung before," she said, still trembling. "But I just said to myself, if I don't come, I'll be wondering for the rest of my life if I could have done it."