At 2:30 am, long past their bedtimes, 219 boys, ages 10 to 14, almost all from New Jersey, started to form a line outside the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. In the predawn darkness, they camped out with their families. It was chilly for September, but no one seemed to mind.
When the doors finally opened at 9 am, the aspiring actors got to sing a few bars of “Food, Glorious Food” and show off their dance moves for a team of casting agents. At stake: A role in the Paper Mill’s new production of the musical Oliver!, which runs through December 29.
Twelve hours after the line formed, the 219 hopefuls had been whittled down to 75. By 5 pm, only 19 remained. Finally, the marathon audition ended, having cast all the youth parts except the lead role of Oliver, which later went to Tyler Moran, a 13-year-old from Massachusetts. But Jersey boys were picked to play all 15 bedraggled orphans who join Oliver in singing the signature “Food, Glorious Food” in the opening scene of the 1963 Tony-winning show.
That so many aspirants were Jerseyans was no accident. “Whenever we have a show where there are young people, we want to connect with the community,” says Mark S. Hoebee, the Paper Mill’s producing artistic director, who is directing Oliver! Hoebee and Shayne Miller, the theater’s director of public relations, say they think the 15 actors may be the biggest concentration of New Jersey talent, and certainly the youngest, in one show in the Paper Mill’s 79-year history. Their hometowns range from Haddonfield in the South to Mahwah in the North.
Most of the winners are veterans of local theater education programs, including the Paper Mill’s own. “But we have several who are kind of raw and just excited about being in the show,” Hoebee says. Lack of experience is not necessarily a negative. “They haven’t developed any bad habits yet,” he points out with a smile.