Jeff spent the majority of the next couple of weeks printing out his auditions. Plastering posters everywhere, writing out snappy little notes to be read over the intercom during the morning announcements, mentioning it in every class and offering extra credit for those who requested a time slot and actually showed up. The choir and band directors had never been the biggest fans of his, but he pleaded his case until they relented and let him put up flyers on their classroom doors. He’d even gone as far as bribing one of the maintenance men to put the audition dates up on the old and rickety marquee that had been advertising the 2003 homecoming dance ever since he’d started working there.
By the time the actual audition date came around, pretty much all the teachers and faculty members were beyond fed up with him. Even his closest friends on staff would sigh and shake their heads when he walked into the teachers’ lounge. He knew what they were all thinking; that he was sad and delusional and trying to make a miracle happen on a shoestring budget. But that’s exactly what he was doing, so he didn’t let it bother him too much. And, despite all his colleagues’ doubts and snickering, it seemed as though all of his efforts had worked. By the time he locked up his classroom and made it to the drama room, there was already a huge turnout. People were squeezed into the tiny space and spilling out into the hall.
Jefferson waded his way through the crowd as quickly as he could and stood at the front of the room, facing everyone.
“Okay!” he said in his booming teacher voice with a loud clap of his hands. The room’s constant wave of chatter lowered to a soft murmur as Jeff began introducing himself.
“For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Mr. Martin. I teach English Two and Three and I’m also the head of the drama department. Now, I see a lot of new faces here today, so I’m going to go ahead and tell you how this audition process works. In a minute, Enrique, the stage manager for this production, is going to pass around a sign in sheet where I want you all to neatly print your name, grade, and home room teacher. There will also be a box next to the line where you can tell us which parts you’re auditioning for and whether or not you’re interested in behind the scenes work.”
Jefferson scanned the room for Adam, and found him hunched over in a corner with his phone clutched in his hand like a lifeline. Jefferson gestured vaguely in his direction and said, “When the time comes for you to audition, Adam here will call your name and lead you out onto the stage. Then you just stand on the big white “x” and tell us your name and the name of your song and monologue. You can deliver them in whichever order you prefer, but we are requiring both since this is a musical. Also, if you’re strong in one area, but not the other that doesn’t mean that you won’t get a part. There are all kinds of roles to be filled here and we mostly just need to know what we’re working with. Thank you all so much for trying out and please be patient with us. The cast listing should be up on my classroom door early Monday morning. Any questions?”
He scanned the room, but nobody raised their hands. Jeff heaved a sigh and dismissed himself. He stepped through the narrow passage connecting the drama room to the stage and sat down at the front of the house. He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and pretended to look at it for a few minutes before silencing it. He folded his hands neatly in his lap and stared straight ahead at the empty stage, trying not to let his brain work itself into a frenzy before the auditions had even properly begun.
Despite his chosen career as an educator, patience had never been Jeff’s strong suit. The longer he had to wait for something, the more he agonized over it. He just couldn’t help himself. While most people were struggling to think of plan B, Jefferson was already perfectly executing plan G in his mind. That was the way he operated.
After several long minutes, Enrique came to join him. The two of them sat side by side with perfectly erect posture. Two distinguished men who took their job very seriously and may have been overcompensating just a little bit. Enrique handed him a clipboard containing a hastily made copy of the sign-in sheet and a bright green highlighter. Then he pulled a pen and composition book out of his backpack, ready to take notes.
Like Danielle, Enrique had wormed his way onto Jefferson’s favorite all time students list. The boy was short, like literally less than five feet tall, with a mop of curly black hair, dark brown eyes and skin the color of mahogany. He always dressed like a mini businessman from the waist up with pastel button downs and skinny ties, and board shorts and flip flops on the bottom. He was an absolute sweetheart, but he was stern when he needed to be. Enrique had no tolerance for bullshit and he wasn’t afraid to call people out, even Jefferson. There wasn’t another person on campus whose judgment he trusted more than Enrique’s.
Maybe it was wrong for a grown ass man to place that much faith in a seventeen-year-old boy, but this boy had his shit together. He was calm, rational, detail oriented, and well-liked by everyone in the club. Jeff had a lot of faith in his own directing abilities, but he wasn’t dumb enough to think that everyone would blindly trust his opinion, especially when it came to the finer technical details like lighting and music and props. That’s what Enrique was for. He was literally the best stage manager he’d ever had. The kid had impeccable taste and a knack for bringing out the best in people. Jeff didn’t know how he was going to survive after he graduated.
The two of them shuffled around in their seats for a minute. Enrique cracked his knuckles. Jefferson worked to clear all preconceived notions from his mind so that each student would have a fair and equal chance. Finally, once they were settled, Enrique pulled out his phone and texted Adam to send out the first person. Before long, the auditions were officially underway.
Predictably, the first wave of students to step onto the stage were his regulars. People who, even if they hadn’t had the chance to officially audition for something before, generally knew what to do and what to expect. As they sang and read from the scripts he’d printed off for them, it was pretty easy to see where all of them fit.
As much as he was trying to be impartial, he already knew he wanted to give the female lead to Danielle. This was going to be her last ever high school production, plus she had the voice of an angel, and she hadn’t gotten to be a lead since the beginning half of her sophomore year. The character, Maria, was perfect for her as well. She was a bit of a contradiction; bookish but feisty. The one most dedicated to solving the mystery behind the missing cast members. Also, he didn’t know jack shit about music, but he thought her slightly deeper voice would add depth to the harmonies.
Another person who was extremely easy to cast was the bad guy, Reed. Eddie nailed the character’s megalomaniac cadence, but he was also small and unimposing enough to fade into the background until the plot twist was revealed. He wasn’t the greatest singer, but with a little bit of practice, Jeff felt confident that he’d be able to hit most of the notes. Besides, it wasn’t the biggest travesty if the villain sounded like crap. He was evil, after all.
Kendra, though she was reading for Maria, was a shoo-in for Mrs. Phillips, AKA the overly dramatic teacher who was distraught by her students’ disappearances. The part required a lot of subtle nuances and great comedic timing, which Kendra had. It was a good thing too. The jokes offset her insufferable brown-nosing.
He was thinking Leslie might be good for Ashley Worthington, the annoying woman reporting on all of the drama club disappearances and constantly getting in Maria’s way. The character was loud and brash - pretty much the exact opposite of Leslie’s usual shy demeanor, but she had this one show stopping solo number right before the second act that was perfect for Leslie’s powerhouse of a voice.
And on the flipside, there was Mia, a character who was essentially a really stressed out stage manager. Enrique had pretty strong feelings about this one considering he was a stage manager himself. He was pulling for Jessica, whose take charge attitude and involvement in student government—she was the junior class treasurer—lent her an authentic air of authority.
Jeff didn’t want to just pander to his regular drama kids though. That completely defeated the point of the auditions in the first place. He found a pair of sophomore girls he’d never met before that would work in some of the secondary roles, Maria’s best friend Annabel and Nathan’s ex-girlfriend, Carolina, and relegated Valerie and Leanne, who were busy this year and not very strong singers to the ensemble. There were also a couple of new kids who read extremely well, but couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives. Jeff resolved to make them the understudies and beg them to come back next year for a regular play.
The only real problem was the lack of boys. The script called for a minimum of five of them, and of the boys in drama club, only Eddie, Jackson, and Tariq were auditioning, plus Rin who was gender fluid. Of those four, the only one who was an exceptional singer was Tariq, but Jeff didn’t feel comfortable giving him the lead since he’d already committed to acting as the musical director and recording the tracks in the appropriate keys once everyone was cast. He couldn’t manage all of that on top of a leading role. Well, he probably could, but Jeff didn’t feel right asking it of him. With that in mind, he gave him the role of Casey, the betrayer who was secretly in cahoots with Reed the whole time.
That left Nathan, the male lead—both in the play and the play inside of the play—Mack, the first kid to go missing, and Liam, the guy constantly butting heads with Maria at the beginning of the show. He decided that Jackson was more suited to Liam with his bold and larger than life personality, and that Rin’s fluidity could make Mack seem even more vulnerable. But he still needed to figure out someone for the lead. Someone who could sing and emote and win over the audience.
It was easier said than done. Turns out a good sixty percent of the people auditioning, the ones who were only interested in the extra credit, weren’t giving any effort at all. The kids who were actually trying their best were either terrible, or female.
By the end of the night, Jeff and Enrique were both at their wits end, poring over their notes and trying to find someone, anyone, who would work. Jeff was just contemplating the idea of dressing up Valerie in drag when a miracle came sauntering onto the stage.
“Uh, are the auditions or whatever still going on?” asked a raspy voice.
Jefferson looked up to see a young man dressed in baggy black jeans and a white V-neck. He had surfer-tan skin and visible muscles and swoopy light blond hair that looked like it would be feather soft to touch. He was standing at the edge of the stage, about three feet past the designated mark and staring down at him and Enrique with caution in his crystal blue eyes.
“Sorry,” Jeff spoke slowly, trying not to startle the boy. He looked like he might run off at any second. “I didn’t see any more names on the list. I thought we were done.”
The boy took a large step back and nodded his head awkwardly.
“Um, yeah. Of course. Sorry. I kept looking at the flyers this morning and I thought maybe I’d stop by. It’s stupid. I uh, I’ll just...I’ll go.”
“Wait,” Jeff said, trying not to let his desperation show. This boy was pretty much the only hope he had left. “See that little white 'x' behind you? Go stand on it for me.”
The boy stuffed his hands in his pockets and did as he was told. Jefferson gestured for Enrique to hand him a pen.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Cameron. Cameron Davis. People call me Cam.”
“And what grade are you in, Cam?”
“I’m a senior.”
Jefferson wrote that down on the audition sheet and looked back up at him.
“A senior, huh? I’m surprised I’ve never seen you before.”
Cameron shrugged, looking uncomfortable.
“English isn’t my best subject,” he explained.
Translation: He was in remedial English, and thus hadn’t ever gotten the chance to be in one of Jefferson’s classes. Jeff smiled warmly. He wanted Cameron to know that he wasn’t judging him. Everyone had their own struggles in life. Not everyone looked to books as a means of hiding from all of life’s problems, like he did.
“Understood. Have you ever auditioned for something before?”
Cam shook his head.
“That’s okay. It’s super simple. All you have to do is sing us a song, any song you like, and then read a passage from our script. Sound all right?”
Cameron took a deep breath and then nodded.
“Good,” Jeff said with a smile. He reached under his chair for an extra copy of the script. He flipped to a random page of Nathan’s dialogue and quickly ran over the passage with his highlighter. He then handed the script to Enrique who stood up and slid it across the stage toward Cam.
“You can start whenever you’re ready,” Jeff said once Enrique sat back down.
The three of them were still and silent for a long moment. Jefferson felt like he might never take air into his lungs ever again.
Then Cameron opened his mouth and it was like the pearly gates of heaven opened up and then Jesus Christ himself came out to lovingly drape a rainbow flag over Jeff’s shoulders. Cam’s voice was a smooth soaring tenor with just a little bit of grit to it. The kind of sound that sank right down into your bones and gave you goosebumps. Jeff didn’t know the song he was singing, something about trials and pain and rising above them. It hardly mattered what the actual words were though. Cam’s voice was so expressive that you could feel the rawness and the suffering in every note. Jeff didn’t take his eyes off him until the last word rang out loud and clear in the mostly empty auditorium. Then, and only then, did he glance over at Enrique who was looking at Cam with a slack-jawed expression and misty eyes.
Finally, Cameron cleared his throat, breaking the spell he had over them. He bent down and scooped up the script that had landed near his feet and stared at the highlighted paragraph, slowly mouthing the words to himself. Jeff could see that his hands were shaking slightly.
Please be good, Jeff prayed to whichever gods were listening. Heck, he’d settle for just decent. Any little hint of underlying talent that suggested this boy could hold his own against Danielle. That’s all he needed.
“Listen,” Cam said, biting his lip. His voice sounded shaky and vulnerable, much like it had earlier when he’d first walked in.
“I know this isn’t exactly ideal and that this isn’t how you wanted your first show to be, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Doing this show with you has completely changed how I look at so many things. You make me want to be a better and less snobby version of myself. You make me want to try my hand at something other than just singing and dancing around and desperately trying to get others’ approval. I feel like I shouldn’t be saying this, especially since I never would have given you the time of day a couple of months ago, but I’m scared that one of us is going to be the next to get taken, and before that happens, I just wanted to say…”
Cam closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, he was staring directly into Jeff’s soul.
“I love you Maria.”
He looked down at his feet.
“That’s all. It’s okay if you don’t feel the same. I just, had to say it.”
That was the end of the monologue, seeing as Maria cut off all of Nathan’s nervous babbling with a kiss.
Jefferson was in shock. Enrique actually stood up and clapped.
Sure, he was too quiet and stiff and a little rough around the edges, but Cam was the perfect mix of strong and vulnerable, exactly what Nathan needed to be. Plus, that voice. Forget high school; this kid deserved to be on a singing competition show. Jeff couldn’t keep the smile off his face. It was probably creeping Cam out.
“So, uh, did I make it?” he asked, bending the borrowed script into a cylinder in his overly large teen boy hands.
Jefferson bit the inside of his cheek to keep from giggling.
“The cast list will be posted on my classroom door on Monday. Room 113.”
Cam’s cheeks went red.
“Oh, right. Thanks.”
He stood awkwardly for a few more seconds before booking it, taking Jeff’s script with him. Jeff didn’t have it in him to care. He had his lead. That was all that mattered.
Maybe, just maybe, this musical wasn’t going to be as much of a garbage fire as everyone thought.