Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Casting Yul

The person behind this week's Dance Party does not appear in it, nor was she one of its creators. But without her, it would not exist:

Shirley Rich


This woman spent a very long career as a casting director, for both stage and screen, and, if anyone can be admired for being a casting director, she was. I admit to a bit of a prejudice against casters, at least the current crop, who spend a great deal of energy trying to convince the world that people who want to hire actors and actors who want to be hired need a conduit. At least in New York and Los Angeles, casting directors run the range from reputable Often they are folks who started out as actors and gave up in order to make more money. I'm remembering the casting director who was recently caught Twittering during actors' auditions (I wrote about that lady of loose integrity here). Many casting directors indulge in what I think is a pretty low enterprise, running what they call "workshops for actors," ostensibly to help them learn how to get the part, but actually charging actors for the chance to meet them. That activity has always rubbed me the wrong way, for obvious reasons.

Have I wondered off topic here? You bet. Anyway, Shirley Rich seems to have been one of the well-respected of her tribe, and specialized in casting the smaller, supporting roles which flesh out a project. She placed Donna Pescow in Saturday Night Fever, and Judd Hirsch in Serpico. She helped launch the careers of both Tom Cruise and Sean Penn by casting them as cadets in Taps, and is responsible for placing stage vet Helen Gallagher at the core of the cast of the daytime soap Ryan's Hope; Gallagher went on to win multiple Emmys for her work there.

Rich worked her magic on stage as well, placing comic Alice Ghostly in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window for Broadway, a performance which won the Tony; she spent time working with Harold Prince and Rogers and Hammerstein as well. It was in that latter connection that she became, ultimately, responsible for this week's dance party. The story goes that Shirley was running an open casting call for a new R & H project in the early 50s. A sullen, striking, bald man entered, sat on the floor cross-legged, and strummed a guitar while wailing some unintelligible sounds. Rich was intrigued enough to bring him to the attention to the Powers That Be; he was cast as King Mongkut of Siam, and an iconic musical performance was born.

Yul Brynner won the Tony and the Oscar for his performance in The King and I, and returned to the role again and again throughout his career. In the original stage version, he played opposite Gertrude Lawrence; today's Dance Party comes from the 1956 film version, where Deborah Kerr played "Mrs. Anna." The song is one of the hits from the show, and Kerr's singing is being dubbed by our old stand-by Marni Nixon. Her polka-ing, presumably, is her own:

Casting Director Shirley Rich died this week from natural causes.