Outside the theater department at Westfield High School in northern Virginia, a line of nervous teenagers is queuing up.
It's the first day of auditions for "The Wiz," the Tony award-winning black musical based on L. Frank Baum's classic, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
More than 100 kids are trying out, but only one will get the title role of Dorothy, the dreamy-eyed girl from Kansas who gets caught in a tornado and launched on a terrifying adventure in the land of Oz.
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Inside the audition room, dubbed "the black box," theater arts director Scott Pafumi and his production team closely watch each girl's singing, acting and dancing abilities.
"I'm testing to see what their strengths are. We're not Broadway so we don't necessarily get kids who are 'triple threats,'" he said. "In high school, we're lucky if we get two out of three."
Picking the Right Dorothy
There is a dizzying array of choices for Pafumi. Shy freshmen compete alongside seasoned seniors. A string of pretty brunettes twirl past to the "tornado" music. Braces flash as the teens mumble their monologues. Everybody wants to be Dorothy.
Pafumi knows what he's looking for in the star of his production.
"Dorothy needs to be sweet, innocent, girlish and pretty. I'm looking for honesty. She has to be honest and real and cute and an amazing singer," Pafumi said.
And, given the play's ensemble cast, the chosen actress needs to have chemistry with the rest of the actors.
"I'm looking for her to be someone the audience can easily connect to, who reminds them of my daughter, my sister, my best friend. Dorothy should be an everyman character," he said. "She's someone we know, the girl next door, but gets to go on this journey and our escape into Oz is through Dorothy's perspective. We are all Dorothy on that journey and we see the world through her eyes."
Dorothy Prospects Feel Pressure
It's a daunting list of requirements, and the girls are feeling the pressure. Martina Green, a tiny, almost childlike 17-year-old, is fighting a bad case of nerves and a cold.
"This is my first time auditioning for any play. My strengths are I have a strong voice for such a little person," she said. "I can project very well when I'm not sick."
She is surrounded by a sympathetic group of friends who pour honey down her throat, hand her cups of hot tea and offer advice on how to soothe an aching throat.
"I heard the other girls, and I saw them getting ready for their auditions," Green said. "I was really nervous because they know what to do ahead of time to prepare themselves for an audition. I wasn't as well trained as they were."
Martina's mentor is senior Jade Jones, one of the top singers in the theater department.
"I love performing. When I'm on the stage I feel like a different person and you don't think of anything else you're in that moment, and I just feel great when I'm on the stage," Jones said.
Prior to the audition, Pafumi said Jones's chances for the lead role are excellent, and many girls say Jones she's a shoe-in.
"Jade is the Wiz. Jade is this show. When I talked about picking shows for kids, she was one of the main kids I thought of when I picked this show," he said. "You only get someone like her every so often in your program. Unique, fun character, fun person, really interesting, great singer -- just makes you proud to teach and know her."
Size Over Voice?
Despite all the spin, Jones is nervous about her prospects.
"I'm auditioning for Dorothy and Evillene [The Wicked Witch of the West]. I want to go for Dorothy, but I feel like it's a risk. It's out of my vocal range. I see myself as an alto. Dorothy is a soprano," she said. "Also, Dorothy is a 14-year-old girl. She's not that big. She's very small."
Jones is about 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs more than 200 pounds. Her mother, Kim Butler-Dennis, thinks she has a better chance to win a lead as Evillene.
"In my mind, I have Dorothy as this petite little girl. I think you best fit Evillene," she told her daughter. "That's what I saw you doing."
Those thoughts provoke a protest from Jones.
"She's a 14-year-old girl, but I was big when I was 14," she said. "I mean, there are big 14-year-old girls out there. I don't think it should have to do with size."
Launching a Career
Inside the auditorium, a group of girls gathers around 16-year-old Claire Manship, known as "the Belter," as they practice "As Soon As I Get Home," the Dorothy audition song. Manship hopes to pursue a career in musical theater and has been training intensively in both voice and dance.
"Me, personally, I'm very musically inclined," she said. "I think singing is definitely my strong point. Whether I bring the most to it or not will be what the directors do after audition. They have to determine who's the best of the best."
Manship is a seasoned performer and is used to pre-performance pressure. Last summer, she won the title role as Gabriella in a summer production of "High School Musical."
"Naturally I have the jitters in my stomach, but it's more excitement than nervousness. My first audition in freshmen year, I thought I might cry or vomit," she remembered.
She admits that with so many talented kids, the competition can get intense.
"It gets really, really competitive since we have so many people in the department. You want to keep it as light and free feeling as possible," Manship said. "You don't want to pressure anybody because you feel better than them or they feel they're better than you. Going into 'The Wiz' I was dying for Dorothy. I wanted it more than anything."
As the girls walk in for their auditions, Pafumi begins explaining the motivation for their character.
"The classic Dorothy is a story about the journey of a girl's growing up, self discovery of who she is, learning that life, home, heart and family is what's most important in life. It's a coming of age story," he told the group. "It's not a traditional love story in the sense of a romantic love story, but a story of love. And discovering who you love and that love will guide you back home."
The girls exchange smiles and nervous glances as Manship steps forwards and begins to sing.
Who do you think will be cast as Dorothy? Watch the audition clips and vote for your choice.