When Big Voices, Big Confidence Count

Inside a cramped practice room, high school senior Nick Cirillo gives a pep talk to a shy freshman in baggy pants who is minutes away from auditioning for his first high school musical.

The audition song, "I'm a Mean Ole Lion," is a showy tune for a larger-than-life character who hides cowardice behind a façade of bluster.

The freshman seems dwarfed by his task. His delivery is tuneless. He mumbles the lyrics without enthusiasm. Cirillo is working hard to transform this mouse into a roaring lion.

"Just get into it, and add a growl, otherwise I'll be very disappointed," he told the freshman. "Whether you can sing the song or not, they will remember you if you get into it. Just snap and be the lion. That's musical theater. You can make up for anything just by being into it. So have fun!"

The coaching has mixed results. Cirillo gets some snapping fingers and a hesitant hiss, but not the roaring lion performance he was hoping for.

With a sigh and an encouraging smile, he hit the play button on the boombox again and implored, "Try it again!"

As a veteran of the Westfield High School theater department, Cirillo is mentoring a group of uncertain first-timers. The teens are all auditioning for the role of the Lion in Westfield High School's production of "The Wiz," a Tony-award winning black musical based on L. Frank Baum's classic, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

Desire and Passion

"I started off when I was a freshman auditioning for shows and not getting the roles that I really wanted, but you just need to make a name for yourself," he said. "I've wanted to be an actor all my life. Now I'm in the position where I'm a legitimate contender for the roles. I don't really fear anything. I'm not driven by fear. I'm driven by desire-- desire to do theater with my life. Desire to do that. Just completely passionate about that."

Cirillo exudes confidence and leadership. He's so certain he'll be working on Broadway someday that his e-mail address is "broadwaykid." Today, he'll settle for the role of Lion.

"I'm a big guy and the lion's a big character. He's very loud and in people's faces and then he's always showing his loudness," Cirillo said. "That's kind of like me, I like to be loud and everyone always knows I'm in the room."

In the auditorium -- the waiting room for all the wannabe Ozians -- almost all the senior boys are longing for the same role.

When Hairy is Handy

Nate Peterson, a tall, solemn-looking boy with a deadpan delivery, is hoping he'll be chosen for the powerhouse character.

"The Lion's popular because it's the funniest character," he said. "Tinman's the tap dancing guy, and the Scarecrow is the slightly metrosexual, feminine guy."

Garrett Henson, considered a "triple threat" by many of the teens, had a more straightforward explanation.

"He's such a kooky character. He's such a coward but that's what you love about him. He's cool," Henson said.

Despite the tough competition, Peterson said he has qualifications that the other boys lack.

"I have an excellent growl. I am very good at having a tail, I've had one before. I'm also quite hairy," he admitted. "I think I would do excellently with the costume stuff. I'm used to intense temperatures due to all the hair."

But if he doesn't nail a lead, what is his runner up role?

"I put Toto down as my list of characters. I'm feeling lots of pressure," Peterson said. "It's like a safety college. Toto is my safety college."

The senior boys gather in a practice room with Cirillo, an avid Billy Joel fan, who is at the keyboard enthusiastically banging out the accompaniment. Slouching against the acoustic tiles, Cody Jones, a long-haired rocker who has lots of acting experience but has never won a role in a musical, said his hopes for being cast are not high.

"When I heard we were doing the Wiz, I figured if I was going to try make any part it would have to be the lion because that's the only one I could sing," he said.

But once he hears that Cirillo is auditioning for the Lion, he seems crestfallen.

"I'm going for the same role as Nick Cirillo, which is the Lion, which means I will probably be overcome by his majesty," Jones said. "When I heard that Nick was trying out I was like 'All right. That's it. There's no way. Nick's gonna get it.'"

But Cirillo admitted that even he's feeling some pressure.

"I'm feeling a little bit nervous. There's a lot of competition. Good competition," he said. "More so than I've auditioned for any other show."

Scott Pafumi, theater arts director at Westfield High School, had some very specific ideas about the qualities the Lion should have.

Understanding the Lion

"I wanted somebody who would really take the stage, really be ferocious. Big voice, big character," he said. "The Lion is a braggart soldier, boasting, big and brave, but really he's a big baby. You have to have someone who knows how to play those two sides comically."

Chris Wildy, one of only two male African-Americans auditioning for "The Wiz", is lining up with the first group of auditioners.

"As soon as I heard we were doing this show, I wanted to audition. But when it came time to learn the song, I got nervous because I don't have a strong voice," he said. "Except when I'm in the shower."

His sister, Jazmine Wildy, says the week leading up to the auditions has tried her patience and her eardrums.

"My brother used to be able to sing in grade school," she said."But now, I am teaching him 'Do Re Mi,' and he was just like, 'I can't do this.'"

Chris may be short on his vocal talents, but he's relying on something else to catch the judges' eye.

"I can't sing that well, but I can dance," he said. "My dance has to be perfect."

More than 100 teenagers are auditioning for eight major leads. Chris is one of the first people to audition for the Lion role.

"The music starts and at first I thought the beat came, and I was like 'Oh man I missed it, you know I have to start over --no!'' he said. "Then I was like, 'Wait I'll try it again,' and I got it and then I got up on beat and I sung my heart out, let it all out."

'I Feel Great'

By the time Cody Jones stepped up to the microphone, he had come up with a plan of action.

"I just didn't think my voice could cut it. I just figured like the way to distinguish between those who had voice and me who doesn't, would be to have a lot of character in the song," he said. "I just wanted to talk like an old 1920's jazz bassist, like Louis Armstrong voice and I thought, 'That's what I wanna go for. I wanna try to talk like that.'"

As Cody left the audition room, he was incredibly relieved.

"There's nothing like that feeling after you're done with it, good or bad, I feel great," he said.

When Cirillo, the Broadway Kid, walked up to the microphone, Pafumi greeted him with a gentle roast.

"Nick, you've grown a lot in my time with you and I actually like you now. I'm kidding. Not really. You've found your place the last couple of years."

Nick grinned, stepped into the spotlight -- and roared.

"I did claws and roaring and cool stuff. I felt confident because I went about it so many times in my head and then when I sang my song and I started getting into singing the lion's song," he said. "After the audition, I felt good."

Who do you think will be cast as the Lion? Watch the audition clips and vote for your choice.

Watch Nick's Audition

Watch Chris' Audition

Watch Nate's Audition

Watch Cody's Audition