If Tracy Turnblad could do it, why not one of them?
The fictional ingenue in Hairspray, John Waters' movie-turned-Broadway musical, a big girl with a big heart and big hairdo, goes up against segregationist 1960s Baltimore and along the way manages to get the guy and get discovered.
That flight from obscurity to discovery is precisely what hundreds of hopefuls had in mind when they responded to an open casting call and began lining up at the Hippodrome Theatre at 7 a.m. yesterday to audition for parts in the film version of the musical.
The movie will star John Travolta as Tracy's mother, Edna, and Queen Latifah as record-shop owner Motormouth Maybelle, but the powers that be at New Line Cinema are looking for an unknown, chubby, white girl to play the part of Tracy, the bouncy teen with rhythm who helps desegregate the Corny Collins dance show. They are also in search of a dynamic, 16- to 21-year-old African-American man to play Seaweed and a spunky girl who can dance, sing and stand up for herself to play his kid sister Little Inez.
And so the aspirants rolled in from all over the city and up and down the East Coast. Some were plenty round, some obviously too thin; some came alone, some with entourages; some were cool, bordering on bored; some aflutter with nerves. Whoever they were, they had a story - singing the national anthem at a baseball game, dancing on the dining room table at age 3 - and they all had a plump, bright, Hollywood dream.
"Oh, man! It's like a dream role. I love this movie, I love this show, and Tracy Turnblad is calling me," said Natalie Knox, 21, of Bel Air, who looked like she would be able to work her mane of curly dark hair into something Tracy would like.
"I've, like, listened to the soundtrack a billion times," said Kati O'Hearn, a Tracy wannabe who had flown in from Cape Cod, Mass., with her mother and who once played a talking wardrobe in a school production of Beauty and the Beast. "A lot of chubby girls are really into theater. It's great that there is finally an opportunity for one of us to get out there and get our name known. Usually the chubby girls play backup or fat best friends."
The producers are going the unknown route because there aren't many pudgy teenage movie starlets out there, said David Rubin, the casting director. He eyed the multiracial, multisized crowd of people - some of whom looked absolutely nothing like the character descriptions.
"I'm an optimist. There are a lot of good-looking Tracys out there," he said. "Nothing would please us more than to find the answer in Baltimore."
With that, he grabbed a megaphone, rounded up the first group of 25 candidates and shepherded them into the audition room. They stood in a semicircle, then stepped to the center, one at a time, and belted out their eight bars of music. Reporters were barred from watching the auditions, but an occasional let-it-all-out burst of sound could be heard from behind the closed doors. Most of the Tracy hopefuls sang "Good Morning Baltimore," a number from the musical.
And that was it. Eight bars, a few seconds to smile broadly, and then, a lucky one or two were immediately told if they were invited back for Round Two, which is to take place today. They emerged, relieved, crushed, shaky, exuberant or, in some cases, philosophical.
Knox, who had felt the spirit of Tracy beckoning, was looking a bit droopier when she came out of the audition. She was not in the group asked to return.
"I think they know what they're looking for. You can't take it personally. If the role's for you, the role's for you. You just try your best," she said.
She sighed, then brightened a little. "I think the movie will be amazing," she said. "I'm relieved, and I don't know, it was awesome."
Kelly Glyptis, 16, of Manassas, Va., left the audition looking as if Queen Latifah herself - a role model for many of these teenagers - had handed her a million dollars. Her eyes were shiny, her face flushed and she was nearly breathless.
"I can't believe I was called back! It's amazing! I don't know what to say!" she panted, waving a hand near her chest. "I kind of wanted to scream but I had to be professional."
After Baltimorean Sierra Evans, who is 9 and tiny, found out about her call-back for the part of Little Inez, she walked outside and started jumping up and down on the sidewalk in her yellow dress, fake fur jacket and fat braids.
Kimathi Evans had watched his daughter sing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with all her might, just as she'd been advised. "I'm proud that she brushes her teeth and does her homework. I'm definitely proud she might star next to John Travolta and Queen Latifah," he said, beaming.
He was grasping a sheet of music with the song she had to learn for the second audition. "I'm going to make sure she works on this," he said, "so she can knock them dead. Deader. If they were dead today, they're going to be embalmed tomorrow when we come back."