When Jon Lawlor, 17, received a "best actor in a musical" Cappie, in June, for portraying Jesus in Westfield High's production of "Godspell," he won another prize, too.
He got the opportunity to participate in a musical summer-stock experience in Hollywood. True, he did get to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time, but this was no California vacation — it was hard work.
"We did three shows in three weeks," said Lawlor. "We worked 14-hour days, seven days a week. Some days we worked until 3 a.m."
But since the Westfield junior intends to pursue a career in acting, filmmaking and theater, he wouldn't trade a minute of his Hollywood experience for anything. "It encouraged me a lot," he said. "It made me realize what I want to do with my life — and now I have the knowledge to do it."
Lawlor and nine other Cappie "best-actor" winners — from Virginia, Oregon, Texas and Ohio — spent 24 days there, from July 12-Aug. 6. Accompanying them was Cappies co-founder Bill Strauss.
At the John Raitt Theatre (named after singer Bonnie Raitt's actor dad), the students met their directors, Paul Gleason (who runs the theater), Phil Lierness and Alan Piper. Then they auditioned for the first show, "The Makiddo." Written by Strauss, it was a satire of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado."
The students were cast, the Friday they arrived in Hollywood, and had to be off-script by the following Monday. "We had to learn 28 songs and a 77-page script in three days," said Lawlor. "It was tough; the first couple days were a lot of pressure because we had to be ready so soon. And it was a demanding play — everyone was on stage almost all the time."
In "The Makiddo," he played Squish, the jock of a perfect school. "He's the guy who's always the best, and he thinks highly of himself," said Lawlor. However, the school really hasn't accomplished anything, and Squish has never played in a game.
The students gave three performances of each event they did — Friday and Saturday nights, plus Sunday matinees. By Saturday, they'd already been cast in the next play, "Freethemusic.com," also written by Strauss. It was based on the movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and contained 21 songs.
"It was a lot of fun to do," said Lawlor. "I was Jackson Smith — the Jimmy Stewart character in the movie. He's a songwriter and, in this play, politicians want people to pay for music every time they hear a song on the radio or play a CD, etc."
Smith gets upset and tries to change their minds; instead of a filibuster, he does a telethon. "I was pretty drained after the first play," said Lawlor. "But then I got this cool part so I had to keep going strong."
The third event was a Richard Rodgers tribute, with the students performing a medley of Rodgers and Hart, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, songs. Said Lawlor: "I really liked it because there were no lines to memorize — only songs."
They sang cuts from songs such as "There is Nothing Like a Dame," "Ten Minutes Ago," "All Kinds of People" and "Whistle a Happy Tune." Gleason and their musical director, Jeff Urband, created the medley so that one song flowed smoothly into the next.
"We realized that "The Sweetest Sounds" and "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things" sound similar, so half of us sang one song and the other half sang the other, at the same time," said Lawlor. "The way it fit together was so amazing. They did a really good job with the program."
They performed two shows of this Rodgers Review, on a Friday and Saturday, at the John Raitt Theatre. But on Sunday, they did it in the Beverly Hills Civic Center. Raitt, himself, was there and even sang songs from his own Broadway shows after the students were done performing.
At the Saturday show, Broadway actress Jill Van Velzer sang some tunes from the play, "The King and I," and performed a duet with Raitt. Said Lawlor: "Leaving the theater, Saturday night, and saying, 'Well, John and Jill, we'll see you tomorrow,' was pretty amazing for people our age."
On Sunday, Broadway actress Anne Runolfsson — currently in "Victor, Victoria" — joined in for a song, too. Sharing the stage with real professionals, said Lawlor, was really something for a then-16-year-old (his 17th birthday is Sept. 28).
"We talked to Anne about how she takes care of her voice and body because doing eight shows a week like she does is very stressful," he said. "We also asked how she got her start and how she likes living in New York."
The students got tips on auditioning, too. Gleason runs an actors workshop, helping thespians audition well so they'll get hired, and the students took a shortened version of it. "He didn't treat us like high-school kids," said Lawlor. "He treated us like professionals. He didn't spare our feelings — he wanted us to know what it would be like out there."
Lawlor said the most important things he learned from Gleason were selecting songs for auditions, what things to tell the musical accompanist and picking the right parts of the song to sing. "He was very thorough and good at making us do what we needed to do to get a job," said Lawlor. "He'd give us good critiques, so it was incredibly helpful.
From directors Lierness and Piper, the students learned how to audition for things other than musicals. "They had actors and producers come talk to us," said Lawlor. Actor John Cryer, for example, discussed agents and told how to prepare for a movie audition.
Along the way, Lawlor and the other students became fast friends. "I met some people out there that I can't imagine I won't be seeing on Broadway or TV," he said. "This was probably one of the most valuable things I've [done]. I realized how much I didn't know. When I came back, I felt like I needed to go to work and put everything I learned into practice."
After those long days, said Lawlor, "I don't think I'll ever complain about another high-school drama rehearsal that goes to 7 or 8 p.m." Yet although he worked hard, he said the fact that it was so demanding was what made his stay in Hollywood so worthwhile. "The preparation was the greatest thing in the world," he said. "Coming home, I just felt so good that I had done it."