“When you get the audition, you’re on first base. Get the call back, you get to second base. Get put on ‘avail’, that’s third base. And then if you book it, you get to slide into home!” Creating a first and even second chance for auditions is what matters most to Bubba Dean Rambo. A dancer, actor, and choreographer with decades-long credits in Broadway, commercial, and film, Bubba has audition tips for getting the job. From consistently finding industry work to his commanding stage presence, it’s no wonder Bubba’s resume lists him working beside the entertainment industry’s past and present legends like Carol Channing, Dolly Parton, Andy Blankenbuehler, and more. Our interview did not center on being the best dancer or the most talented, but rather, how to be the one to constantly book work, getting past first base to deliver your best YOU.
“I learned something from Andy Blankenbuehler [five-time Tony Award winner] when I auditioned for him for Vice. I was a little nervous because Andy is the guy now. The choreographer. And he has everything you would want him to be. He is pure joy to work with and encouraging. Especially at the audition.” Most often, a dancer’s general concern is how to stand out. But being aware of “encouraging” opportunities that offer do-overs is a key element to success.
Bubba admits Blankenbuehler’s choreography was difficult. “But the cool thing about Andy is [in what] he said; ‘These steps are difficult, but, don’t worry about that. Make it work for you.’“ Blankenbuehler invited the dancers to repeat their audition if need be, to feel good about their presentation. The insight being, for those dancers willing to take the opportunity, success was gained, either personally or professionally. “Andy wanted everyone to feel they had done their best. He made you want to do your best.”
Dance for Bubba began on an auditorium stage in Charlotte, North Carolina when he was four years-old. After watching his sister in Frances Henderson Howser’s School of Dance recital and when all had exited the theatre, Bubba’s mother (dressed like June Cleaver) found him on stage extending his tiny arms out to the huge, cavernous auditorium. His parents decided to enroll him in dance. And like that day, he would repeat for many auditions with song and dance, being onstage – most often with his arms stretched out to the darkened theatre where the producer and directors would sit and review.
Keep your energy instead of letting someone take yours.
Knowing how to audition well and retain his innate tenacity has paid off with work on Broadway, in television, and film. Bubba’s credits include memorable shows such as Hello Dolly, Sophisticated Ladies, Cats, Woman of the Year, Drew Carey Show, Weeds, Glee, Casual, Vice, LaLaLand, and The Muppet Movie - which is just barely a third of his list. Equally interesting are the choreographers, directors, and producers he’s worked under, such as Andy Blankenbuehler, Marguerite Derricks, Michael Rooney, Mandy Moore, Adam McKay, Jerry Herman, Woody Allen, Richard Attenborough, Trevor Nunn, Grover Dale, Michael Smuin, and on and on…And I will add, there were too many great stories with these amazing performers during our interview to include them all in this article.
After honing his dance skills with Ms. Howser, Bubba received a Major in Dance Theatre from East Carolina University under the strict and disciplined direction of Mavis Ray, an assistant to Agnes DeMille in New York City. Bubba loved that Mavis had a stinging sense of humor. In class she would smack soft buttocks and proclaim (please use a British accent here), “Must be jelly. Jam doesn’t shake that way.” And later, when Bubba found himself in New York working alongside Ms. Ray: “Miracles never cease. Do they, Rambo?”
With the experience of a few seasons performing at Carowinds theme park in Charlotte and Opryland in Nashville, Bubba auditioned for his first major job as swing in the New York City Broadway production of Hello Dolly with Carol Channing at the Lunt Fontanne. Concentrating on the task and creating opportunity to further his presence to be considered for the role, is the element that turned an improbable “maybe” into a “yes” for Bubba’s success then and now.
The Hello Dolly Broadway audition was held at King Rehearsal Studios on 43rd and 11th avenue, a walk from the subway through Hell’s Kitchen and what seemed the end of the earth. “It was a dusty, musty, dirty, old studio, but exciting. It smelled like sweat and ambition.”
A group of sixty Equity union “boys” were seen first for the part of swing. Bubba and the other non-union “boys” might be seen afterwards. Most of the non-union dancers grew impatient and left. “I thought surely they’d find their one person out of those sixty union guys. But [for some reason] I stayed. Either my training or personality – but I don’t give up. I don’t like to give up.”
Four Equity dancers were kept. There was time to audition Bubba and the few remaining non-union dancers. Finally, they kept Bubba and one other non-union dancer to audition with the four union dancers. The odds increased in Bubba’s favor enough that he thought, “I’ve got a real chance to get this job. So, I kept my focus and did everything as precise as I could because that’s what they wanted.”
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After the last round, the dancers were dismissed and told they would be informed of the outcome once decided. But wait! “The newspaper audition call-sheet said needs to dance and sing, bring sheet music. I said, ‘Excuse me. Aren’t we going to sing?” The musical director acquiesced to have the disgruntled dancers with possibly less singing experience, line up to sing one at a time. “I positioned myself last in line because, if anything, I’ll be the last thing they’ll hear.”
Bubba chose to sing thirty-two bars of Rock-A-Bye Your Baby because of its great key change for hitting an impressive note. “While I’m singing, I can see the accompanist Virginia [at the piano] with perfectly coiffed, white hair, thin horn-rimmed, wing-tipped glasses, and a cigarette with a two-inch ash hanging out of her mouth, clunking on the keyboard [making a thumbs up motion] signaling ‘this is the one!’” When Bubba had finished, Virginia said, “That was real good, honey.”
End of story? As soon as Bubba got home, the phone rang for him to come back and sign a contract for him to leave in a few days to join the show in Minneapolis and then return to perform on Broadway. His first Broadway show.
Bubba was successful because he was able to effectively answer and deliver to the following questions: What does the call notice ask for? What is the energy from the casting people? Are they getting what they need? Is there an opportunity to align oneself in a positive position that demonstrates being the right choice for the role?
Without focus and sticking to the plan of getting the job, success can be elusive. In Bubba’s story, the director forgot to ask the dancers to sing. Bubba knew his strength and inserted the option to sing. In essence, he created the opportunity to get the job.
There is also Bubba’s positive disposition. He auditioned for the production of They’re Playing Our Song, music and lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch, held onstage at the theatre. Bubba sang his comfort song, Rock-A-Bye. From the darkness of the theatre, at the moment of his key-change, he heard, “Thank you!” and was cut off from singing the climatic finish. Bubba left, dejected. Halfway home, he had a change of heart and courage and headed back to the theatre. He maneuvered his way backstage and told the audition assistant, “‘He didn’t hear my key-change, the best part.’ The guy goes to Hamlisch and asks if I can do-over. He returns and says, ‘Mr. Hamlisch said he knew exactly where you were going with your song.’ I walked home satisfied. I did everything I could do for the part.”
There was the time Bubba auditioned for Grand Tour at the Cort Theatre on 48th Street, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. “I sang for Jerry and was politely dismissed. I walked down the street and,” Bubba smile widens because he knows what’s coming, “I turned to go back because I sang the wrong song. I hung out at the stage door and told the audition assistant, ‘I sang the wrong song. Could you please ask Mr. Herman if I could sing something different?’ Jerry got up, came up the steps and backstage to me and said, ‘Of course you can sing again!’ It almost makes me cry [to remember.] I sang another song and Jerry said, “That was great. Thank you so much! You’re just not right for this show but thank you.’ And I thought, you know what, Jerry Herman will always be in my heart. He probably knew it took a lot of guts for me to come back and do that.”
In both stories, for better or worse, going back was a choice. A positive perspective has been Bubba’s additional key to success - as there wasn’t more to lose, there was only more to gain.
These steps are difficult, but, don’t worry about that. Make it work for you.
Dancers spend enormous amounts of time physically training. But the business of making business happen is little talked about or shared. And, with nine out of ten rejections, it is disingenuous to simply assume they dont like me, they only choose their friends, or whatever! Rather, check your commitment to purpose and following through with more than just desire. How about engaging skills of observation and becoming adaptable to the needs in the moment? And what of focus?
“All that visiting and chatting at auditions is nervous energy. I’ve done it! You really have to focus and contain yourself so when it’s time to do your best, [you’re ready.] Keep your focus in auditions. Keep your energy instead of letting someone take yours.” And in Bubba’s gentle manner, he ended our interview with this last thought, “Never give up and never walk out thinking this will never happen. Because what makes opportunity happen for someone and not someone else can be that very factor.”
Top photo: Bubba Dean Rambo in 'Liberty's Song' at the Grand Ole Opry House, Nashville, TN