Bittersweet Spotlight

Round Rock's Ellen Marlow is on Broadway (at the age of 10)

Ellen Marlow
Ellen Marlow

New York City is not living up to its noisy reputation this morning as the animated sounds of early morning traffic and passersby are strangely absent. Instead, hundreds of policemen occupy the streets, and the usual steady traffic is replaced with tow trucks racing through the streets and helicopters circling frantically overhead.

Ellen Marlow stands on a sidewalk outside Chelsea Studios, on the corner of 26th Street and Seventh Avenue, waiting for its doors to open. Surrounding her are dozens of people with pretty faces and bubbling personalities, all of whom had the same idea of arriving three hours early in anticipation of a large crowd. It turns out they are right; there are already 300 other girls in line, and at 6:30am, they are much more awake than they should be. The excitement on their faces shows that 10am cannot come fast enough, but all anticipation aside, Ellen's mind is focused on the thought that behind those very doors, her biggest dream could come true.

It just so happens that the Republican National Convention is taking place on the same day. The city is already large and creepy without thousands of guns and even more conservatives on its streets. Nevertheless, Ellen is a professional, and the audition process is not new to her. Broadway, however, is.

Ellen is from Austin, which is a far cry from the Big Apple. At home, she's been auditioning primarily for smaller-scale musicals, and the talent pool is much smaller. She caught the acting bug when she appeared in Broadway Texas' 2003 production of The Wizard of Oz at Bass Concert Hall. She won the role of Teacher #1, and her only line was, "We thank you very sweetly, for doing it so neatly." At each performance, there were 3,000 people in the audience, and her options were to hate it or love it. She chose the latter.

This outing, on the other hand, is for a much bigger show and has much bigger implications for Ellen. The open audition is for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a $20 million Broadway adaptation of the 1968 film which starred Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts, the eccentric inventor of the flying car of the title. (See "The Car That Flies.")

Three years ago, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, what was at the time the largest musical ever filmed in England, was adapted for the theatre, in what is now the largest musical ever staged in England. The London West End production was a resounding success, which led producers to create a Broadway version with an American cast. The try-out could be Ellen's big break, not only spelling big M-O-N-E-Y for her, but also truly launching her into the world of showbiz.

Not too shabby for a 10-year-old.

Ellen is a fifth-grader at Laurel Mountain Elementary School. She lives with her family and is like most every other girl in her grade; she loves to shop and read and play with her golden retriever, Rudy. She does two hours of homework a night, and if she finishes in time, she goes to her big brother John's football practices. But what sets her apart from other girls are her extracurricular aspirations. She has dreams of becoming a star, and she keeps very busy trying to make them happen.

She is part of a performance troupe called Leading Players, which ties her up on Saturdays from 10am-2pm. She is also enrolled in two separate voice classes in Austin and has dance class on Tuesday nights for two hours.

Her mother, Stacia, and father, John, support her dreams to the utmost. They take her to practices and rehearsals and, in this case, auditions in New York City.

The doors to the studio finally open just after 9am, and the excited crowd piles into the building. Inside is a sign-in table for all of the hopefuls, and metal folding chairs have been set up for seating. They fill up very quickly, so people also make good use of the floor-space. Many sit impatiently and quietly sing songs to themselves or anyone willing to listen.

Very quickly, Ellen is called into a room with hardwood floors and mirrors on every wall. On the far side of the room is a table serving as a temporary desk for the casting director. Near him is an accompanist sitting at a piano.

Ellen is a music fanatic. She knows many Broadway songs and can sing word for word with several of the more popular shows. She likes pop, hip-hop, country, and Eighties rock. Music is what she lives for, and if asked she would say it is her favorite thing. Her favorite song to audition with is "Don't Rain on My Parade," a ditty that will be forever associated with Barbra Streisand. This is the song she sings now.

Meanwhile, outside Stacia waits patiently in a metal chair. When Ellen walks out, ready to go back home, she is confident in the hope that she made an impact.

Caractacus and Co. in the London production of <i>
Caractacus and Co. in the London production of CCBB

Back in Texas, Ellen goes about her normal routines. She does her homework and practices her singing, all with the appreciation of the huge opportunity she has received. Few aspiring young performers are lucky enough to try out for a major Broadway play. Thousands of people go to New York every year, hoping to catch their big break, and most only end up serving food to the ones that were lucky. The feeling around the Marlow house is that Ellen, if nothing else, has had an experience that most only dream of.

Then the phone rings. Fourteen girls are being invited to a final callback, and Ellen is one of them.

When the Marlows return to the city, New York is back to normalcy again. Outside Chelsea Studios are countless cars gridlocked in traffic and hundreds of people scurrying busily along the sidewalks. The deli down the street is filled with hungry patrons waiting for their Reubens or meatball hoagies. The RNC is over. President Bush and his fellow Republicans have returned to their everyday activities. The city is now what it is expected to be.

This go-round, the audition is by appointment, making Ellen the only person in line. The process is completely different than it was three weeks ago, adding to the tension that the already puzzling day brings.

The part up for grabs is that of Jemima Potts, daughter to Caractacus and a principal role in this lavish musical. Receiving the part would mean many changes for Ellen, some good, some bad. She would have to leave behind her friends, her school, her home, and maybe even her beloved dog. The effects could be life-changing.

Ellen enters the same wood-floored audition room as before, but this time, to her surprise, 20 people are there to greet her. Executive types crowd the space, and about the only familiar face is the accompanist sitting at the piano. After seeing her sing and dance and even speak with a thick British accent, the group collectively sends Ellen from the room to wait outside.

With all familiarity out the window, the developments of the day are flying by as quickly as they are unexpectedly.

The casting director comes out again and asks Ellen and her mother to come back tomorrow for the "final-final callback."

Central Texas is home to gentle rolling hills and grassy plains. New York is home to 24-hour Chinese and the best sports team of all time. The apartments in New York are small and cramped and would probably have no room for a dog, especially a golden retriever. Being cast in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would mean having to make several tough decisions, but then again, it would be a dream come true.

The next day Chelsea Studios once again hosts an onslaught of singing and dancing children. Eight boys and eight girls are present for the final audition. This time, all of the kids are sent into the same large studio together, where they are paired up boy and girl and given songs and dance routines to learn together. The change of format is unexpected, but so far not much has been expected.

Ellen dances and sings encircled by about 30 chairs occupied by unknown but watchful eyes. She goes back and forth stopping and waiting, jumping and spinning, singing and talking. She speaks normally and in an accent. She is literally working until her small body is exhausted.

Outside, Stacia watches a show of her own. Several of the children try mind tricks and attempt to psyche out the other participants. Conniving mothers sit cleverly spinning webs for unsuspecting prey. Some of the children brag in attempt to make themselves look better in the eyes of others. Luckily, Stacia had advance warnings of such behavior, had heard tales of mothers doing anything and everything for their child to "make it."

The audition comes to a close after almost five hours. The children are sent away, not knowing what to expect next. Ellen and her mother return to their hotel room and finally have a chance to breathe in this a hectic and bewildering day.

Then the phone rings.

Being 10 years old means having fun and doing what you love. It means you are in that short time-frame when everything you do is fun. Most fifth graders watch Pokémon and play tag because that is what they love. Ellen Marlow is the same as all other 10-year-olds. She recognizes her passion and works hard for it. She practices and goes through tough situations in order to get closer to her goal. She loves to sing and dance in front of people.

On Feb. 7, Ellen Marlow starts rehearsals for the part of Jemima Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Ellen moved to New York with her mother and brother in January and instead of going to school seven hours a day she will be singing and dancing for thousands of people on one of Broadway's biggest stages.

And her reaction to the life-altering change? "I get to live out my dream of being on Broadway and fly in a car. What could be cooler?" end story

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