Casting Director Geoff Josselson on Casting Sondheim, Audition Tips

Pictured: Casting directors Katja Zarolinski and Geoff Josselson of JZ Casting.

This article first appeared as part of Jenelle Riley’s Acting Up newsletter – to subscribe for early content and weekly updates on all things acting, visit the Acting Up signup page.

Casting director Geoff Josselson just checked off a major bucket list item. When he was asked what show he dreamed of casting, he would say “Into the Woods.” And just last year, working with Telsey Casting, Josselson was part of the team that assembled the heralded Broadway revival starring Sara Bareilles, Brian D’Arcy James and Joshua Henry. Josselson is on a bit of a Stephen Sondheim spree — with Telsey he also helped cast the new production of “Sweeney Todd,” starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. And he and his partner at JZ Casting, Katja Zarolinski, just collaborated for the first time with the Pasadena Playhouse to cast “A Little Night Music,” playing at the theater April 25-May 1. 

The production is part of Pasadena Playhouse’s six-month celebration of Sondheim, marking the second show following its acclaimed run of “Sunday in the Park With George.” It also marks the 50th anniversary of the show, which premiered on Broadway in 1973 and over the years has seen such luminaries as Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jeremy Irons in productions. The story is inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” but don’t expect anything too serious or stuffy — Hugh Wheeler’s book is a smart and comical affair about several intertwined couples who spend a weekend together in the Swedish countryside in 1900. With music and lyrics by Sondheim, the show also features some of his most famous songs, including “Send in the Clowns” and “The Miller’s Son.” The Playhouse production is directed by nine-time Emmy Award winner David Lee, and the cast includes Merle Dandridge (“The Last of Us,” “Station Eleven”), Olivier Award nominee Michael Hayden and Emmy winner Jodi Long. 

Josselson has been working in casting for almost 20 years, and considers himself lucky to have found his calling right out of college. He and Zarolinski formed JZ Casting in January 2020, mere weeks before the pandemic changed casting — and the world — forever. Speaking to Variety from his New York office, his love and respect for actors comes through immediately — his face literally lighting up at the mention of some of his favorite casting moments. 

You’ve been casting for a long time; what are some of your favorite experiences? 
I’ve cast a number of new musicals and new plays that allow you to create that world the playwright is imagining and hasn’t been established yet, and that’s thrilling. But I also love revivals. “A Little Night Music” is a classic, but it’s new to me, this is my first time working on it. And David Lee is an amazing director who is really committed to the classics. So Katja and I get to look at it with fresh eyes and say, “How do we bring this into 2023 while still honoring the genius that is Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler?” 

And it’s been nice working on these three shows — “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” and getting to cast actors of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds. To see them able to play some of these iconic roles has been such a joy. Because I love the shows, I grew up with the shows, and can’t get enough of watching them — and working on them. 

You perfectly articulated my next question — how do you go about bringing this show into 2023?
As I mentioned, this is my first time working on it and I think it helps to be unencumbered by the way it’s always been done. I’m very aware of the iconic actors who have played these roles before, but I was able to separate those expectations. And knowing the work that Pasadena Playhouse does, in wanting to really cast a world of people that look like the community around us, really opens a lot of doors. 

That’s the way Katja and I always approach casting, we don’t ever want to limit ourselves to what a role should look like, where or how they should present. We always look at the storytelling first and foremost, because we can’t pretend that things like race and ethnicity and age and body type and disability don’t have connotations or don’t say something in today’s world. And we want to make sure that we’re not doing a disservice to anyone or to our audience by saying something we don’t intend. But it’s also very important to us to cast a wide-open net, and really allow roles to live and breathe by the best actors out there, whatever they may look or sound like. 

I have to say, this is one of the most thrilling casts I’ve put together in a long time, because it’s filled with actors that I’m huge fans of, like Merle Dandridge and Jodi Long. But we also have a mix of actors who are up and coming. The actor playing Henrik is Chase Del Rey, who I’ve been a big fan of since he graduated college a couple years ago and have tracked his career. We also have our Quintet of opera singers, a number of which are making their theatrical debut outside the opera world. They sing opera all over the world, but to be in a musical eight times a week is a new experience for them. 

Casting obviously moved virtual during the pandemic; where are things at now for you? Were there methods you found during the pandemic that you still utilize today?
Self-taping has always been part of the equation in casting, but now it’s much more prevalent. And there are certainly pros and cons to it. It has allowed us to get to see and meet more actors than ever across the country, because we’re not beholden to geography or who is available to come in to a room at a specific date and time. But on the flip side, is that there is no replacement for being in a room with people. And theater, specifically, is a medium built around an exchange of energy. And it relies on that live contact. So while we certainly have been casting some shows, fully over video in Zoom, we also have started to do a hybrid where we’re doing tapes, and then bringing people into the room for a call back and to get to be back in the room with actors, which has been a lovely, new process of getting to have the best of both worlds. 

And I imagine, particularly with “A Little Night Music,” you’re wanting to hear voices together, especially for the Quintet, who serve as a Greek chorus for the show. 
Yes, it was very, it was very important to David to hear them together. We didn’t end up hearing all of the ones we cast together with each other, but we heard them sing with other people. Because it was important to hear that blend and to hear how they played off of other people. And to see physically what they were like on stage. And we were able to do these auditions in an actual theater. So it felt very exciting to be back and see them on stage, something you can’t replicate on video. 

Where are some of the places you find or familiarize yourself with actors?
It really runs the gamut. We see lots of theater, and we go to showcases and teach a lot. So we get to know students that are graduating school or have come through other sort of training programs or master classes. We also are constantly digging and doing outreach to different communities, depending on what we’re looking for. Whether we’re looking for kids of a certain age, reaching out to teachers, or academies in certain areas. Or if we’re looking for actors of certain backgrounds, reaching out to organizations and individuals that we may know of, that may be connected with those pools. We also do open calls and meet a lot of actors that come to an EPA [eligible performer audition] or just a general open call. And then we also just get lots of recommendations from trusted colleagues and friends. Being a casting director is like being a sponge; we’re constantly taking in all the information around actors and our performers that are out there, and trying to make mental notes of what they may be right for or where they may fit in a general sense. 

If someone is fortunate enough to tape or get in the room with you, is there anything you would want them to know?
I tend to shy away from ever feeling like there is a hard and fast truth to any of this or any real rules, because every rule that’s out there in books is made to be broken. And I’ve seen people do all the opposite things that have been espoused and book the job or be wonderful. I think the biggest detriment is when an actor comes in trying to do what they think we’re looking for, or trying to emulate somebody else’s performance, or trying to please the people behind the table. Because it’s really not about us. Ultimately, we are there — and the director and producer are there — to find the actor that can tell the story and represent the production on stage. And that comes from an actor sharing themselves authentically and being vulnerable and making choices and sharing their version of the role, whether it’s right or wrong for that given production. I always tell people that the baseline of what we see in auditions very talented people — everybody that comes in typically is very talented. So it’s not about talent, it’s about being right for that role and that show, within a director’s vision on that given day or that given time.

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