by Paul Teetor

After three months of rehearsal, Garrett Mendez still had some questions about his role. He knew Sammy Williams had the answers, so he shut out the pre-rehearsal clamor swirling around him and listened intently as Williams offered him acting advice.

"Just keep it real," the 52-year-old Williams told the 14-year-old Mira Costa freshman. "Tell the story simply. Make it real for all those people in the audience."

For Mendez, it was a gift from a theatrical God, wisdom from a Tony Award winner who has played his role — the role of Paul, the tormented homosexual who bares his soul in a 10-minute monologue - thousands of times in front of more than a million people.

"I know what you mean," Mendez said. "All the time, I’m trying to get that feeling, thinking of things that make me cry and then making it real - like I’m not acting at all."

Sammy Williams, cast in the role of Paul for the original Broadway production of "A Chorus Line" back in 1975, was in Manhattan Thursday to work with Mendez and the 35 other Mira Costa students who have prepared for months to mount the lavish musical that set the Broadway record for most consecutive performances. It opens Friday night at 7:30 and runs for five additional performances: Saturday, April 28, and May 3,4, and 5 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee May 5.

With the possible exception of the wonderfully bitchy, still-modern-sounding "All About Eve," "A Chorus Line" is the greatest behind-the-scenes look Broadway has ever allowed the public, a warts-and-all Valentine to the spectacular truimphs and broken dreams of the theatre life. It also provided a career path for Williams, at the time a struggling young actor who found his theatrical mojo in the key role of Paul. In the process, he won a Tony in 1976 and forever defined the role with his raw, keep-it-real approach.

"There were things that I never talked to anyone about before my audition for that role," he said after mentoring Mendez. "The role of Paul was based on the life of Nicholas Dante, one of the co-writers. I think my personality and my vulnerability were what they were looking for."

Imitation of Life

By working with Mendez, Williams was passing on the legacy of Michael Bennett, the late, great director who conceived and created Broadway’s longest running musical out of his passionate love of the theatre and all its players -- the wannabes and never-weres, the community players and summer-stock-superstars as well as the genuine giants of Broadway.

For Williams, who ended up playing the part of Paul for seven years in three different Broadway casts, Paul has become an alter-ego, a doppelganger figure who dictated the arc of his career ever since the man and the myth met up more than 25 years ago. Williams is now and always will be the resident expert on Paul, a pioneering homosexual character who was a precursor of the gay revolution in American pop culture during the 1980’s and 90’s.

"I’ve seen a lot of different Pauls over the years," Williams laughed, "and they all played it differently."

Then he turned serious.

"This young man, Garrett Mendez, is as talented as any high school actor I’ve ever seen in the role," he said. "I think theater fans here are in for a real treat from a special young talent."

Mendez, who auditioned for the role of Richie, had to be talked into taking the role of Paul. But even after Director Carol J. Matthews convinced him he could play the difficult role, he was plagued with self-doubt. He said Williams was critical in helping him finally have faith he could take on the kind of serious dramatic role he had never tried before.

"I’ve always played the funny guy, the comedic role. I wasn’t sure I could do this kind of serious dramatic role," he said. "When I heard the original cast member who played Paul was coming to watch us rehearse, I knew he might be helpful. But Sammy did more than that. He shared his pain, shared the pain of the role, and showed me how to reach my own pain. I mean, in that monologue I have to go through happy, sad and angry — and then I break down at the end."

Matthews, who has been involved with the Mira Costa Performing Arts Department for 11 years, has seen several Costa students go on to big-time film, TV and theatre success. The list includes Danny Strong, who has a recurring role in the critically acclaimed "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," one of the most literate dramas on TV despite its lurid, gothic setting. She said Mendez has as much raw talent as any freshman she has worked with, and has handled the pressure of the last few weeks without missing a beat.

"First, at my request he takes a role he didn’t want originally — a key role in the play - and then the guy who won a Tony for the role shows up to watch him rehearse. That’s a lot of pressure for a 14-year old," Matthews said. "We really put him on the spot, but nothing seems to bother Garrett. He has so much potential."

The Carol Matthews Band

Staged as a play-within-a-play, an audition that turns into a group therapy session punctuated by singing and dancing, "A Chorus Line" weaves many smaller stories around the central story of Cassie, played here by the captivating Alison Beatty, who was recently accepted into the New York University theatre program. Cassie is a former chorus dancer who went on to Broadway fame as a full-fledged actress, flamed out in her stab at Hollywood stardom, and now just wants to start over as an anonymous member of the chorus line.

Director Matthews, herself a former stage and screen actor, worked with an intense focus Thursday afternoon that reflected the prevailing I-can’t-believe-we’ve-only-got-a-week-to-go mood.

She was helped by her do-all-the-dirty-work co-director, Elisa Nickerson, a Mira Costa English teacher and another former actor. Despite her title of co-director, Nickerson knows who’s really in charge.

"I’m number one-A," she said. "Carol’s number one."

Like two generals on a battlefield, the women used hand-held microphones to move 36 cast members, 25 band members and 15 support staff — including lighting, sound and costume people - around the still-modern-feeling Mira Costa auditorium, built in 1960 but rehabbed several years ago. Standing in front of the stage, clutching her water bottle like a conductor’s baton, the blond-haired Matthews exuded a quiet sense of command in her black jeans, black T-shirt and black-heeled boots, firmly in charge of the big picture while Nickerson handled the minute-by-minute details.

"Mike check," Nickerson announced with all the authority of Ann Robinson, the boss lady from the hit TV show, "Weakest Link." "Any cast member with a body mike, get your butt on stage right now."

Working with Choreographer Alan Collins and Musical Directors Jean Arnett and Ellen Steinmetz, the two women managed to keep their sanity and their focus as the sights and sounds of a modern high-school, high-tech musical production swirled all around them: leotard-clad dancers stretching in the aisles, drummers, guitarists and saxophonists weaving a crazy quilt of sounds in the orchestra pit, and at least five different people wandering around snapping photographs. And always there are the incessant questions from students feeling the pressure of high expectations, as much from themselves as from anyone else.

"Carol, can you check my microphone?"

"Elisa, how does my outfit look?"

"Carol, do you know where my hat is?"

Finally Matthews showed just a flash of the pressure she was working under.

"Steve, quit turning my mike off," she yelled to someone in the control booth.

Steve denied the accusation, and the pre-rehearsal action continued as Matthews’ voice magically reappeared, filling the clam-shell shaped auditorium: "Testing 1,2, testing 1,2…..

The Age of Eminem

While cultural critics still debate the impact of enforced political correctness on high school and college campuses around the country — for example, using the phrase "alternative lifestyle" to describe homosexuals -- on this day the PC issue seems like ancient history, a relic of the early 90’s.

Garrett Mendez knows full well that his generation — the Millienial kids — are growing up in the Age of Eminem, when "fag" and "faggot" are the favored playground putdowns. They are as much a part of the new student slang as "sucks" and "bitch" — below-the-radar words that crossed the invisible, uncharted line in high school hallways from shocking and taboo to common and acceptable within two decades.

"I’m not gay myself, so I did wonder about playing a gay role," Mendez said. "I haven’t been mocked yet, but I presume I will be after the show opens."

Matthews said she admires his courage and stands ready to support him should there be any taunting.

"It would be unfortunate if any students were to act that immaturely," she said. "We’ll support him in any we can."

The gay issue was one reason he originally auditioned for the role of Richie and made it clear he did not want the role of Paul.

But after another student was cast in the role of Richie, Mendez got a phone call from Matthews.

"She said I know you didn’t want it, but please reconsider," he said. "In a way I was flattered that she thought I could play it, but in a way I was terrified too."

Matthews said it was a tough call to make.

"I knew he didn’t want the role, but I also felt he was the only one who could play it," she said. "This character has to gain the empathy of the audience, and Garrett can do that."

That call led to 48 hours of soul searching for the cerebral, mature-beyond-his-years Mendez before he took the role.

"I knew it would be a challenge because I’ve always played a comedic role before this, anything but the sad guy who cries," he said. "And of course having the stage to myself for 10 minutes was a big attraction."

In addition to his doubts about the gay issue, he didn’t know if he could summon up the necessary emotions for six nights.

"I didn’t know if I could cry on command," he said. "But Sammy talked to me about all the pain he endured, even during the first run on Broadway. He told me to start with the small things that make me cry, and then use my imagination to make that feeling grow."

Mendez, whose family is from Spain, is the first in his family to try the theatre life. But he said his family has embraced his career and this role.

"My whole family loves this play," he said. "I know they’ll be out there opening night. They’re excited that Sammy Williams is working with me."

Williams said he was happy to help Mendez and carry on the theatrical tradition of passing down hard-won stage secrets.

"It’s a great experience for me to inspire kids like I was inspired by Michael Bennett and so many others who worked with me before anybody knew who I was," Williams said. "This is my opportunity to give back some of what was given to me."

And Williams, who still makes his living in regional productions, offered Mendez a final piece of advice: seize the moment and take all the theatre has to offer before his opportunities pass.

"The film version of "Chorus Line" was made 10 years after the first Broadway run. I was the only original cast member who got to audition for the film," Williams said. "The producers loved my interpretation of the role -- but they said I was too old." ER