TWO STAGE VETERANS, TWO DIFFERENT ROADS TO 'A CHORUS LINE' : When It Comes to Auditions, Terrence Mann's Been There

"Please, God, I need this job," sing the hopefuls of "A Chorus Line" at the beginning of the audition. Their first barrier is the assistant choreographer, played by Terrence Mann, who helps the ruthless director Zach but sympathizes more openly with the dancers.

"Auditions I have known" could be a chapter in every performer's autobiography. Mann remembers going up for "Barnum," the show that changed him from a member of the chorus to a near-the-footlights player.

"I went in with 500 other guys," he recalls now, munching a cheeseburger in his Century Plaza hotel room. "The first thing they asked me was, 'Could I juggle and ride a unicycle?' Luckily I'd learned how in clown class."

Mann had one other advantage besides attendance at clown class. He had worked with "Barnum" director Joe Layton 10 years earlier at the Lost Colony, a North Carolina summer playhouse. "Joe took a liking to me then," Mann recalls. "I guess he thought I deserved a break, so he kept picking me as they went through the cuts. Those things happen. Somewhere along the line there's going to be one person who sees your potential."

Two years later, after Mann had worked his way up to playing Barnum himself, he tried to audition for the Broadway production of "Cats." "The casting people wouldn't even see me because they thought I was the wrong type," Mann remembers about his attempt to play Rum Tum Tugger, the rock 'n' roll cat. "They wanted someone like Rex Smith or John Travolta."

So the actor took matters into his own hands. When he and his English playwright wife, Juliette Mann, went to London to visit her family, Mann dropped by the theater where "Cats" was playing. "Cheeky guy that I am, I talked the stage manager into letting me in during a rehearsal break," he says.

"I went up to choreographer Gillian Lynne, who I knew was casting the show in New York, and asked if I could audition for Rum Tum Tugger. I sat down at the piano and sang her a couple of Elton John songs. She said, 'Come to the callbacks in New York.' " He did, and he got the part.

After two years in "Cats," Mann auditioned for the film of "A Chorus Line." "I was interviewed by Cy Feuer (one of the producers), and he said, 'You'd be great for Larry, the assistant choreographer.' " Mann was surprised. "Larry was supposed to be someone who could dance rings around everyone else. I told Cy, 'I'm not a hotshot dancer.' "

Although Mann had reservations about his footwork, director Richard Attenborough didn't--and gave him the part without a screen test.

"Larry could have been integrated into more dances," Mann allows. "I danced in 'Cats,' and I did dance in 'A Chorus Line.' I held my own. I guess they cast me because they wanted my quality--the authority Larry wields."

At 34, Mann has the right combination of enthusiasm and experience--an aura that seems natural to him. His life wasn't always quite so well balanced, he admits. Although he decided during his high school days in Clearwater, Fla., to become an actor--so he "could kiss girls"--he floundered until he was 24.

"I spent four years studying theater arts at college (Jacksonville University, North Carolina School of the Arts), but I never graduated because I couldn't get all my credits together," he explains.

"So I headed back to Florida and organized a six-piece rock 'n' roll band. At one point we were making $1,500 a week, but because of management problems we started going steadily downhill. We ended up playing beer-and-wine joints for the door money.

"Then I hit rock bottom. My girlfriend left me. My grandmother died. I was so broke I had to move back in with my parents and work as a car jockey, driving and washing cars. Luckily a friend of mine called from North Carolina and asked me to come up and help put her farm together. We dug outhouses, installed heating in the house, stripped the land, turned the soil and tried to grow some things. My dog and I hung out there for three or four months while I sorted out my life a little. That's when I realized the only thing I knew how to do was perform.

"One day I went over to the Lost Colony (where he had apprenticed while in college). I was standing there looking at the theater, knowing the plays had already been cast. I said a little prayer about getting work there. Then this hand came up and tapped me on the shoulder. 'Do you want a job?'

"It was the choreographer; she remembered me. Since that tap on the shoulder, my career has gone uphill. I went back to school on full scholarship, graduated with honors and went right into the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival for two years. Then I decided to try New York. Two weeks after I arrived, I auditioned for 'Barnum.' "

Mann has small roles in two coming features. In "Critters," which he describes as "a rock 'n' roll space adventure," he plays a space bounty hunter; in "Solarbabies" he's an Indian tribal leader who has survived a nuclear holocaust.

He worries about the future. "I don't know how to take the next step," he says. "I know what it's like being on a Broadway stage. But the impact people have on a movie screen is phenomenal. It can either kill you or make you live. I think I have to be careful to hang on to who I am."

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