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Where Did They Find That Vicious Little Girl?

Date: Jul 16, 2015
Inside the casting for Ruthless! The Musical


When Joel Paley and Marvin Laird, creators of Ruthless! The Musical, cast the show's original Off-Broadway production in 1992, they were keenly aware of a make-or-break factor. As Paley says, "We had to find a kid that was so talented it was scary."

For the campy spoof to truly work, it's essential for the central character, an eight year-old girl named Tina Denmark, to radiate unstoppable future-star power. But she also has to be convincing as a cold-blooded terror-tyke who will do anything to make it big in showbiz – or for now, her school play. As the 90-minute, wickedly amoral farce escalates to a disastrous denouement, the jokes only land if we believe that little Tina would destroy us all without a second thought.

As Ruthless! has been performed across the country, Paley, the show's writer-lyricist-director, and Laird, the composer-arranger-music director, have had uncanny luck in nabbing future stars. The 1992 production, for instance, featured Laura Bell Bundy, who was over a decade away from dazzling Broadway audiences in Hairspray and Legally Blonde. Her understudies were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears, leaving theatre fans everywhere to dream forever about a reunion concert of the original cast. Meanwhile, a 1995 Denver staging starred Annaleigh Ashford, who just won this year's Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Play.

"And now," says Paley, "we have another girl, Tori Murray, who's joined that elite lineup. And this is her first show!" Currently starring in a newly revised edition of the musical at St. Luke's Theatre, the 11 year-old was discovered in the most unlikely of venues. The agent who had submitted Spears years earlier was attending the funeral of a friend when the diminutive Murray sang a stirring song for her departed grandmother. Upon meeting Murray's parents, the agent extended her card and, as Paley recounts, "She told them, 'This may not be the right time, but just in case you want representation….'"


"The casting experience was extraordinary," recalls Laird. "She had never auditioned for anything before. She was so nervous she could barely make it down the aisle to step up on stage. The girls had all been instructed to learn 'Born To Entertain' from the show, and when she opened her mouth… It. Was. A.Miracle."

"It was a big gamble," Paley continues. "We told the producers, 'Look, this kid's never been in a show before. We've got other girls we know can do it. But this kid – I want to gamble on her.' I didn't even know at first if she could learn lines. We took a lot of risks, and they paid off."

The duo developed their casting skills via diverse decades in show business. In addition to directing for theatre and television, Paley is a former theatre and television performer and an original member of the famed dancing drag divas, Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo. Laird has composed and arranged extensively for television, film, and theatre and served as music director for over two dozen musicals on Broadway and the West End. He's also enjoyed a 40 years-plus career as Bernadette Peters' personal music director. Over two decades have passed since the Off-Broadway production won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, but Paley notes that the comedy's core issues remain vital.

"Narcissism will never go out," he says. "The idea of people wanting to be famous – now more than ever with social media – and willing to do doing anything to get recognition is just bigger now than ever. It's a cautionary tale."


Jeff Potter is an arts journalist and musician living in Manhattan.

Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo (L to R): Tori Murray and Kim Moresca