By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When Niskayuna High School senior Jair Oballe first learned he had been chosen for the lead role in this year’s school musical, “Sweeney Todd,” he panicked.
“It was mostly fear, at first,” he said, recalling the moment when a friend called to ask if he had checked the cast list yet.
He hadn’t checked. He had assumed he’d be assigned an ensemble role, as he had the last two years, and looked forward to it.
“I’d never sung by myself onstage,” he said. A leading role was not what he had meant to sign up for.
But to be fair, theater in general wasn’t something Oballe ever really meant to sign up for.
Take his first audition experience, for example. He was watching auditions during his sophomore year with a friend, Victoria Preisman, because he had no other plans after school that day. Someone complained out loud that not enough boys had auditioned for that year’s production of “Cats,” and Preisman started shouting to alert everyone of Oballe’s presence. (Theater people aren’t known for their subtlety.)
Another friend, who played football outside of musical practice, hoisted Oballe out of his chair and dropped him in front of the musical’s director and the school music teacher.
“I’m laying on the stage, looking up at the lights and thinking, ‘This is awful,’ ” Oballe said.
An impromptu audition ensued. He admitted to having no acting, singing or dancing experience. The auditioners instructed him to sing “Happy Birthday.” He made the cast.
Oballe must have warmed up to the thespian lifestyle, because he showed up for two more auditions without having to be shouted at or physically relocated to the stage.
Still, when he learned what the last musical of his high school experience would be, he was skeptical.
“I was a little iffy on the show,” he said. He had seen a production of “Sweeney Todd” when he was a freshman, and found the subject matter off-putting.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is really weird and bizarre, meat pies and murder,’ ” he said. He didn’t imagine himself fitting the roles of any of the main characters in the tragic narrative.
That made it all the more shocking when he picked up the phone and learned he had been cast as the title character, a vengeful barber who cuts his customers’ throats and delivers their bodies to an accomplice who grinds their flesh to make meat pies that she serves to the unsuspecting public.
“It took me a while to realize, ‘My name is the title character,’ ” he said. It made him nervous, at first. “I had both the support but also all the eyes.”
He learned songs mostly by ear, because even though he had played clarinet until his freshman year of high school, he had never learned how to read notes on the bass clef. He had plenty of coaching and help, but at times, he missed the safety of being part of an ensemble.
He’s used to being part of a team in most of his activities. He’d been part of band and played soccer when he was younger, and became fiercely dedicated to rowing in eighth grade. Oballe still rows, even though musical rehearsals meant he had to attend crew practices before school, which was exhausting.
Still, he said the work was worth it.
“The best part for me was when I finally memorized everything and I really got to focus on my character,” he said. “I got to think, ‘How do I want to feel during this scene?’
“Rehearsal gives you this thing to come to and be excited about,” he added.
And when the curtain came up for each show, he still had his team, both on stage and in the audience. As always, his rowing friends were there.
“I make them come to my musicals,” he said. “It’s fun to bridge the gap between theater and sports in that way.”
Five questions for Jair Oballe
Q: What was the first theatrical production you remember seeing?
A: “The Lion King.”
Q: What’s one skill you don’t have, but wish you did?
A: I wish I had dance training.
Q: Describe your perfect piece of pizza.
A: It’s got to have a lot of sausage. And a lot of vegetables, that just balances out all the cheesiness.
Q: If you could trade lives with anyone for one day, who would you choose?
A: Probably a professional singer. If I could be Beyoncé for the day that would be pretty cool.
Q: What artist would produce the soundtrack for a movie about your life?
A: Lorde, being my favorite artist ever. I really like her lyrics.