“West Side Story” is a musical most high schools can only dream of putting on. With intense dance scenes, demanding vocals and arguably one of the hardest orchestral scores of all time, this show is more difficult than any of the other classics of its time. However, that’s exactly why Theatre West is doing it.
Following “Les Misérables” in the spring of 2017, a show centered almost entirely around vocal ability, Theatre West directors Ann Rocarek and Katy Nahra knew they had to pick a production that was very different but just as impressive. From this came the decision to put on a musical with more elaborate features, such as ten complex dances.
“The show is going to be very dance-heavy. That’s pretty unique to us as a high school, that we’re not shying away from letting it be dance-heavy,” Rocarek said. “It’s a beast. [But] by the end of everything, this show is gonna be incredible.”
Dance captain Joseph Verry ’18 feels the same way. This is his second year as a dance captain for Theatre West, but he says his experience helping with this show differs greatly from his work on “Les Misérables.”
Throughout both musicals, Verry worked to teach and perfect choreography created by Michael Kohli and Ashlynnd Jones of National Dance Academy. However, “West Side Story” gave him more musical numbers to attend to than usual.
“More than any other musical I’ve been in, the dancing plays a large part in the progression of the show. The styles of dance that accompany the difficult music are on another level [than years past],” Verry said. “Although it’s difficult, I know the actors and actresses can handle [it].”
All of the complex elements of this show could not have been possible without the cast. Every student involved has a different skill set and level of expertise, resulting in everyone being able to bring something different to the production. This has led many members of the cast to rise to the occasion and become leaders.
One of these student leaders is Paul Amrani ’18. After spending two years at the Houston Ballet Academy, Amrani returned to Iowa City to finish his senior year. He decided to audition for “West Side Story” because it’s been one of his dream musicals to be part of.
During rehearsals, despite not being a dance captain Amrani was able to help many actors who were struggling to learn a particular part of choreography.
“I like to think that I [was a] resource for people if they didn’t understand a step or … how to do something better. I think that this will make the dancing in this show stand out even more,” Amrani said.
Emma Furlong ’21 is one of two freshmen in the musical and despite this being her first show with the Theatre West, she fit right in with the rest of the cast. During her time with the show, Furlong greatly enjoyed getting to explore her different strengths onstage, as well as having the chance to have fun with her peers.
“My favorite part of the show is singing and dancing ‘America’, and also hanging out with all my friends … I met a lot of great people in things like S.P.I.T. that made me want to audition,” Furlong said.
The cast of Theatre West’s “West Side Story” have all grown as performers throughout the show. Despite the new tasks and experiences, the cast wouldn’t have wanted the production to have gone any other way. “West Side Story” runs from April 12-14 and everyone involved hopes to see you all there.
“The actors and actresses have put lots of time into learning the music, the dances, and their lines; the culmination of this these things are sure to make an entertaining show. I recommend anyone come to the show and see [our] version of [this] classic,” Verry said.
Behind curtains and closed doors, many West High students are hard at work creating a world straight out of a history book. These students make up the nine technical crews that have been tasked with creating everything from the props to the makeup to the lighting designs for “West Side Story.” Their job is to make sure that every single aspect of “West Side Story” comes together in a visually impactful way.
Callie Dains ’18, head of set crew, has had quite a bit to take on for this show. The plans for this set involve 16-foot-tall towering buildings, some of which revolve onstage.
“Doc’s [Drugstore, a set piece,] will be really cool [because] it rotates. So the outside will be something interesting and then we can turn it around and it’ll be a little shop with a bar and stairs down into it. It’s been really fun to work on,” Dains said.
In addition to Doc’s Drugstore, the set for “West Side Story” has more seperate parts than any other recent Theatre West production. While this felt like a daunting task at first, it has proven to be less intimidating than expected, especially with the help of two adult tech directors.
Jeff Smith has been West High’s theatre tech director for over eight years, but “West Side Story” will be the last show he helps out on. While Smith is currently planning to move to New York City in the near future, he knows the memories he made while working with Theatre West will stick with him forever.
“The community that you feel here is [amazing]. There are so many different types of people involved in theatre and everyone brings something different and fun. That’s what makes Theatre [West] so special,” Smith said.
Replacing Smith will be Beth Halverson. Halverson grew up participating in lots of theatrical productions in her hometown of Spencer, Iowa, both onstage and off, and recently obtained a degree in education from the University of Iowa. She is currently a substitute teacher in the ICCSD district in addition to her position with Theatre West.
Halverson’s experience at West has been very positive. She has greatly appreciated how accepting the Theatre West community has been since her arrival in January.
“I think [Theatre West] is awesome and this program is awesome. I love that I’ve been welcomed with open arms,” Halverson said. “Having Jeff here really gives me an opportunity to see not only what you guys are used to, but also some different ways of building. He just has knowledge and it’s giving me a chance to learn routines without necessarily having to hit the ground running on my own.”
Another crucial part of bringing this show’s complex world to life has been the costuming. Costumes head Niki Alden ’18 has found a lot of enjoyment in finding beautiful, time period-appropriate pieces for all the actors to wear.
“[Costume crew] is really fun and you end up with such an amazing product that you can be super proud of since we put our heart and soul into [these costumes],” Alden said.
Amanda Aaberg ‘18 also feels that working on the costume crew throughout her high school career has been a very rewarding experience, in addition to having given her many great friends.
“The [costumes] family is usually very close. Lights is really close, set is really close, we’re all really close … it’s been nice to work with these people [on a show] one last time,” Aaberg said.
There seems to be a place for anyone backstage of “West Side Story” as every part of this show is full of students pursuing something they love to work on.
“Every single person contributes to this show,” Rocarek said. “Every kid has something important to do. Frontstage, backstage, up in the booth, down in the pit … This show has things all moving at the same time, and everyone has to be [focused] at all times.”
Underneath the stage of West High School’s Arganbright Auditorium, 39 students stumble around as quietly as possible while shrouded in darkness. The only thing to light their paths are a few television monitors aimed on the stage. After each student manages to find their correct seat, they pull out their instruments to begin tuning. Finally, the lights in the auditorium dim and a hush falls over the audience. Once the director lifts his baton, the pit orchestra raises their instruments in anticipation of the show to come.
Due to the challenging musical composition by Leonard Bernstein, “West Side Story” has a reputation for being very demanding of its players. Despite this, pit orchestra director Jon Welch wanted the show to remain almost completely student based, only bringing in one professional player as lead trumpet.
“I think sometimes we take for granted here at West what we all have,” Welch said. “Here, we just have an abundance of talented [musicians] that can play the stuff and can do it. As a teacher, why would you hire when you have students come in [that can] actually [play] this … We’re very fortunate, not every school has what we have here.”
Welch is looking forward to performing this specific musical, not only for the variety of musical genres and styles, but for the core values showcased as well. These values are ones Welch believes demonstrate the best and worst parts of American history and convey important messages about social justice.
“This is absolutely my favorite,” he said. “[It’s] a story of forbidden love, but love that transcends social class and racial lines … It’s something that, while it’s fun to play and listen to … it has a very important social message that we all need to revisit.”
In addition to “West Side Story” containing modern lessons, this musical has provided an opportunity for new players to interact with a variety of students as well.
“Everyone seems really nice and it’s been fun getting to know people I don’t normally talk to,” said Anna Carmen ’20. “There’s no hostile vibes [coming] off of anyone. Even if I don’t know them, everyone seems encouraging.”
In contrast to the cast and crew, students in pit orchestra do not typically interact on a daily basis with the rest of the students involved in the musical, because of the different rehearsal times and spaces provided for each group. However, this has only strengthened the bond between these musicians.
“I would say that the dynamic is somewhat of a family, as cheesy as that sounds,” Chen said. “Especially this year … we have really hard music, so I think we sort of bond over how hard it is.”
The musicians not only bond over the difficulty of the music, but through pranks pulled on Welch as well.
“One of the funniest memories I have last year is when we had … ‘red and bread day’ in honor of the French, so we bought Mr. Welch a baguette and a red poncho,” said Sophia Chen ’19, a violinist for “Les Misérables” and “West Side Story.” “During … ‘Do You Hear The People Sing?’ he actually cued the choir with the baguette. I still can’t believe he actually agreed to go along with it.”
Not only did the pit orchestra buy Welch stale French bread, but one student also decided to create a collection of memes that would later be taped to Welch’s scores for the music. One of the most elaborate pranks involved the entire cast, crew and pit singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and buying a birthday cake despite Welch’s birthday not being for several more months.
“There were a lot of pranks pulled, but it was a really good time,” Welch said. “It was all in good fun and we had a blast. That’s the thing in pit orchestra, we work hard but we [also] play hard, [because] it can get too stressful if you don’t do that.”
Another appealing aspect to being involved in pit orchestra beside the pranks is taking part in creating the live music that accompanies the cast. Carmen believes this is an important role because live music is more moving than that played on a CD.
“I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but there’s something just magical about hearing the music being played live and knowing people are playing that right now,” Carmen said. “You can feel it vibrating and making your brain jump around. But then … if it’s on a CD, you’re hearing it, but you’re not feeling it inside of you.”
With hours of rehearsal underway, “West Side Story” has proven to be a challenge to those involved. Nonetheless, Welch believes the bigger the challenge is, the more rewarding it proves to be at the final show when hearing the thunderous applause of the audience.
“At the end of the show you’ve given everything you had and you’re exhausted … You instantly start to feel the memories and you know you’ve just created something better than yourself and everybody just came together to make something magical.”