Tony (Michael Seward)
Jets vs. Sharks
Michael Flowers intervenes between the two gangs
When I was handed the rehearsal schedule for West Side Story exactly four weeks ago my first thoughts sounded something like this: "Wow, we have a really long time to rehearse" or "I have plenty of time to learn the rest of the dance for 'Cool'" or "November is a long ways away." Now my thoughts sound something like this: "Holy crap, where did the last four weeks go?" or "We open in four weeks!" or my personal favorite "Do I ever stop dancing?!?" Yes indeed, the past four weeks have absolutely flown by...and we haven't even worked on Act II yet.
We began the arduous eight week rehearsal process with music rehearsals. This is the part I wasn't too worried about. I've seen the movie I don't know how many times and how could you ever forget Bernstein's brilliant arrangements or Sondheim's timeless lyrics. Our music conductor, J. Lynn Thompson, expected nothing but the best, even on our first night of rehearsal. I think jumping right in to the music was quite a shock for a few of the cast members who had never been in a musical before. Right now, we're rehearsing just with our piano accompanist, Katie Holmes. I think we're all in for a very nice surprise when a 25 piece orchestra joins us several days before the show. Just the thought of an orchestra playing this music live sends shivers down my spine. I'm told that there is nothing like singing over an orchestra.
When did I become a dancer? Apparently four weeks ago. I'm postitive that I've never been so sore and have never pulled so many muscles in my life. Our choreographer, Abe Reybold, is as professional as they come and he expects the exact same thing out of us. Although we are not doing the original Jerome Robbins choreography we're still pushing our dance and movement skills to higher levels. Way back in April of this year, Abe taught our department about one minute of the choreography for "Cool" so that a.) Abe could get a feel for what he had to work with and b.) we would know this part of the dance for the audition. After not having done this dance in four weeks I was rather surprised that I remembered it when it came time to stage "Cool." It's a good thing I did because we had about three or so more minutes of the dance to learn. We spent two rehearsal nights (that's three hours per night) working on the rest of "Cool"...that's six hours of rehearsal time just for one number! Granted, it is one of the more complicated numbers in the show, but that just goes to show that just because we are not doing the original choreography doesn't mean we are slouching in the dance department.
Michael Flowers, our director and fight choreographer, has gone out of his way to make all the fight scenes in the show look as realistic as possible. Michael envisioned West Side quite differently than you might have seen before in another stage production and the movie. Michael wanted our production to have a rough, dirty, and grungy feel to it. Nothing is really bright, bouncy, or pretty anymore (except maybe "I Feel Pretty"...ahem). This idea has carried over into every aspect of the production, such as the set design, costumes, character development, dance choreography and of course the fight choreography. Although we the actors are very safe during our fight scenes the audience will be far from easy. We have also put in a great deal of time working on our fight combat. There are two scenes in the show where almost everything is stage combat: the Prolouge and The Rumble. We spent two nights of rehearsal each on these two scenes. That's 12 hours so far of work just on fight combat. Our goal for these fights is to, while being extremely safe, make the audience believe that we are really beating/killing our partner. Oh yes, there will be blood, switchblade knives, guns, bats, fists, knees...I could go on and on.
On top of remembering music, all of the dances, and the fight choreography we have to act too! Can you believe it? I dare say that we have talked about and developed our characters so much that they might actually be real people. I can't really talk about other characters, so I'll tell you about mine. I'm playing the role of Baby John. Baby John is a member of the Jet gang. If you've ever seen the movie then you know that Baby John is portrayed as a blonde haired, blue eyed, rather wimpy young fellow. It would be so easy for me to just take that sterotype and run with it; but not with this production. Michael's concept does not have any room for this kind of character. This forced me to see Baby John in an entirely different light. Before I had even read the script, I saw Baby John as the youngest member of the Jets, probably around 16 years old. Then, as I began reading the script one of the first descriptions of him is that he is the youngest member of the Jets. As I continued reading, I never really found much justification for why Baby John should be played as a young and wimpy kid. I saw him more as a troubled young man who feels the need to prove himself because of his age. Would some wimpy kid ever be allowed into a gang in the first place? Probably not. As can be seen by some of my fight choreography, my character doesn't have any trouble taking care of himself in tough situations. I think his name is John, but because he is the youngest member of the gang he is labled with the nickname of Baby John. He probably really hates being called that and that just makes him try to prove himself all the more vehemently. He is just a kid, though, and in Act II we begin to see his true nature surface after the Rumble.
This is the kind of thought and time commitment that has gone into this production of West Side Story. Intense? You bet. Moving? Absolutely. Life changing? You tell me...