The Artists Perspective – West Side Story

The Lyric Opera of Chicago began its American Musical Theater Initiative in 2013 with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ​Oklahoma! ​Since then, Lyric has produced 6 additional musicals, with Leonard Berstein’s ​West Side Story being the most recent in the spring of 2019.

The first day of rehearsals began with director Francesca Zambello, conductor James Lowe, and choreographer Julio Monge speaking to the entire cast. In their remarks, both Ms. Zambello and Maestro Lowe mentioned how important it was to have 12 voices from Lyric’s chorus to be part of the cast, and an orchestra of Lyric’s caliber to contribute to the excitement of this production. Maestro Lowe referred to it as ‘a perfect storm’, and said that he may conduct ​West Side Story ​again, but probably never with these incredible resources.

A Graduation Celebration onstage before a performance of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Bernstein’s “West Side Story”.

Regular Choristers at Lyric are invited to audition for the musicals, knowing that 12 will be chosen.​ ​With the exception of 6 choristers playing the mute roles of teachers, policemen, and a bridal shop owner, the choristers engaged for the production of ​West Side Story ​were offstage, gathered around a microphone to help boost the vocal sound in ensemble numbers. This was disappointing to some choristers, especially those who had been very present on stage in past productions like ​My Fair Lady ​and Carousel. ​However, knowing that there would be 12 strong, classically trained singers to help with the vocals, the director, choreographer and conductor had the freedom to hire other performers whose strengths were dancing and acting.

This production proved to be very financially rewarding for Lyric, and from the audience reaction, it was emotionally gratifying as well. The original choreography of Jerome Robbins is so powerful and demanding, this production brought on very serious physical challenges for some of the artists involved. For the first time, during a production of a musical at Lyric, a Physical Therapist was engaged throughout the run of the show, which proved to be crucial to the health of the young dancers. There were still many accident reports that were filed due to injuries that occurred, ranging from sore, tired muscles to a serious stress fracture.

The costume shoes that were provided to the dancers originally had little to no arch support in them, which was rectified quickly in the rehearsal process. There were several performances in which understudies had to go on because artists were injured from the grueling 8 shows per week schedule with 33 total performances. This production had been performed previously at 4 other opera companies, ranging from 5-12 total performances, never with more than 3 per week. It is common practice that a sprung floor which absorbs shocks is employed when there is dancing of this intensity. That was not true for this set.

In addition to the strenuous rehearsal and performance schedule, many artists in the cast donated their precious free time promoting the show through interviews and donor luncheons; however when they were asked to sing, dance and perform for no extra compensation, they chose to rest instead, so they would be at their best for the performances.

In spite of the physical toll this wonderful show took on its performers, there was an amazing camaraderie as is common among artists who accomplish something that requires great skill along with blood, sweat and tears. There was even a celebration on stage, (with cake), before a performance, for 2 cast members who couldn’t attend their graduation ceremonies due to their contract obligations. A great example of the sacrifices performers make for their art.