Actors step up to the music in ‘West Side Story’
June 26, 2015
The basis for the musical "West Side Story" has been around for centuries. Forbidden love has been examined by William Shakespeare in "Romeo & Juliet," which served as the source material of this award-winning musical. Even author J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Silmarilion" and "Lord of the Rings" refers to the tragic love between mortal men and elvin princesses.
However, "West Side Story" takes the emotional level on step further with the brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
When the Ziegfeld Theatre Company presents "West Side Story" at the Egyptian Theatre next month, the eyes will be on the actors, but the ears will be on the music, said music director Rick Rhea.
"It’s all is so beautiful," Rhea told The Park Record. "This production has some of the most romantic musical-theater music ever written, that it’s easy to forget that when it premiered on stage in 1957, it was very groundbreaking and almost avant-garde."
While "West Side Story" won Best Choreography and Best Scenic Design, it lost Best Musical to "The Music Man," which, Rhea said, was more of a conventional production at the time.
"I believe it was the film version (in 1961) where the score gained more widespread popularity," he said. "Over the years, people all over the country have fallen in love with the music."
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Since the music is so iconic, Rhea felt a little overwhelmed when he began working on the show.
"The score is very challenging and different than most musicals because most of the songs are either solos or duets," he explained. "You don’t have too many songs that are groups of people singing. So, as a music director, the job is to make sure the actors have the voices that can handle these pieces."
To do that, Rhea and director Morgan Parry had to cast actors with strong voices. However, they both decided to cast the roles based on the strength of the actors’ acting.
"When we did the audition process, we didn’t hear the actors sing," Rhea said. "We had them read scenes from the show, because we didn’t want to be charmed by voices or singing abilities. We wanted to find out who really had the energy and characteristics of the roles."
The main cast features Tyler Brignone as Tony, Brittany Shamy as Maria, Jaime Javier as her older brother Bernardo and Ashley Carlson as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita.
"During the auditions, Ashley had that Latin spice and the older-sister assertiveness and Tyler came in with this natural 1950s aura and a masculine innocence," Rhea said. "Brittany, who is extremely smart and knowledgeable about politics things like that, became a 14-year-old girl, complete with the wide-eyed innocence, when she read Maria’s lines. And Jaime had that Latin intensity."
Rhea and Parry made a list of the actors they thought would be good in the roles and then heard their voices.
"Having a good voice is a dime a dozen in Utah, but having a good sense of character is something else," Rhea said. "So we had to get a bit of both."
The main reason is because the music drives the story.
"There are different themes and more astute audience members may pick up on those motifs, but even those who have no musical knowledge or just are focusing on the story will be affected by these rifts," Rhea said. "These things gives the characters their own feelings and connects the emotional moments to other emotional moments that everyone can feel. That’s why I think the score is so well crafted."
The cast was instrumental in making "West Side Story" one of Rhea’s more enjoyable projects.
"The hardest piece I think was ‘Tonight,’ which comes toward the end of Act I," he said. "This is the song where you have different songs going on at once. You have the Jets, the Sharks, Bernardo, Anita, Tony and Maria all going on at the same time. Putting all the overlapping pieces together was hard and took a lot of work."
Rhea praises Parry and Talese Hunt, the choreographer, for bringing "West Side Story" to life.
"Morgan’s concept, staging and coaching created a whole new feel to the play," Rhea said. "The story is still based in the 1950s, but it’s almost an alternate version of that decade. And I think everything basically happens overnight."
The choreography is the best Rhea has seen in years.
"It’s absolutely phenomenal and when you really look at the production, the choreography tells the story just as much as the music does," he said.
Rhea’s favorite piece is "I Have a Love," a duet that comes towards the end of Act II.
"It’s about how love isn’t something you choose, but something you feel and that it’s the most important thing that there is," he said. "It gets to what the show is really about. It’s just beautiful and everyone will be moved at how stellar the actors are.
"The talents of these actors are in our own backyard and we’re excited to bring them to Park City to tell this amazing story," Rhea said. "This musical hasn’t been done in a few years, but it still holds up."
The Ziegfeld Theatre Company will open its run of "West Side Story" Friday, July 3, at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St. at 8 p.m. The production will run Thursdays through Sundays, through July 26. Friday and Saturday curtain is 8 p.m. Sunday performances will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday tickets range from $35 to $60 and Friday and Saturday tickets range from $39 to $70. Tickets for July 4 are $15 to $30. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityshows.com.