Tonight the dynamic, genre-redefining 1957 musical West Side Story opens at Friends. Music by Leonard Bernstein, conception and choreography by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Michael McVey, Friends longstanding choral director, has always loved the complex production and dreamed of staging it someday. He played Tony in both college and grad school. But he’d vowed never to attempt the song-dance-script-intense show of warring New York gangs at Friends School. Then he considered this year’s senior class, a group packed with stronger performance chops combined than McVey’s ever seen charge a single auditorium. The show runs Friday through Sunday.
Friends is famous for having a stellar music department. Why were you super hesitant to attempt WSS?
Never say never. But I said I would never do West Side Story because it was too big a challenge for high school kids to handle. The male dancing alone – it’s not enough to have a couple of strong dancers, you have to have tons. The singing roles are very mature for kids. The orchestra parts are very hard for kids – and adults. Our rehearsal schedule is bare bones; we don’t rehearse forever as some other schools do. We don’t rehearse after school, in order to include athletes. We rehearse Saturdays. Other area schools do 6-10 p.m. nightly for two weeks before it opens. We did Monday and Wednesday night this week. Earlier, we rehearsed Saturdays; three rehearsal groups, doing music, choreography and staging, all happened at once. Then we used the regular 40-minute concert chorale period in the school day, [but only] after our spring concert…
What is so special about this particular group? Will they go on to pursue performance professionally?
I have 16 seniors in the musical, 55 kids total. The seniors have been major players in our theater, musical theater, and music programs since they were freshmen. They’re just a special group of kids who have this intense interest in performing, singing, playing instruments; they do it all. There are some uniquely talented kids in this class. I have never seen this many in one class. I’m already in mourning for next year.
Eric Ritter as Riff: he played Tevye last year in Fiddler on the Roof; he played Lieutenant Cioffi, the detective in Curtains. He’s got such range. Eric’s going to Boston University to major in music in the fall. Declan Meagher has played everything from Frank Butler as a freshman in Annie Get Your Gun to now Bernardo in West Side. He’ll attend Occidental, Obama’s school, to pursue performance. Suzannah Samuel is Anita in the production. She’s another who’s had multiple singing and dancing roles. She’s going to NYU-Tisch for performance. David Socolar is Tony and he has a beautiful tenor voice – he’s going to Connecticut College. Maria is played by Ali Allen, another beautiful voice. She’ll attend Boston University.
Who are the other important faculty directorial components?
Micheline McManus is the director; I’m the musical director; Kathy Satmary is the choreographer. It’s a total collaboration.
Why are you drawn to this musical?
It’s a landmark show in the history of live theater. If you are a student of musical theater, you can point to a few shows where things changed. Showboat in the 20s; Oklahoma changed everything in terms of dance and propelling the story forward through song and dance, whereas before the song or dance was always stop the show, we’re gonna reflect. West Side Story was so innovative for its time in 1957, people weren’t even ready for it. The Music Man won the Tony that year. West Side is jazz, opera, blues, and heavy lyricism; the dancing is like none other. Robbins and Bernstein, the first collaborations they had were ballet. Fancy Free [their ballet] became their first musical in the 30s On the Town… West Side as fresh to listen to as it was when it was first performed. It could have been written yesterday.
How is the stage version different from the movie?
Well, most people know West Side Story by the movie, but the movie is not at all the same as the stage version. The songs they love are there. But several things were reordered and changed. The stage version has a whole ballet built around the song “Somewhere” that’s not in the movie. The theme of hope happens in this dance sequence. But then, by the end of the ballet, reality sets in and they split apart again, and you get all that in the ballet, which you don’t see in the movie.
Is your show faithful to the original stage show?
When you put on West Side Story, the royalties and rentals company makes you do the 1957 version, because that’s what the creators wanted. That’s how it should be; it’s a perfect show, there’s no need to mess with it.
What’s most challenging about directing a quality musical at the high school level?
Time, time, time. The kids are so busy with so many things in their lives. The craziest thing is just getting everyone committed to the bare bones rehearsal that we do have. Their own personal calendars are so much harder to manage than they were 15 years ago; they have so many options now. SAT classes. Clubs, jobs, athletics. It’s a busier culture.
What’s the best thing about working with teenagers in musical theater?
When [teens] get it, what they give out of themselves is so raw and natural and wonderful, not sort of I’m-educated-and-I-know-this-and-that, it’s innocent and not tainted.
What’s your favorite scene in West Side?
I love it all. Top to bottom. You never let up focusing when you’re in it. In most shows there’s a couple of pieces to focus hard, then you can relax; you can never relax your brain in this show. The orchestra, the acting, the lighting, it’s all that difficult.
What’s your two-sentence review of the show?
If you want to see something special out of high school kids, this one really is. It will not disappoint.
Photos by Rick Lippenholz.