Friday, August 2, 2013

15 Years Later: a West Side Story


When I was in high school, I fell in love with theater. I was a small, skinny, unathletic kid from a family that worshiped sports. I was never happy in my own skin (like most teenagers, I now realize) and theater became my outlet. Onstage, I didn't have to be a small, skinny, unathletic kid. In a play, I could be anyone. I could be a larger than life hero, or villain. I could be strong. I could be smart. I could be whoever I wanted to be, or whoever the script called for me to be. Also, it turned out that I had some talent for acting, and for the first time in my life, I got that feeling of being really, really good at something.

My sophomore year of high school, for the annual Spring musical, we put on West Side Story, and for a high school show, it was epic. We had a policy in my high school that anyone who auditioned for a show got to be in the show, and for WS we ended up with a cast of over 100 people. The stage was too small to accommodate the show and we ended up performing on the gym floor. I played Baby John, one of the Jets. It's not a huge part, but I got a small solo (in "Officer Krupke") and at the time, it was the most fun I'd had doing a play.

That was 15 years ago. While I studied theater in college, I stopped doing musicals after high school (I'm a better actor, writer, and comedian than I am a singer or a dancer). After college, I mostly stopped doing plays to focus on improv comedy which is still my primary...thing (incidentally, come out to iO Chicago tonight at 8 PM and see Coup de Grace!).

Main Story:

About a month ago, Chelsea and I were on a bus driving around Ireland with my family and we got an email from our friend Adie. The 2009 Broadway revival of "West Side Story" had come to Chicago for a very limited run, and Adie had made plans to see the show with her mother. "West Side Story" was Adie's Mom's favorite musical. Except she didn't end up seeing it. Long story short, Adie's mom ended up in the hospital, and by the time she got out, "West Side Story" had left town.

So, Adie had an idea.

Why not put up a production of "West Side Story" just for her mom on her mom's birthday in her mom's backyard?

Realizing that to put on a show you needed actors, and musicians, Adie emailed her friends (Chelsea and I included) and asked if we'd like to be involved in the show. We would have 3 days to rehearse, memorize the lines and songs and choreography, and then we would put up the show.

Interestingly enough, when Chelsea asked me if I wanted to do it, my first inclination was to say no. It's been a very busy Summer between work, shows, and the usual Summer social events (weddings, vacations, bachelor parties, festivals, etc.) and adding one more thing to my schedule sounded like the straw that would probably break the camel's back.

But...but...I love a challenge. I especially love a creative challenge. Put up a show- and a musical at that- in 3 days...with a cast of random a backyard...

If you ever watch Star Trek (and you should) the culture portrayed of the Federation has largely done away with money and capitalism. The humans of the Star Trek future are primarily motivated by the idea of intellectual challenge. There's something about doing something that's hard, something that stimulates the creative centers of your brain, of going out and doing something that seems relatively impossible (or at least unlikely) that gives you a feeling that is so much more satisfying than getting a paycheck.

So for that reason, the challenge, I said, "Umm, yes, let's do that". Also, it feels good to do nice things for people. For friends. For people who ended up in hospitals. For people you know. For strangers.

Plus, I already knew all of the songs.

Now, it should be noted here that my expectation was that this "play" would probably end up being more of a choral performance. I imagined that five to ten people would probably sing 3 or 4 key songs from the show while the instrumental music played on a radio or iPod?

Imagine my surprise when Chelsea and I showed up to the first rehearsal Monday night, and found ourselves in a crowded room with 20 other people, including seven (or so) musicians playing piano, bass guitar, and trombone amongst other instruments. Imagine my further surprise when I realized the scope of the project included fully choreographed dance numbers. And while we didn't do the WHOLE show, our half hour version of West Side Story included a narrator, a rumble, lights, a scrim, costumes, props- basically a small version of the whole shebang. You see, I wasn't the only person who got that email and thought "That sounds awesome". Many of Adie's friends, and friends of Adie's friends, thought the same thing.

Oh, and I should mention that in this version of "West Side Story", I got promoted. Instead of Baby John, I played Riff, the leader of the Jets.

So how did the show come out?

It was amazing. It was one of the most satisfying performances I've ever done in my life. The band sounded awesome, the singing was great, the rumble was thrilling, and in the end, Adie's parents gave us a standing ovation.

As a performer, what more could you ask for?

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