The Risk of West Side Story
This musical season, the CCS High School Theatre Department is putting its best and toughest foot forward with Stephen Sondheim’s masterful twist on Romeo and Juliet: West Side Story. Projected to cost around $2K and including large scale New York city street sets and the iconic choreography of Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story is sure to be a spectacle. However, it is the tactful delivery of a central message that will ultimately determine the production’s success.
The story centers around two star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, and their attempts to defy the social standards of the fifties and find a place to belong despite their different backgrounds. Pulled by a rivalry between two gangs, the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, Tony tries to balance loyalty to his friend Riff and his love for Maria. Meanwhile Maria struggles to maintain ties with her brother Bernardo and friend Anita; Maria pines for a day where she and Tony can finally bridge the socio-economic and ethnic divides that separate them. “The show ends really tragically--which I think is incredible, first of all. We haven’t really dealt with a lot of that here: most of our shows end happily; but this one is heartbreaking. I was in tears reading it at the read-through,” says Junior Jack Roden, who plays Tony.
The show tackles tough topics such as prejudice, deception, violence, abuse, and broken relationships. For the faculty, staff, and cast of student actors, it is crucial that the messages they send regarding these topics be communicated tastefully.
“Knowing the amount of effort that we do to put it on honestly and respectfully, I want that to come across very clearly--that it is not something that would end up in the newspaper because it was so offensive,” says Jamison Shimmel, production manager for WSS. This concept of respect is what Shimmel and his colleagues have been advocating for in an attempt to explain to the community why such a potentially controversial show such as West Side Story was chosen as this year’s show. Mary Catherine Schimpf, the show’s director, adds “[There’s] a whole world of things you can’t understand or deal with or grapple with as students at CCS unless we open the doors and do something a little bit difficult.” In light of this, the department is filming a discussion video series that will be available for students and parents to preview the elements of the show before buying tickets. “Even if you didn’t see the video that we’re going to put out, could somebody still see... that we respect and care about telling the story?” He emphasizes that the content and the characters should be treated with respect and dignity.
“[There’s] a whole world of things you can’t understand or deal with or grapple with as students at CCS unless we open the doors and do something a little bit difficult.”
CCS theatre productions have historically been promoted as family oriented, but this one is a bit different in that it is for a more mature audience.
“Most of what we do is geared towards the entire community,” says Schimpf. “But I think when you choose something and that [genre] is all you ever choose, you’re very limited: you can only go so far describing the human condition and the world and what life is like in different people’s shoes around this planet. When you’re doing K-12 appropriate material, it involves a greater group of people, but you can’t explore themes that I think are important for you as teenagers to be exploring. I don’t think you guys need to be performing, always, for elementary aged kids. That’s not your first priority.” This year, Schimpf’s first priority for student performers is to “explore these themes, to get into harder issues, to explore the entirety of the human condition and to find truth in it, to find redemption through bad choices.”
According to Schimpf, there are three specific categories of conflict prominent in the show: violence, race, and love. She says, “There’s a distinction made in each category. For violence, friendship and loyalty lead to attack and killing. Fear and prejudice lead to racism and hatred. Love and devotion contrast with lustful attraction.” Most of the violence in the show will be depicted artistically through choreography. For the modern southern viewer, Schimpf notes, the concept of racism may not offend or shock them because much of the South has perhaps been exposed and somewhat desensitized to the concept. However, for others, these words may be hard to hear; for those who fall under this category, Schimpf assures that it is essential to expose what many call the epidemic of racism. She adds, “Everyone has fear, prejudice, and racism towards the other group. So that plays itself out in very awful ways and lots of specific racial slurs are used.”
Those who may not have a problem with student actors portraying the racist element may instead take offense at the foul language or sexual innuendos. “I think in each case, while [a] particular moment might be difficult to watch, the ultimate story is showing how these negative choices... actually don’t work,” Schimpf explains. “We, as Christians, need to look at… the larger picture. In order to understand the redemption, you have to see the fallenness and the brokenness... We can’t just throw out stories because something offends us within them. We need to look at the whole thing and [ask]: Where’s the truth in this? How am I going to learn from this? How am I not going to make the same mistakes? How am I going to live my life better than this?”
"We need to look at the whole thing and [ask]: Where’s the truth in this? How am I going to learn from this? How am I not going to make the same mistakes? How am I going to live my life better than this?”
Addressing the technical aspects of West Side Story, one of the most anticipated and intriguing strengths is the dancing: student actors and actresses will be staying true to some of the musical’s original choreography. The movement, in a way, heightens intensity of the plot and themes. Choreography is strategically placed at moments where an emotion is overwhelmingly strong to the point that it can’t be communicated solely through song or lyric. The choreography for West Side Story in particular is “very challenging, it’s very athletic, and it’s very balletic,” Schimpf explains. “In order to do that we’ve got to build up strength and flexibility… It’s similar to strength and conditioning before a sports season. You will get hurt and you will not play well unless you are adequately physically prepared.”
Another strength of the production is the way the commitment of the students to each character is insightful and has the power to create empathy. “It’s tough because you have to become a character whatever it takes,” Roden says on the topic. “I think it’s important to see what they saw and feel how they felt. As we go through these next four or five months, we get to learn more about these people.” CCS Junior Gwen York plays Anybodys, a fierce girl with a passion to defend Jet territory and a desire be accepted one of the gang regardless of her gender. Gwen put it this way: “Empathy within a show is a great way to directly put yourself into other people’s shoes and to learn from the mistakes… and choices that they’ve made- to see [it] doesn’t have good consequences… [I hope] the audience learns from that.”
Leaning into the need for an explanation related to difficult themes, student actors will also be available on stage after the show for a talk-back to answer questions from the community. “The conversations out in the community shouldn’t just be me or an administrator answering questions: it should be theatre students and their parents because we’re collaborating to create a story. It’s not my story, it’s our project,” Schimpf says, adding that in the video series release, she is collaborating with Head of Upper School Bryant Black to promote the show and encourage discussion. “it’s a tragedy and it’s about difficult issues.”
On the possibility of bringing elementary-aged children to the show, Shimmel recommends parents start talking about WSS and these concepts and themes before they come. “Start talking about musical theatre and that idea of suspension of disbelief… Explain that to your kids in a very simplified way: ‘Hey, this is not real. This is a story that’s being told.’ Watch the old movie. There’s a lot of stuff that I would say, as a family, [you should] choose what you guys wanna do before you come see this show. Just because I think it is heavy stuff. There’s gonna be stuff that goes right over kids’ heads, but the idea of gangs and intense hatred and racism and prejudiced conversations and behaviors- [someone] will pick up on [those] elements.”
To summarize, the Cast, Crew and Creative Team believe this show will be challenging and difficult, but necessary. There will still be a large number of people involved to make this production possible. Already, parent volunteers are signing up to help with costumes, set design, publicity, prop acquisition, and even ticket sales and concessions. One thing is for certain: West Side Story is going to impact the community unlike any other show performed on the CCS stage. It’s message is timeless and extends to each individual.
Here is Roden’s advice for potential showgoers: “I would just encourage everybody to go in with an open mind. You can say that you don’t see these issues, but you do. And if you don’t very often, then you’re seeing them right now onstage… Spread the message and don’t let it stop when you leave the auditorium… Musicals bring people together. You get 400 people in an auditorium, and you don’t get that chance to talk about this stuff [often]. This is a gorgeous production directly confronting these topics.”
As for the message itself, Roden says: “I think it’s saying that hate is winning but we have to make an effort to stop it. It’s pleading for you to confront this stuff and put an end to it. And that’s our job as Christians: to… face these issues.” Similarly, Senior Lauren Boozer, who plays Maria, concludes: “Everybody is capable of racism and it affects everyone. Ultimately I think the main message is that love overpowers that- or [rather,] it can and it should.”