A forbidden love. A bitter rivalry. And love and hate expressed through rhyme. No, it’s not Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Students in Homer High School’s Concert Choir are bringing “West Side Story” to life for the first time in 15 years on the Mariner Theatre stage this weekend.
Students got a feel for the way their costumes would move and how their microphones sounded during a dress rehearsal Tuesday night at the school. Missteps during dance numbers and flubbed lines will have to be ironed out before 7 p.m. this Friday, opening night. The musical continues its run on Saturday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Kyle Schneider, director of choirs at the high school, also directs music for the production. His wife, Beth, is the stage director for the show that is actually a class project. Rather than having a general drama club, Homer High has developed a way to make it easier to schedule rehearsals around students’ busy schedules. Anyone wishing to be in one of the yearly productions has to sign up for the Concert Choir class.
“It has just become an existence of its own,” Schneider said of the musical. “The kids have been incredibly insightful. And of course the story is Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and so it is this timeless story which these students — many of them read it as part of their language arts classes — but it’s also a story that transcends boundaries of every kind, whether it be the age or the region or the nationality. And it allows students to experience both Shakespeare’s vision but also Bernstein’s vision.”
From the book by Arthur Laurents and with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story” tells the tale of two rival street gangs. The Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, battle through themes of class and racial separation, while a former member of the Jets falls in love with the sister of the Sharks’ leader. The show opened at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., in August 1957.
“When we first read through the script, I had a student come up afterwards and look at me and say, ‘Wow, a lot of the things that we’re reading in this script, and a lot of the emotions that are being expressed by the characters, are mirrored today in the current world climate.’” Schneider said. “It’s amazing that this story that’s (decades) old is very relevant today for all of us.”
Schneider also had other motives for picking this particular play.
“First and foremost, it’s Leonard Bernstein’s hundredth (birthday),” he said. “That was my goal. I wanted to celebrate Bernstein. He was a very influential composer in my life, and also in the lives of people who are involved in the arts.”
Schneider said he looked at other works by Bernstein when searching for this year’s musical, but that the group landed on this production because the music spoke to the students. In terms of musical technique, Schneider said it’s a very difficult show to perform. The music featured in “West Side Story” in particular, Schneider said, played an integral role in reshaping the landscape of the Broadway musical when it came out in the 50s.
“It does not follow the form of the Broadway musicals that preceded it in the fact that Bernstein took jazz and threw it into the show, and took modern music and threw it into the show, all under the same auspices of doing this Broadway musical,” Schneider said. “(He) transformed the Broadway musical from the era of Rodgers and Hammerstein to open the door for “West Side Story” and then “Chorus Line” which came after it, and “Rent” and so on and so forth.”
For their part, the students have been enjoying the music and learning their parts as well. Senior Aurianna Richtback will feature as Maria, the female lead. She said that while she’s battled with stage fright in the past, her love for singing drove her to audition.
“I really love to sing, it’s just one of my favorite things to do,” Richtback said.
Of the production and dance numbers, Richtback said she’s “nervous, definitely nervous. But really excited.”
Some might find the character of Maria an easy heroine to root for, but not Richtback. When the class first started getting into the production, she didn’t particularly like her character, she said.
“I have grown to really like her and appreciate her innocence,” she said of Maria. “I’m a little jealous of it in a way, because she doesn’t know all of the horrible things in the world yet … but it tells her story from being so innocent to being a part of that horrible world, and I just loved that.”
Sophomore Sophie Morin will play Anita, the girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo. She’s performed in musicals once or twice before, but has participated in theatre all her life.
“I love how dynamic all the characters are and how they interact,” Morin said. “… The whole story’s just awesome because it’s kind of a Romeo and Juliet thing.”
Junior Theodore Castellani will appear as Riff, the leader of the Jets. He’s appeared in the last two class productions. Castellani said he saw “West Side Story” as a young kid, so it’s been fun to rediscover it through the production.
Castellani said playing Riff is interesting because the character’s personality is so different from his own.
“Usually in real life I’m not a very assertive person I feel like, … so it’s kind of fun because I … boss people around I guess, and act like a tough guy which is not normally my personality,” he said.
Castellani said he appreciates the societal issues tackled in the musical and the fact that they translate to his current world environment.
“It’s very interesting to me, especially considering how many people have a connection to “West Side Story,” to see this next generation finding their own connection to it,” Schneider said. “And the students being so incredibly aware. We hear about students being ‘woke,’ and this group of students is very much thinking about what they’re presenting, and presenting it in such a way as to both recognize the importance of the story, but at the same time be respectful of the conditions that exist within it.”
“I’m particularly proud of the sensitivity with which they’ve tackled this show,” Schneider said. “There are various pieces within the show that touch on very sensitive issues within the social strata of today, very specifically Officer Krupke.”
Tickets for the show are $12 for general admission, $10 for seniors, $7 for students and $35 for families, and are available at the Homer Bookstore or at the door.