Prelude, Fugue & Riffs

Experiencing West Side Story

by John Mauceri

In May I conducted West Side Story for the very first time. An all-school production at the North Carolina School of the Arts under the stage direction of Gerald Freedman filled the Roger Stevens Center for twelve performances and broke all house records, raising more than $300,000 for the school.

Experiencing West Side Story with a cast, orchestra and crew of high school and college students fifty years after its creation, was a journey of timelessness and inspiration. With Gerald Freedman (dean of the School Final curtain call of Drama and Jerome Robbins' assistant in 1957) as stage director and Kevin Backstrom restoring the original choreography, we presented something that was both authentic as well as brand, spanking new.

Chita Rivera had spent time with our 21-year-old Anita, Jenna Vakhouri. Sid Ramin came to Winston-Salem to bless the orchestra with his presence and Carol Lawrence, Mickey Calin and Grover Dale were on hand to tell stories and demonstrate what their minds and muscles remembered from a half century before.

What I learned from the experience is that there are no wasted words, no wasted notes, and no dance "steps" in West Side Story. Everything tells the story and moves the music drama forward. And imagine my delight to experience the original orchestration — (Sid! Three bass clarinets in "A Boy like That!") and teach it to young people who had never seen the show in a theater.

Only occasionally did I find myself explaining phrases like "social disease," and why it is so funny for Graziella to look at Anybody's and say, "An American Tragedy," or the comic juxtaposition of a Puerto Rican gang saying, "Top of the evening, Officer Krupke!" These were minor side trips into nostalgia and cultural history on the highway of timelessness. Since Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim invented verbal placeholders for real, vulgar street talk — words and phrases like frabberjabber, and Krupp you! — it was remarkably easy for young actors to invest contemporary meaning to what might have seemed "charming" on the page.

West Side Story is as violent and beautiful and essential today as it was in 1957. Since the world of gang violence is very much a thing of today, with racial and tribal behavior dominating the news, West Side Story acts as a great warning. Experiencing it with a company of brilliant young people gives one hope for a better world than the one we live in today.

John Mauceri is the Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts and the Founding Director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He is a consultant to the Leonard Bernstein Office and serves on the advisory board of the Leonard Bernstein Center for Learning.

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