“West Side Story”: Behind the Scenes

Shawna Huang

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DISCLAIMER: The following is a personal account of my experience at one rehearsal for “West Side Story.” Though it may not be a fully accurate representation of the musical, I remind you that this is one reporter’s opinion after one rehearsal. I was given explicit permission by Mrs. Mulay to come to this rehearsal and write this story. While I apologize if my interpretation offends you, I do not apologize for doing my job as a student journalist. 

When Mrs. Mulay told me that I could come to last week’s brush-up rehearsal for “West Side Story,” I thought I knew what I was getting in to. After all, I’d been a drama kid in middle school, and I’d played in the pit orchestra for last year’s musical. It couldn’t be much different, right?

Of course, I was wrong. This was a vastly different experience from my little adventure as a playing card in “Alice in Wonderland” or my memories of sitting in the choir room in silence every night for “The Sound of Music” (while playing the occasional song). Here, there was something that truly united everyone: a sense of community, passion and love for the stage.

Before the rehearsal began (and after a quick ukulele session with some of the cast), Mrs. Mulay held a meeting with the cast and crew, discussing the strange nature of this year’s ticket sales. Most tickets for holdover weekend weren’t selling, and several students speculated as to why this was the case; perhaps last year’s musical deterred people from coming to see this year’s, or perhaps fewer people at school were interested in the music department. They discussed the student ticket rush – any tickets not sold within an hour of the start of the show would be just $10 for any Portage Public Schools student – as well as advertising and the financial aspects of putting on such a grand show.

I’d never really thought about this side of the musical; there’s an extraordinary amount of work that goes into preparing for a show beyond what happens on stage, from ticket sales to advertising to finding members to play in the orchestra and more. It was clear that every member of the cast and crew cared about finding an audience to showcase their incredible work.

After the meeting, a run-through of the musical began. It was rather bizarre to watch the entire production without the costumes that add so much to the character of the show. Furthermore, Brendon Mills (Tony) and Jencien Honeycutt (Graziella), along with some of the crew, were missing. Several of Brendon’s scenes had to be skipped, though his voice was on the recording used for the rehearsal. Hannah Watkins (Maria) and Alex Repyak (Riff) were forced to dance without their partners, which seemed rather awkward. Where it was necessary, Mrs. Mulay filled in by reading Brendon’s and Jencien’s lines, and various cast members filled in for Brendon in the rumble or the final death scene.

My experience consisted largely of watching the cast and crew be silly. I saw Austin Wills (Bernardo) run past me and around a backstage curtain, which was promptly followed by a loud thud – the sound of him falling. Luke Ostrem (Officer Krupke) came up to me a few minutes before one of his scenes, asking for a piece of paper; he wanted to make a paper hat for the scene in which his hat had to fall off his head, since he wasn’t in costume. The rest of the cast wouldn’t let him. He also didn’t have his whistle, which led to him yelling, “whistle whistle whistle whistle!” as he ran onstage.

I ran into Alex Repyak backstage, and I told him I was collecting notes for a story on the musical behind-the-scenes. He asked if I’d written anything about him, to which I replied, “Just about you looking awkward dancing without Jencien.” The next thing I knew, there was a fake switchblade in my face. I notice Alex Repyak and Austin Wills were smiling and shifting around during their deaths in the rumble scene; generally, they seemed very not-dead. Basically, the Jets and the Sharks were messing with them through the entire scene.

There was also a lot of backstage dancing and singing. Quietly, of course. Most of it seemed to be lovingly mocking what was happening on stage. I couldn’t tell if the cast and crew were just completely in love with the music and choreography or had simply seen everything so many times that they could perform even scenes they weren’t in from memory. To be honest, it was probably the latter.

The crew does a lot of work behind-the-scenes to make sure everything runs smoothly. Somewhere backstage on both stage right and stage left are two green posters listing each crew member’s duties for each scene, including props and sets. Before the run-through, Natalie Sturdy showed me how some of the sets were moved; two set pieces contain an air tank that is inflated before the show, and a lever controls the height of the air tank (and the set) off of the ground. When the lever is up, the set is lifted off the ground and can be moved, and when the set is in place, the lever is switched down to sink the set to the floor and make it stationary again. The rest of the sets are moved by manual labor. When the crew moves a set onstage, they hide behind it during the scene, waiting to move it off again at the end.

Sammy Praeger, Elena Northuis, Tim Walsh and Charlie Godsil have a bit of fun behind one of the sets onstage.

Sammy Praeger, Elena Northuis, Tim Walsh and Charlie Godsil have a bit of fun behind one of the sets onstage.

With some of the crew missing, a few cast members pitched in to help move sets and props. Charlie Godsil and Tim Walsh helped Elena Northuis and Sammy Praeger move the bedroom set on stage. While they hid behind the set, waiting for the scene to play out, the four of them decided to start taking selfies (see exhibit A, above, courtesy of Sammy Praeger). Tim also decided to start undressing behind the set, and Elena and Sammy kept trying to get him to put his shirt back on. It was interesting, to say the least.

Sammy Praeger came up to me at one point during the rehearsal.

“It’s not usually this hectic back here,” she said. “Just saying.”

Mrs. Mulay stopped the run-through during the final scene to give Hannah Watkins notes on her final monologue, telling her to slow down and put emotion into every word. After the final scene, the entire cast gathered for notes from Mrs. Mulay. She encouraged them to avoid just going through the motions. Everyone had seemingly gotten so used to the show that they were simply on automatic pilot, but Mrs. Mulay urged the cast to respond to what was happening on stage. After all, that was the mark of a good actor. It was clear by their attentiveness that they were all dedicated to improving their performances and putting on a brilliant production.

Ultimately, I learned that the entire cast and crew of the musical puts in an extraordinary amount of hard work to bring a show to life. Though it’s not always apparent, putting together a stage production requires enthusiasm and concentration from every member involved. The reason our musicals are so spectacular is that every student understands this idea and is dedicated to putting on a great show.

It doesn’t hurt if they have a little bit of fun along the way.