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It's a Snap: Either that or a nose-picking war is about to go down between the Jets and the Sharks in Cabrillo Stage's 'West Side Story.'

Swimming With Sharks

An insider reveals how this year's production is a longtime fantasy finally realized for him--and for Cabrillo Stage

By Rob Pratt

The piccolo part is killing me. It's a theme that's very well-known--the dance section of "America" from the musical West Side Story, where the orchestra comes up, shouting the chorus of the song in the tune's signature pulse: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-and TWO-and THREE-and. Composer Leonard Bernstein wrote it at the top of the piccolo's range, which is incredibly difficult to keep in tune and downright painful to play. I have to wear earplugs when practicing it just to keep my head from ringing for hours afterward.

Playing this music, though, is something I've always wanted to do. From my earliest interest in learning music, from the age of 8 when I started on clarinet, I have known the score to Bernstein's revolutionary Broadway musical. My parents weren't big fans of popular music, but they saw many Broadway shows when Dad courted Mom during the late '50s and early '60s, and they had the soundtrack album from each one. There was My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, the now-obscure Lil' Abner and, of course, West Side Story, which I discovered in a slim box of record albums hidden in a closet during my childhood.

My high school band performed "America" in marching competitions during my freshman year. The drumline came out in front of the band, and the rest of us, the horn players, marched while the bells player carried the melody. That's as close as I came to performing the music from West Side Story until Cabrillo Stage asked me to join the orchestra for this summer's production.

Just as this year's show marks a landmark in my personal musical career--my first shot at playing some of the music I most admire--it also stands as a watershed moment for Cabrillo Stage, the county's oldest summer-theater company. The group has reached a level of artistic maturity to take on such a demanding show at the same moment that it faces a potentially crippling budget crunch resulting from the Cabrillo College Board of Governors' discontinuing a $30,000 annual contribution to Cabrillo Stage's budget.

Despite the looming budget shortfall, the show goes on. Familiar faces--and many new ones--have signed on for the five-week summer run. I'm spending a half -dozen hours every week working solely on piccolo parts just to get ready to play the music. And the many other traditions that Cabrillo Stage has honored for decades are renewed for another year.

This is a behind-the-scenes look at one of Cabrillo Stage's most ambitious--and most challenging--productions from the skewed view of a reporter who is also a participant. You've been warned.

Boy, Boy, Dancing Boy

The cast and crew are taking a break during the evening's rehearsal on June 25. This is the first time the cast has run the entire show, and Lile Cruse, Cabrillo Stage's founder and producer, looks cheery. I corner him in the orchestra pit--which is empty except for Cruse and rehearsal pianist Daniel Goldsmith.

"I don't know if you remember, Lile, but a few years ago you told me that Cabrillo Stage could never do West Side Story because there just weren't enough good male dancers for the show," I tell him. "What convinced you that you could get them now?"

"Dustin [Leonard, director] and Trevor [Little, choreographer] promised," he says.

"So ... what do you think of the dancers they found?"

"They're getting there," Cruse says.

Made up of a few locals and a half-dozen students of Boston Conservatory (Little graduated from the arts school in May), the group of skilled young men we're talking about have made it possible for the company to stage all of the dance numbers in West Side Story--which opens with dance instead of the typical Broadway song or scene, and which includes an extensive second-act ballet. They've also made a dramatic change in the overall vibe during rehearsals.

Over the past few years (with the exception of last year's Some Like It Hot), Cabrillo Stage has favored family-oriented shows with singing and dancing children in the casts. The cute factor ran high during rehearsals as packs of singing orphans (Annie, 1999) or the Lost Boys (Peter Pan, 2000) milled about backstage when they weren't in the scene onstage.

This year, the cute factor is replaced by the hunk factor, and rehearsals are serious affairs--not to mention serious work. Little's choreography is highly athletic. The street-gang characters jump and tumble through more than a half-dozen numbers in the show. As a result, the theater before rehearsal is an obstacle course of cast members stretching as if getting ready for a gymnastics meet.

"They're amazing to watch," French horn player Rob Zvaleko tells me during a break in an orchestra rehearsal. Some of the orchestra members had spilled out of the music-rehearsal studio onto the stage-right wing one night to catch a glimpse of Little teaching the dancers one of the numbers in the show. "Their whole body is an instrument. Impressive."

During a later rehearsal, Little tells me that he had some trouble recruiting dancers who would commit to the show. He had lined up a number of his fellow Boston Conservatory students for the Cabrillo Stage production, but some bowed out to take other summer opportunities. Little's obviously very happy with the skill and the work ethic of the younger group that eventually joined the cast. The payoff for the Boston Conservatory dancers spending a summer with Cabrillo Stage, he adds, is that they get to work with a professional company--not to mention spend the summer rent-free by the beach.

"But only one of them is gay--the rest are straight--which is a little different," Little says.

"God forbid!" I tell him.

Revolution in Motion: As this summer's production emphasizes, 'West Side Story' was the musical that made dancing cool on Broadway.

The Cult of Lile and Lenny

Rehearsal has ended on June 25, and production stage manager Alissa Rupert is turning off lights and locking doors in the theater before she leaves. Tomorrow is the sitzprobe (the first rehearsal with cast onstage and full orchestra in the pit), she says, and it's also when "Lile gets a little touchy."

Cruse's state-of-mind is frequently gauged by members of the company throughout the rehearsal process--and with greater and greater urgency as the show closes in on opening night. His legendary temper has mellowed over the years, but he's still quick to put a cast or orchestra member on the spot when he detects less-than-maximum effort.

During orchestra rehearsals for West Side Story, Cruse works the players hard, but he doesn't raise his voice in frustration even once at a section that hasn't learned its parts. After only three rehearsals, orchestra members have concluded that he's more laid back than in previous years. Cruse soon hears about this assessment from one of the production staff, and he explains his attitude to me during a break in a rehearsal.

"I'm just keeping in mind the high level of this orchestra and the difficulty of the music," he says. "I asked [cellist] Karen Andre if she was having fun yet, and know what she told me? She said, 'No, I'm too busy reading [music]!'"

The music is difficult. Glorious, instantly recognizable--and extremely demanding. The overture alone shifts through a half-dozen meters. Bernstein, too, knew that it was difficult--but he also knew that it was difficult for a reason.

"[W]e wrote a new song for Tony that's a killer," Bernstein wrote to his wife, Felicia, on Aug. 8, 1957. "It's really going to save his character--a driving 2/4 in the great tradition (but of course fucked up by me with 3/4s and what not)--but it gives Tony balls--so that he doesn't emerge as just a euphoric dreamer."

Pieces in the score ring with the timelessness of orchestral concert repertoire. The layered melodies of "Tonight (Quintet)" could have come from an opera. "The Rumble," which closes Act 1, almost sounds as if it were lifted whole from the middle of an Aaron Copland symphony. "Scherzo" (the second-act ballet) likewise has more in common with 20th-century concert repertoire than the Broadway standard when West Side Story premiered.

As for Cruse's opinion of the music, his state-of-mind is easily discerned. Several times after leading the orchestra through important musical moments in the score, he punctuates the run-through with a sigh and a simple declaration: "The master knew what he was doing."

Revolutionary Theater

One friend of mine doesn't like musicals--in fact, he dislikes musicals so much that he won't even put aside his feelings when I ask him to come to the show to hear me perform. Sorry, he says. As much as I love you, I hate musicals more.

"They make no sense," he complains. "You're in the middle of a scene, and then the characters just drop what they're doing and sing a song. It doesn't advance the plot at all."

"You're totally wrong!" I tell him. "That's what's unique about musicals--the songs do advance the plot. And, besides, this year it's West Side Story, so you're not going to get idiotic numbers like 'Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO'" (from Damn Yankees).

Though there was no persuading him of the merits of the idiom, fortunately the guy he's dating does like musicals. So this year, of course, he'll see the show.

West Side Story, though, isn't just any musical. When it premiered in 1957, first opening in Washington, D.C., and later moving to Broadway, it represented a revolution in musical theater.

Before the four creators of the West Side Story had even secured backing to produce the show, says Arthur Laurents in his memoir, Original Story by, they planned to craft something that Broadway had never seen before. "Lyric theater," they called it.

The new genre name didn't catch on, but the idea of presenting a tragedy with operatic overtones and with songs and dance advancing the plot did catch on--with critics and audiences. To contemporary audiences, the show may not seem so revolutionary, but the degree to which West Side Story has lost its shock value during the past few decades is a measure of how completely the ideas perfected by director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Laurents have become standard for Broadway shows. Classical themes, tragedy and operatic influences are no longer duds; just look at hit shows from the past decade like Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Aida and more.

Laurents, though, bristles at hearing West Side Story called revolutionary.

"As for those inflated claims," he writes in his memoirs, "if West Side Story influenced the musical theater, it was in content, not form. Serious subjects--bigotry, race, rape, murder, death--were dealt with for the first time in a musical and as seriously as they would be in a play. That was innovative; style and technique were not. They had all been used piecemeal in one way or another before ...What we really did stylistically with West Side Story was take every musical theater technique as far as it could be taken."

The Secret of the Gypsy Robe

As a general rule, theater people are a superstitious lot prone to curious traditions, and the cast and orchestra of Cabrillo Stage are no exception. Cast members--if they didn't know already--learn about the "gypsy robe" on opening night. The "gypsy" part of the tradition refers to theater slang for a bit-player; chorus members or dancers--not the lead or supporting players--are called "gypsies" on Broadway. The robe part of the tradition, at least in the Cabrillo Stage practice, is a thigh-length, floral-patterned garment quilted with patches, scraps and baubles representing each summer production from past decades. There's a nylon stocking from Chicago, a red hood from Into the Woods, a miniature violin from Fiddler on the Roof, a bloody scarf from Sweeney Todd.

Well before the doors open to let the audience take seats before the show, one cast member dons the gypsy robe and walks through areas of the backstage and the house to transmit a blessing. The wearer of the gypsy robe touches each cast member, parts of the set, the seats, the lighting and sound consoles--as much of the theater as possible.

On Broadway, the gypsy robe goes from production to production as shows open and close. Cabrillo Stage's robe stays in the family. Cruse, Cabrillo Stage vocal coach Michelle Rivard and off-season gypsy-robe-keeper Maria Crush (who keeps the garment between summers since she's the company's costume designer) haven't yet tapped this year's gypsy. They'll do that backstage before the show on opening night.

In the orchestra pit, the players get their blessing after the show. Several years ago, the musicians started a tradition to recognize certain players for their contribution (welcome or unwelcome) to that day's show: a string section's crisp execution of an important melody, a trombone player's sour note, a drummer's especially groovy beats or a conductor's missed cue.

For Annie, the award was a dog bone worn as a necklace by the previous day's winner (or loser). For West Side Story, I tried to convince the orchestra manager that an appropriately themed award would be a pack of cigarettes or a puncture wound from a switchblade. She didn't seem too enthusiastic about either of my ideas, and she instead decided that the award would be a pair of Chuck Connors Converse All-Stars shoes--footwear for punks and hoodlums and their close cousins, orchestra musicians.

Cabrillo Stage performs West Side Story July 11 through Aug. 17 at the Cabrillo Theatre, 6500 Soquel Drive in Aptos. Tickets are $23 general, $20 seniors, $18 children 6-12. Call 831.479.6154 for tickets.

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From the July 2-9, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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