An Insider's Look at Lyric Opera's West Side Story
Last Thursday I heard all the beautiful sounds of the world in a single world at the final dress rehearsal at the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of West Side Story on Thursday, May 2. After my sister told me about Lyric Opera's contest to be a West Side Story Insider ― someone who has the privilege of live tweeting the final dress rehearsal ― I immediately applied because I'm active on Twitter (probably my favorite social media platform), and I love West Side Story (my second favorite musical behind Newsies).
The application itself was simple. I just had to include my social media handles, why I wanted to be a WSS Insider, and what I like about Lyric Opera. I wasn't entirely sure what criteria the Lyric Opera staff would be using to choose the insiders, but I felt like I had a good chance at being one of the 10-15 people chosen because I felt I answered the questions well, and I have over 1,000 followers on Twitter.
A few weeks later, I got an email with the subject "Congratulations―You're a WEST SIDE STORY Insider!" I was stoked. I'm pretty sure I squealed in excitement upon seeing the email and told my sister, Ashley, who also applied. She then checked her email and was also chosen! We were so excited for this opportunity. I've jokingly said that the 10 years I spent tweeting nonsense have finally paid off because someone actually chose me to tweet and promote something on Twitter.
When I opened the email and read all the details, I learned being a WSS Insider was even better than I expected. In addition to being invited to attend the final dress rehearsal and live tweet that, the insiders would be given a backstage tour. How cool, boy! Real cool.
When the day finally came, I was pumped to get to see a live, stage version of one of my favorite musicals for the first time. I'd watched the movie several times before and enjoyed when Glee did WSS, but this would be my first time actually watching a stage production of the classic, iconic story. Of course I got there early and walked around and explored the outside of the Lyric Opera. Last time I was in downtown Chicago, they didn't have a lot of promo stuff for it up yet, but they have tons now.
Lights that projected the WSS logo shone on the sidewalk right outside the main entrance. The music was playing from a little electronic banner/billboard. Almost life-size window decals of the six main characters adorned the windows on the other doors around the corner from the main entrance. Lyric Opera went full out in promoting this show, and after watching the final dress rehearsal, I know why.
After finding the right door to go through, we met Lyric's social media associate, Amanda, and got a reusable tote bag complete with all the information we'd need, including the program, the Wi-Fi login, what hashtags to use, and more. The final dress wasn't set to start for another half hour or so, so we got to explore before heading to our seats.
The Lyric Opera House is massive and gorgeous. There's an art gallery full of opera costumes and whatnot on the lower level where the bathrooms are, the ceilings are all so high and are just great pieces of architecture, and there's a lot of space to wait and hang out before/after shows and during intermissions. They also have a backdrop for people to take pictures in front of to document their visit to the biggest stage in Chicago. In fact, they've actually changed it to a WSS one, so I'll need definitely need to take another picture in front of the WSS backdrop when I see an official show.
After walking around a bit, my sister and I found some outlets to charge our phones for a bit before the rehearsal began. We wanted to make sure we had as much battery power as possible for live tweeting since we wouldn't have access to outlets during the show.
We headed to our seats around 1:45 PM and got to sit in a box in the mezzanine! I definitely felt special and fancy sitting in a box. I'd never sat in a box before (except for two baseball games), and the chairs are definitely more comfortable. Plus, it offered a great overall view of the show and stage.
There were about 10 insiders total sitting in two boxes to live tweet, and there were actually a lot of people in the other seats to watch the final dress rehearsal. I had no idea what to expect. I honestly had no clue so many people were invited to the final dress. But I still felt honored to be invited, especially because I got to live tweet the whole thing and most everyone else had to keep their thoughts to themselves and couldn't take out their phones.
The rehearsal started a bit late, but that's okay. And once it started, I found it hard to keep my eyes off the stage and the show and actually tweet, because 1. the show is amazing and 2. my phone and the Wi-Fi were not getting along. I wasn't getting any sort of connection or signal from Wi-Fi or 4G or anything. I probably went at least half an hour without tweeting and felt so bad that my tweets weren't going through. Tweeting is what I was invited to the rehearsal to do, so I felt bad that everyone else was tweeting and I wasn't. I worried that I was never going to get a good connection, and therefore, wouldn't be able to tweet.
But after a little while, the Wi-Fi finally connected and maintained a connection with my phone, so my tweets started streaming in. There were so many things I wanted to tweet while I couldn't but couldn't keep up with them all, so I just began from where the show was at.
Now, onto the show with some of my own tweets inserted here and there. My first tweet that went through was about the Jets, who are, if you're unfamiliar with WSS, the Caucasian gang in the musical. They're the first ones who sing and appear in the show, and this group of performers made up a great set of Jets. While each member who gets to sing a little solo in the Jet Song sounds great, collectively they sound like a beautiful, angelic choir. I want them to form a band and sing together forever.
Petition for the Jets to be a boy band instead of a gang, because they sound amazing!#LyricWSS #WSSinsider — Amanda Wijangco (@amanda_carmela) May 2, 2019
If you've ever heard the WSS score/soundtrack before, you know snapping is a common thing in a few of the songs and throughout the show. And considering I saw Avengers: Endgame a week prior to this dress rehearsal, I couldn't help but think of Thanos, the Infinity Gauntlet, and all the snaps that came with it.
The Jets might want to snap Lieutenant Schrank to dust, though. #LyricWSS #WSSinsider pic.twitter.com/g6bwreB0o1 — Amanda Wijangco (@amanda_carmela) May 2, 2019
One of the best and most notable things about Lyric's production of WSS is the performance of the two leads. Mikaela Bennett and Corey Cott do such an amazing job at the roles of Maria and Tony, respectively. Perhaps the first thing I noticed about Bennett was the sense of urgency she includes in her performance. Bennett doesn't just act the part or sing the notes and lyrics perfectly; she brings a whole other element of feeling and emotion to it. When Maria is worried her parents are going to find Tony, a white boy and rival gang member on her balcony, you can hear the worry in her voice. You can see and feel it in her actions. Her performance greatly exceeds Natalie Wood's in the award-winning movie. In addition, Bennett's voice is simply stunning. She can sing so high and so beautifully, my jaw literally dropped in astonishment a few times.
Me after Mikaela Bennett sang that last high note in the Tonight quintet #LyricWSS #WSSinsider pic.twitter.com/2t4WaN4L7a — Amanda Wijangco (@amanda_carmela) May 2, 2019
And don't even get me started on Cott. I've actually seen him perform live once before last time I was in New York when I saw him in Bandstand. He's the best dang Tony I've ever heard. When you hear him sing "Maria", you wish your name was Maria so he could be singing about you, too. And then there's his acting. Only a super close-up of him on a big movie screen, like when Bandstand was in theaters from Fathom Events, gives his ability to really utilize his face and portray such intense emotion justice. I fully believe that Cott is in anguish when bad things happen to Tony (if you know, you know. If you don't know the unfortunate things that happen to Tony and the Jets, watch WSS, preferably this production.).
An important part of any version of WSS is the choreography. It helps carry the narrative and is a standout component of the musical. This production uses the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, which you won't see in the upcoming movie remake or upcoming Broadway revival. It's beautiful, technical, and difficult. The ensemble of this production is so talented. There's the consecutive ring jumps in heels at the end of "America". There's the "Somewhere" ballet/pas de deux. If you're a dance fan like me, you won't be disappointed.
Onto a few special details about this production that elevate the show despite being details. There's a part where Tony and Maria are singing wedding vows as they're pretending to get married, and Tony sings the English lyrics, followed by Maria singing the Spanish lyrics. Culture is a big part of this musical, so having those Spanish lyrics is great. This musical debuted on Broadway in the late 1950s and became a movie in the early 1960s, so a lot's changed since then. While Lyric Opera's current production isn't clearly set in a specific time period, it's assumed that it doesn't take place right now or in a relatively recent setting. So pretty much any time a woman/girl is wearing pants or anything but a dress, it says a lot.
Amanda Castro as Anita wearing a moto jacket and pants while singing "A Boy Like That" just elevates the entire scene! SO FIERCE. #LyricWSS #WSSinsider — Amanda Wijangco (@amanda_carmela) May 2, 2019
Now for the exclusive tour of the Lyric Opera House! First, we got to go on the stage, see what it's like to be on such a big stage in front of a massive audience in a huge theater, and look at the sets up close.
The set pieces are massive and are so detailed. Part of the set actually opens up to reveal Maria's bedroom, and we got to see that. We could see the pink wallpaper and the pictures of Luis Fonsi and Ricky Martin hanging on her wall. Then there's the iconic balcony where Tony and Maria have a few scenes, Doc's (where Tony works and the war council happens), and the gym that hosts the dance at the start of the musical.
Afterwards, we got to go backstage (and upstairs) to some storage space (the Lyric Opera House is massive and can hold a lot of different show's sets), the rehearsal space (it's so big that it used to be a stage, and the sets for shows can actually be placed there to rehearse with), the wardrobe department, and the wig department (they make a lot of wigs by hand there!).
Overall, it was a fantastic, unforgettable experience that made me want to see the show so much more than I already did. And I've only seen a dress rehearsal! I can only imagine how spectacular an actual full-out show is! Plus, it was super cool to see some behind the scenes action that makes you realize really how much work, effort, and energy goes into putting a big show like this together.
If you're in the Chicago area or wouldn't mind a trip to Chicago to see this amazing amazing production of the iconic, classic, unforgettable West Side Story, get your tickets at WestSideStoryChicago.com and use "WSSinsider" for 20% off all Monday-Friday performances! The show has a limited engagement at Lyric Opera from May 3-June 2. Maybe I'll see you there! (I'm going twice, at least.)