Paul James 03 (Chino), center, listens intently during
the first read-through of the script.
Tony Salatino discusses costume designs with the students.
Tony Salatino choreographs a dance number during a West
Side Story dance class last fall.
Kristin Hoesl 03, center, and the other Jets girls
rehearse Cool under the guidance of music
director Dianne Adams McDowell, who is seated at the piano.
major Kristin Hoesl 03 found out she had been cast in West
Side Story on the last day of school. Upon arriving home for
the summer, she pulled out a movie version of the musical she had
been given as a child and memorized the entire show to prepare for
rehearsals in the fall. West Side Story is close to
my heart because its the first musical I ever loved,
says Hoesl, who created the role of Velma, a Jets girl of Polish
American descent. Growing up I dreamed of playing Anita, the
Puerto Rican girlfriend of the Sharks gang leader. It was
a sad day when I realized I wasnt Spanish.
Hoesl, a Remembrance
Scholar, was one of 29 talented drama students chosen to work alongside
professional actors in a production of West Side Story that
was part of a unique collaboration between the Department of Drama
and Syracuse Stage, a regional theater company associated with the
University. Hoesl says working with the professional members of
the cast was a phenomenal experience. The best part was getting
to watch how they rehearsed, since they all had different approaches
to the material, she says. And they took time to get
to know usthere were no attitudes in the room.
Story is the third such alliance between the Department of Drama
and Syracuse Stage, following successful runs of Peter Pan
in 2000 and Oliver! in 2001. Syracuse Stage is the only member
of the League of Regional Theatres (LORT) to produce shows in partnership
with a major undergraduate academic program. This is an extraordinary
event for a LORT member, says Robert Moss, artistic director
of Syracuse Stage since 1996. Originally we thought about
collaborating on a main-stage holiday production every other year,
but Peter Pan was so successful, weve joined creative
forces to present full-blown Broadway musicals three years in a
other regional theaters are envious of what Syracuse Stage and the
Department of Drama have accomplished. Undergraduates have an opportunity
to put classroom theory into practicea key part of the Universitys
Academic Planand can jump-start their acting careers by making
professional contacts and earning points toward membership in the
Actors Equity Association (AEA), a performing arts labor union.
And Syracuse Stage brings in new audience members by treating the
Central New York community to a first-rate musical theater experience
for substantially less than it would cost in New York City. We
dont argue with success, Moss says. Working together
has been, and will continue to be, a joyous experience.
Syracuse University has boasted one of the top drama departments
in the country since Sawyer Falk, a leader in developing theater
programs at academic institutions, created the department in the
early 1930s. Forty years later, the College of Visual and Performing
Arts brought in Arthur Storch to serve as department chair and artistic
director of Syracuse Stage, the Universitys new nonprofit
professional theater company founded in 1973. Under Storchs
leadership, Syracuse Stage grew into a major regional theater, while
the Department of Drama developed one of the countrys strongest
bachelor of fine arts professional training programs.
actor David Villella (Bernardo) leads the Sharks in a rousing
rendition of America.
SU drama students rehearse America.
Kelly D. Lane 03 practices lighting cues with A. Nelson
Ruger IV G96, who holds an M.F.A. degree in lighting
and scenic design.
One of Storchs
goals was to nurture a symbiotic relationship between the academic
and professional sides of the theater complex, thereby heightening
the students educational experience. Of the 65 LORT
theaters in the United States, only 22 have professional training
programs associated with colleges and universities, says James
Clark, producing director of Syracuse Stage and chair of the Department
of Drama. Syracuse Stage has, by far, the largest program
of the four theaters that focus on professional actor training for
For many years,
Syracuse Stage and the Department of Drama have worked together
to present the Young Peoples Serieschildrens theater
productions that tour local schools. Faculty direct, students perform,
and Syracuse Stage technicians build the sets and make the costumes
for the shows. However, productions that go on the road have inherent
technical limitations, and Clark wanted children in the community
to have an opportunity to experience the magic of a fully staged
performance. His vision became reality in 1996, when Syracuse Stage
partnered with drama department faculty and students to present
a production of Dragonslayers. That was followed by an original
musical adaptation of the beloved childrens story Wind
in the Willows in 1997. The next spring, Syracuse Stage was
invited to remount Wind in the Willows at the New Victory
Theatre in New York City, where it had an impressive four-week run.
the remarkable success of Wind in the Willows, Clark and
Moss had fun envisioning how the professional and academic wings
of the theater could collaborate in the future. Both had always
wanted to do a Broadway musical, but Syracuse Stages 500-seat
house cant generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the
large casts, royalties, costumes, and pit orchestra required to
mount such a production. I kept looking at the budget, but
I just couldnt make it work on a LORT/Actors Equity
union contract, Clark says. The drama department had
similar frustrationsunlimited manpower but inadequate physical
space. So we decided to switch hats and reduce overhead by hiring
fewer paid professional actors and casting more students in key
A small number
of students have appeared in minor supporting roles in Syracuse
Stage productions over the years, but LORT contracts restrict the
number of non-union actors allowed to work with Equity union members.
By using a University Resident Theater Association/AEA contract,
Clark and Moss are allowed to hire a reduced number of Equity actors
to appear on the same stage with an increased number of students.
The only restriction is that the shows cant be part of Syracuse
Stages regular subscription series.
venture, Peter Pan, was an enormous undertaking that brought
all of the resources in the building to bear on the project. Faculty
members directed and choreographed the show and appeared in two
of the leading roles; the costumes and sets were designed by professional
artists (including a recent graduate of SUs M.F.A. design
program) and produced by Syracuse Stage technicians; and 20 students
joined 5 Equity actors on stage. At first we were concerned
that the professional actors and students would have difficulty
meshing, but the quality of the students was such that they presented
a seamless production that played to sold-out houses, Clark
says. Oliver! enjoyed even greater success the following
year, and advanced ticket sales for West Side Story tracked
better than any show in Syracuse Stage or Department of Drama history
and played to standing-room-only audiences throughout its run.
Auditions for West Side Storyan updated retelling of
William Shakespeares Romeo and Julietwere held
last spring. With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen
Sondheim, the show has a difficult scorealmost operatic, with
a jazz idiom. Director and choreographer Anthony Salatino and music
director Dianne Adams McDowell knew just what they were looking
for in voice range, vocal stability, and pitch for this classic
American musical about two rival teenage gangs, the Sharks and the
Jets. We looked for students with pure young voices who could
handle intricate rhythms, sweeping sonorities, and uneven phrases,
says Salatino, a longtime member of the drama faculty who also directed
and choreographed Peter Pan. We also looked for students
who could express raw emotion through dance.
actress Izetta Fang (Anita), center, and the other Sharks
girls, played by SU students, taunt their boyfriends in a
performance of America.
Tony Salatino and Emily Mattheson 03 (Anybodys)
share a laugh during a break in rehearsal.
Paul James 03 (Chino) rehearses a dance with
Erin Kukla 04 (Rosalia).
Kristin Hoesl 03 (Velma) practices her dance
When the students
chosen to be Sharks and Jets returned to SU in the fall, they enrolled
in a two-credit course devoted to creating the shows dance
numbers. It was a good idea for us to take a dance class because
it kept us from becoming overloaded, and we had time to play with
ideas, says Paul James 03, who played Chino and understudied
the role of Bernardo. Tony [Salatino] was always open to our
suggestions and didnt force movements on us, so we developed
our characters through an organic process. It was rewarding to work
at such a professional levelevery day I achieved something
his students to imagine a back story for their charactersa
personal journey that would help direct their motivations and movements
on stage. To deepen their understanding of his concept for the showa
contemporary interpretation of 1950s gang warfare upon which the
musical is basedSalatino brought in a representative from
the Onondaga County district attorneys office to talk about
the current gang culture in Syracuse. I wanted my students
to realize that the subject matter of West Side Story is
timelessthat we still live in a world of fear and bigotry,
Salatino says. I wanted them to feel how each movement on
stage is profoundly rooted in this universal story of hatred, love,
and the power of forgivenessthat the plot is carried forward
through music and dance.
take long for the students to get into character. Most of them had
known each other since freshman year and were good friends, but
as soon as warm-ups began before dance class, the Sharks and the
Jets instinctively clustered on opposite sides of the rehearsal
hall. It wasnt intentional, says Lauren Creel
03, who played Francisca, a Shark girl. It just happened
naturally. I never thought I would bond so completely with the Sharks,
but the only time I saw the Jets was when we were going at each
other. It was really tense.
Each dance class
began with a half-hour warm-up session of stretching and Tai Chi
movements that started slowly and swelled to a feverish pitch. Since
the show is so vocally and physically demanding, Salatino cautioned
his students to save their voices during rehearsals and to check
their shoelaces before each dance number. In this show the
cast went up and down on the floor and engaged in stage combat every
night, he says. The fight scenes were choreographed
with precision, but sometimes the students were too enthusiastic,
and I had to keep all that energy under control. I always put safety
first and tried to make sure they ate right and worked out at the
gym. It was like being a surrogate parent.
of preparation and anticipation by the students, the six Equity
actors in the leading roles joined the rehearsals. Salatino had
just four weeks to meld the student and professional performers
into a synergetic ensemble. It was kind of chaotic at first,
he says. But once the initial shock wore off, we became a
To ease the
tension, all members of the technical crew, design team, administrative
staff, and castthe largest ever to appear on the Archbold
Theatre stagegathered at a Meet and Greet in the
theater lobby, where introductions were made in a relaxed and friendly
atmosphere. I was really nervous and excited about meeting
the Equity actors, so in the weeks before they arrived I worked
twice as hard to polish my dances, James says. I wanted
them to think well of me.
The actors from
New York were equally enthusiastic about working with the students.
Izetta Fang, who played Tiger Lily in Peter Pan and Anita
in West Side Story, looked forward to returning to Syracuse.
At first she didnt know what to expect when she was cast in
Peter Pan, but found the students to be fresh and eager to
apply what they had learned in class. Their optimistic attitudes
sharpened my senses and helped me tune up and renew my own performance
skills, Fang says. In return I gave them some help with
vocal technique and showed them how a professional takes hold of
a role and goes for it. I also think the students were relieved
to realize the pros have problems too, and it was helpful for them
to see how we worked those through.
At last the Sharks and Jets were ready to rumble on opening nightthe
first of 33 public performances and 15 school matinees that would
take them through the holiday season. Despite the cold and blowing
snow outside, the show opened to a full house, received a standing
ovation, and garnered rave reviews. West Side Story
grabs audiences from the first jagged, restless notes of the overture
and holds them through to the tragic finale, wrote a reviewer
for the Syracuse Post-Standard. Its a powerful
show, witty, passionate and sheerly lovely at times, put together
by one of the strongest creative teams ever at Syracuse Stage.
The show was
a hit, but the hard work of keeping it fresh and alive had just
begun. Several of the students, known as swings, had to step in
for other chorus members who were ill or injured, and six students
understudied the lead roles to pinch-hit for the professionals at
school matinees. It takes skill to sustain a role, and the
students are usually dragging after the 10th show of the week,
says musical theater professor Rodney Hudson, an Equity actor who
played Fagin in Oliver! and Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
The audience has paid good money to see the show and no matter
how tired the students are, they are required to give their best.
For Creel, opening
night was so exciting that she couldnt wait to do the show
again and again. Every performance was just a little bit different
than the last, and that kept it fresh and new, she says. However,
the 10:30 a.m. school matinees were difficult because everyone was
tired from performing the night beforealthough I do have to
admit it was fun to get wild standing ovations from high school
students who made us feel like N Sync.
there was nothing quite like the thrill of opening night. The only
drawback was trying to maintain that same intense energy throughout
the run of the show. The schedule was grueling, she
says. We opened the final week of classes, and it was difficult
trying to manage performances, final exams, and sleep, not to mention
a social life. But being a part of West Side Story taught
me that sometimes its necessary to make sacrifices to succeed.
I was tired, but happy.
actors David Villella (Bernardo), left, Michael Gillis (Tony),
and George M. Livengood (Riff) face off during the dramatic
rumble scene between the Sharks and the Jets.
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