Some of the greatest shows I have seen or been a part of weren’t directed by a top-notch director and didn’t have large budgets that allowed elaborate sets or exquisite costumes. They were not necessarily performed in high-profile theaters, or were they productions in which I made a living wage. On the contrary, I attribute my most cherished theatrical experiences both as an audience member and as a participant to a close knit, family-oriented cast that cherished the experience and worked together as a single unit.
Many years ago, I performed in a production of West Side Story for a community theatre. The producers decided to fire the director two weeks prior to opening. While the choreography was fully learned, the show was barely staged, the characters were severely under-developed, and we basically had no idea how the scenes transitioned from one to another. This might sound like a complete and utter nightmare: However, it was the exact opposite. Performing in West Side Story became one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life. This was due to a wonderfully supportive, family-oriented, and truly loving cast. Despite the fact that we were receiving little to no direction in rehearsals, we took it upon ourselves to meet outside of rehearsals (The Jets did a bowling night) where we would work on character development, figure out blocking, and also get to know each other personally. In rehearsal, where the original director would have sat there and watched us, we collaborated and blocked the show ourselves even working out scenic transitions along the way. Once the new director came on board, all she had to do was tweak the blocking and focus on tech. She thought she was coming into a train wreck, but the exact opposite was true. The show opened up to unanimously positive reviews from critics and audiences alike. Both parties commented on how cohesive the show was and how brilliantly the cast worked together on stage. Not bad for a show that was barely directed. Eleven years later, to this day, the cast still keeps in touch and many of us are still close friends.
How were we still able to have fun and perform in a quality show despite the tricky situation? Easy…we focused on the positives and stayed true to each other and the material. There were a few key elements which helped make the experience enjoyable.
1. Our love for West Side Story: We were so excited to have the opportunity to perform in this legendary musical. Many of us would never be cast in a professional or a Broadway company, so this was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.
2. Our passion for theatre: Many who do community theatre have day jobs that are not affiliated with the performing arts, yet, they still possess the “creative gene.” When creative individuals walk into a theatre, their senses become heightened, hearts start pounding, and the excitement to create intensifies. Being in a theatre creates a rush of energy not experienced in any other aspect of life. In addition, those of us in show-business have eccentric-like qualities that are often misunderstood. Being in a show like West Side Story provided an opportunity to be around like-minded people. In the absence of a director, the stakes were higher and we felt more of a responsibility for ensuring the integrity of the show. While this may tear some casts apart, it actually brought us together.
Even from an audiences’ perspective, it’s easy for me to tell the difference between a cast that works together and values the experience versus a cast that phones it in. 42nd Street is a great example of this. I saw a revival of 42nd Street on Broadway in 2001. The show had been opened for only a couple of months. I was obsessed with the soundtrack, having listened to it many times, and was so excited to finally see it on Broadway. When the opportunity arrived, I was a little shocked. I found the first act to be boring, disconnected, and rather stark. Even though 42nd Street is full of big production numbers that feature lavish costumes, the cast seemed bored. Yes, they were smiling, and rendering the choreography, but it was like watching 30 individuals in their own show. They were rather disconnected from each other as well as the material. As a whole, I found the show to be sluggish and generic. Years later, I saw a friend of mine in a touring production in San Bernardino, California. From the moment the curtain rose, I felt an immediate rush. Even as the cast tapped their way through the opening number, their passion and energy nearly blew the roof off the theatre. They found ways to interact with each other while executing the choreography, and during the scenes, the cast played off each other, finding interesting nuances that made their on-stage relationships genuine, compassionate, and exciting. After the show, I went backstage to say hello to my friend and, as we were talking, I saw the cast congratulating each other, patting each other on the back, and laughing about the funny hiccups that occurred during the performance. They all hugged each other and made sure they each had a ride back to their hotel. This was a vastly different experience from my backstage experience after the Broadway production. While the cast acknowledged each other, their interactions seemed forced rather than cordial. They darted out of the theatre so quickly as if they’d rather be somewhere else.
This anecdote isn’t meant to downplay or even talk negatively about Broadway, as I have seen plenty of Broadway shows that were mind-blowing. It is meant to suggest that you do not need millions of dollars to put on a great show. As long as the cast works together, focuses on the fun, of theatre, and is passionate about the material they are performing, the audience will most likely feel the same way.