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When Joshua Buscher speaks of Arthur Laurents, which he does frequently during our brief interview, it is with the reverent tone of a student quoting the teachers of a master. Which is exactly what Laurents is. At 90, he is very much the hands-on director of the legendary icon of American theater– West Side Story— the show he wrote over 50 years ago.

Since July, I have been trying to line up an interview with someone from the production of West Side Story’s revival. By now the play’s publicist and I have become virtual pen pals. After reading that the play would open for its pre-Broadway run right here in Washington D.C. (in the National Theater, the same venue it first opened at in 1957), I was determined to get the inside scoop on it. Through auditions, the New York rehearsals, and finally DC rehearsals, we continued our correspondence. Finally, just days before the opening of the first preview performance in mid-December, I am on the phone with cast member Buscher, who is enthusiastically describing his experience preparing for this historic revival.

Joshua Buscher

Joshua Buscher

What makes this revival of West Side Story so unique is language. Laurents’ late partner, Tom Hatcher, had seen the play staged entirely in Spanish in Colombia and found that it totally changed the dynamics– the Sharks became the heroes and the Jets the villains. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the two gangs somehow,” Laurents told the New York Times earlier this year, by having characters speaking amongst themselves in their native language.

Adding the Spanish into the show 100 percent makes it work,” says Buscher, “It helps so much with the energy of the show– what it does is makes that barrier of the Americans versus the Puerto Ricans even wider. Some of our audience can’t speak Spanish, so they get frustrated,” adding to the tension the audience will feel between the Sharks and the Jets. In case you’re one of those non-Spanish-speaking audience memeers, don’t worry– there will be supertitles. Although some scenes, such as the one preceding America, are mostly in Spanish, he is confident that the acting and dancing will transcend language.

Josefina Scaglione and Matt CavenaughOne thing I was dying to know was if Robbins’ choreography would be altered at all for greater cultural authenticity. Would the Puerto Ricans be adding some bomba or plena sabor to the dance numbers? Then again, no reason mess with a good thing (no, make that an amazing thing — West Side Story is in my book, hands down, the best dance musical ever, and the best music musical, for that matter). So what if the choreography of America is more flamenco than salsa? Joey McKneely, the reproduction choreographer did change some of the blocking and spacing in the piece to underscore the culturally adversarial give and take between the homesick girls and the girls that are trying to become Americanized (which explains why Anita will at times break into English even with her compatriots). It will be more about that interaction than an “and now folks, here’s the big dance number” performance to the audience; but Robbins’ choreography will remain intact.

This will be Buscher’s Broadway debut. He is Diesel, the “meathead” of the Jets– a surprise not only to me– going by his angelic headshot and cheery voice– but also to his family and friends. “It was kind of a process for me to get into that because I’m not really a meathead,” says Buscher. “But he’s come to life and it’s great. When we do the rumble scene it’s awesome. It’s very empowering for me to jump on stage and be able to protect the guys that are behind me.” Late bloomers, take heart. Although Buscher was a gymnast in his youth, he didn’t start dancing until he got to college, realizing it was important to his development as an actor. The audition process for West Side Story, which was six months long, really improved his technique. That plus an hour-long barre class before each day’s practice and the encouragement of McKneely and his assistant. “It helps that [Diesel] is a fighter because he’s not the most balletic boy; they did a nice job of casting if I do say so myself,” he says with a laugh.

West Side Story Rehearsal (with Cody Green)It is a young company, with many making their Broadway debut– with so much of the cast being made up of teenage gang members, that is a necessity. There are some seasoned veterans, of course, including Karen Olivo (Anita) who was most recently seen in In the Heights. Here’s another familiar face: Step It Up and Dance fans will recognize Cody Green in the role of Riff.

Six-month audition process aside, I want to know the nuts and bolts of getting a Broadway dance musical from studio to stage. “The first week of rehearsals was just dance, that’s all we did,” says Buscher. After a brief meeting with Laurents and the creative team, “literally an hour later we were on the floor learning Dance at the Gym.” Nary a libretto was cracked open for the first full week of practice as the dancers learned all the dance numbers. This allowed the choreography to become second nature so the dancers could focus on acting. Additionally, as lines, songs, acting and blocking were layered on, the choreography gained depth along with the process of character development.

Rehearsals started in New York City, going about six hours a day, six days a week for five weeks. The whole cast moved to DC for the final two weeks of rehearsal. After the dances were learned, important acting moments were added in, and vocal rehearsals. “The way Arthur and Joey McKneely work is they fill it up right in the beginning so you have time to grow,” says Buscher. Additional character development occurred after hours, as The Jets hung out together socially to get to know each other and figure out their relationships in the gang. Quoting Laurents again, he says, “He wants this to be an acting show. He says the dance number’s kind of nowhere if you’re not acting from somewhere.”

Arthur Laurents addresses the cast of West Side Story

By the time the cast got to Washington they felt comfortable enough with what they had to do to start taking more artistic risks. The hard work “pays off when you get the show at a place where you’re allowed to try new things on stage because you’re so comfortable with what you’re doing. That is where a show should be.”

With just hours remaining before his big Broadway show debut, I ask Buscher what we can expect. I’ve been able to tell from the tone of his voice during our conversation that there is a great deal of excitement and satisfaction with the process and anticipation for what is to come.” There’s a very high bar for this show and all of this are taking it on with full force. We are young we are energized and we’re dancing the crap out of this show.”


West Side Story runs through January 17, 2009 at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale through Telecharge (800) 447-7400, www.telecharge.com) or at the National Theatre Box Office (202-628-6161 www.nationaltheatre.org. It will open on Broadway on February 23.

In which I am cast

It’s been almost a month since I told you about my audition for the musical, and I know you’ve been waiting with baited breath to see if I got the part. Why has it taken me almost a month to get to this? Well, my friends, that’s because I got the part, and have been busy rehearsing!

I wasn’t expecting to make it past the first round, and then I really wasn’t expecting to make it past callbacks (this being my first theatrical audition ever). As such, during the whole audition process, Mr. P and I were discussing our summer vacation plans and had pretty much determined that we would be going out of town for three weeks in July. The show was scheduled for three weekends in July, but of course since I wasn’t going to get the part, that wasn’t an issue, right?

Murphy’s Law, people… The next day I got a call from the director telling me that I had been cast as featured ensemble. What should have been amazing news was tempered by the sinking realization that Mr. P and I had a big decision on our hands. My first thinking was that I was willing to give up the play. Mr. P has not been back to Italy to see his family in three years and that made it a non-issue for me. At the same time, I told the director that I would do the play, intending to show up for the first practice “just to see what it was like” and then tell them that something had come up. I was feeling conflicted.

To complicate matters, I told my colleague (the one who’s heavily involved in community theater and had told me about the audition) that I had gotten the part– followed by a scream and a hug by said colleague– and then told her I wasn’t going to do it since we were going to Italy– which was followed by “ARE YOU CRAZY?!” She impressed on me what an incredible accomplishment it was to have not only made callbacks, but to be cast as featured ensemble, given the reputation of the company, and how perfect a match the show was for my interests and abilities. Then I made the mistake of going to the first rehearsal and seeing how many scenes I’d been cast in, and that I was dancing in two numbers (having been erroneously told by the director that I would not be a dancer). Having been issued my libretto, casting sheet, and met the rest of the case, there was no turning back. It was time for a heart to heart with Mr. P.

Mr. P gets “husband of the year” designation. From the beginning, he could sense how important this was to me, and even though I was fully willing to give up the opportunity, he agreed to move our vacation to August and tolerate the crazy rehearsal schedule. If you know anything about Europeans’ vacation schedules, you know that August is the worst possible time to go there. Everyone is on vacation. All the businesses in the cities shut down and people head to the beaches and mountains in droves. Prices are inflated for the month, which is suicide on top of the current dollar-euro exchange rate. Mr. P has been fully supportive and invested in the whole process, and has never once let on that he begrudges it.

In which I begin rehearsals

 The first few weeks of rehearsals began sitting down. The goal was to get the vocals down before attempting any choreography or staging. This play has a very strong ensemble component and there was lots of vocals to memorize. Although I am very familiar with this play, having listened to it throughout my childhood, I had to relearn it from the perspective of a mezzo soprano = with harmony. It’s easy to memorize a melody line, but much more of a challenge to memorize the harmony lines of an at times quite dissonant score. All this sitting down made me wonder when we were going to dance. It also gave the opportunity to get to know my fellow cast members.

This is a new social experience. I was in band in high school. I did not really mix with the thespians. I found them to be dramatic and self-centered. Let me tell you something– some things never change. Even as adults, thespians are no exception. Dancers are largely toned down when they are not dancing; musicians can live up to the nerdy stereotype; many thespians are at full speed all the time. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with them, but they are also a fun group. Luckily, there are a couple of dancers to keep things in balance, and the principal actors are with very few exceptions, completely un-divas.

Throughout rehearsals, I’ve felt like a little sponge. Everything is new and I’m just trying to absorb all the information and direction that is coming at me from every side. As things get added in, it gets more and more complex. Humility and unquestioningness (is that a word?) are the name of the game right now.

Next installment: Dance rehearsals, a crisis of self esteem, and (hopefully) redemption

I said in my last post that I’d be writing about a new challenge I’ve embarked on and the new experiences and lessons that have come with it. What is it you ask? Ok, the title of this post gives it away, but all I have to say, is: Broadway, get ready, ’cause I’m on my way! Not so fast, this is community theater.

A little while back, a coworker who’s heavily involved in community theater forwarded me an audition announcement. They were looking for dancers. The musical, only one of my favorites of all time, was one that I knew backwards and forwards, having listened to the soundtrack a bazillion times with my sister when we were younger.

It was an opportunity I’d sort of been waiting for in the back of my mind. Unless you count being in the orchestra pit in high school way back in the day, I’d never done theater before. A lot of musicals have some amazing dancing, and they look like so much fun. More fun than some of the dance performances I’ve been involved with, dare I say…I figured the dancing in it would be latin-ish, so I might have something to bring to the table. The one catch was that I would have to sing, but my coworker assured me I just needed to be able to carry a tune. That I can do, though I can’t speak to the quality.

Bottom line: I had nothing to lose and figured the audition process would be a fun experience that would fortify me for the future. I had absolutely no expectation of making the cut. In the end, I think this gave me the ability to be relaxed and to be myself.

First, I had to pick a song. I’ve got a low range, so I went with Big Spender from Sweet Charity. Another good choice, as it allowed me to show my sassy side. I downloaded the sheet music and the song and sang along with it a bunch of times by way of practicing.

When I got to the audition I had to fill out a form stating availability, experience, part auditioning for (dancer, of course), and some other stuff including my “age range,” basically the ages I felt I could convincingly portray. I asked about this and was advised to go ten years younger and ten older. As I waited to be called I asked the other auditioners if they had any advice, since it was my first time. “Be charismatic” seemed to be the main tip.

I’d asked my friend if I should dress the part, and she told me not to as you don’t know what they have in mind, so it’s best to be a blank slate. When I got there, all the women seemed to be wearing red dresses (going with the latin-ish theme). Though I was dressed to dance, I was also funnily enough wearing a red shirt with black pants.

We were brought into the audition room in a group of five. I was to go last. As each person finished their audition, they left the room, so I actually auditioned in front of the judges only. I’m not sure if that helped my nerves or not, but I focused on charisma, and tried to move as naturally as I could while singing, despite having noticed the others stood still while they sang. Then again, none of the others seemed to be trying for a dancing part. A couple sashays and arm flourishes actually elicited a couple saucy “oohs” from the judges so I think that tactic worked. After the singing, the judges were most concerned about rehearsal and performance conflicts. One girl immediately got cut because she would be in Greece for a month during rehearsals (duh). After that was verified, each person was asked to do a chaine. Except for me– they said since I was a dancer I obviously knew how to do chaines and I could do choreography during callbacks.

I was a little miffed that I was all dressed to dance and couldn’t even do a chaine, but also a little psyched because it seemed I was making callbacks. Sure enough, the call came pretty soon that I was to attend callbacks a few days later. That’s when I started getting nervous. I hadn’t actually planned on making it that far!

At the callback, all those trying out for lead and dance parts had to learn a combination. It was moderately challenging and technical and took me a couple times to learn fully. Definitely more ballet than latin. I thanked my lucky stars I’ve been going to ballet class lately. Thinking back to the advice I got, I tried to focus on charisma, and on really nailing the moves that felt natural to me. It was impossible to tell what was going on– there were a number of expressionless judges and they kept assigning people to different places in the lines and moving the lines back and front. I have no idea how they kept track of anything, nobody even appeared to be taking notes. They may have been but it almost seemed they were going on memory alone.

I should note that there were tons of women that auditioned and not so many men. The dancing of the men left, for the most part, much to be desired. It was clear that as usual, the fiercest competition in dance is among women.

After the dancing portion, everyone else was brought into the room and we had to sing an excerpt from one of the show’s big choral numbers. No harmonizing was required, and the director moved rather quickly through the room to see how each person was blending with the group. Again, no visible note taking. I have no idea how they did that with so many people trying out. It was eerie.

At that point the audition was over. . .I honestly had very few expectations for myself. Not because I thought I did a bad job, but because I’ve never done theater before, and there were so many people auditioning I didn’t know if I’d stood out or would meet their casting guidelines. Still, I felt hopeful to have the opportunity for a new experience, and for a musical I love so much on top of that.

Stay tuned for the next installment to see if I got the part!

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