Leonard Bernstein the great composer of West Side Story once said;
Well after experiencing my first day of rehearsals for West Side Story at the Royal Exchange, under the direction of A.D Sarah Frankcom - I can assure you there is a ‘very exciting’ plan in place and even though there are 5 weeks of rehearsals - in Sarah’s own words “there’s a lot of work to do in not a great deal of time”.
One thing that struck me from the minute I walked in to the rehearsal room on the first day was the sheer amount of people in the room. At the meet and greet we were joined by all of the Royal Exchange team from press and marketing to full wardrobe and lighting department, as well as the full cast of 22 and creative team. I believe the venues largest cast for a musical to date.
They say it takes a village to put on a show - and I think it was important for the cast to understand this on their first day. There are a lot of people involved in making this show happen and each one of them is integral to its success.
Sarah also started with some Thank You’s as we stood in a circle after introducing ourselves individually, which due to the sheer amount of bodies seemed to last a while. Seeing the gratitude that Sarah has for her team and her company is really heartening and again what is evident is that she knows how vital everyone is in the machine and each cog is going to have to work together to bring this epic show to life.
I admired Sarah’s honesty and pragmatic outlook to the task ahead and one of the first things she said was;
The key word being potential - no one can claim that a show is ‘going to be amazing’ - because the hard work hasn’t started yet, the characters haven’t been created, the songs haven’t been learnt, the choreography is still being explored and the costumes are still being created. But the potential lies in the team around her - creatives at the top of their field, a dedicated team of workers around her and a very promising and exciting cast. We went straight in to a chat with the designer (Anna Fleischle) as she chatted us though her “urban playground” design- which I have to say is when I really started to get tingles about the show. It’s at this moment the full team and cast get to view the world that the show is going to live in and it’s such an integral part in laying the foundations to start rehearsals. This was also the first moment we heard the words “in the round” and from that point on it’s pretty much a regular phrase which is used by the full creative team.
The Royal Exchanges uniqueness lies in its makeup of being “in the round” but there are many restrictions that come with this. You can’t simply fly in the facade of a Manhattan apartment block and not expect that half the audience are going to be completely blocked to any action happening in front of it. Sarah has directed many plays in the main house, however this is her first musical, but she knows how the space works best and the challenges it possesses.
During a small gap in a dance call - later in the afternoon Sarah explained to the cast that when you’re playing/ dancing in the round; “your back is interesting.” I think solidifying this understanding of craft early on in the process and constantly reminding actors is very important to their journey to performance level.
Anna shared with the room some images that inspired her design and we really got to understand the evolution of the final design. This would have been months of back and forth chatting and meeting with Sarah to both discuss points on their vision for the design and also the practicalities of it. Anna also said “it doesn’t have to be literal, it’s the nature of it, the energy of it.” As mentioned above, there are certain things from a design aspect that just won’t work, however, the audience still need to feel that the setting of the piece is still true- it is 1950s New York but it’s the characters and their stories that will heighten the slightly abstract nature of the design to allow the audience to be fully immersed in the world. The same applied to costume design and the vision for a design which is more focused on the characters as real modern people and not a stuffy nostalgic period piece.
We then moved on to hear from choreographer Aletta Collins, who coming from a musical theatre background I am very much aware of the mammoth task and expectation many will have towards this aspect of the show. West Side Story was very famously choreographed originally by Jerome Robbins and to date any production of the show, as part of the rights, had to use the original choreography from the first event production.
But when the script arrived with a full bible of dance notes, including when a character should take a draw of a cigarette on a specific beat, Aletta was able to put that to one side and claimed it was a “lovely feeling”. The reason for this is that that this version of West Side Story is going to be completely re choreographed for the Exchange production.
I think this is vital to this particular version and again the space itself. After speaking to Sarah I learnt that previous to rehearsals starting herself and Aletta and the assistant choreographer had pre workshopped some choreography prior to starting. I believe this would have been really important in finding a dance vocabulary for the show before setting anything. Sarah also said that she wanted to work with Aletta as she doesn’t necessarily arrive with the moves but she creates work in the room- which was very interesting to watch and I think will be even more exciting to see how it evolves throughout rehearsals.
West Side Story was so groundbreaking for its time due to its mix of ballet and modern jazz to narrate the story and convey emotion. It was radical then but Sarah poses the rhetorical question –
It comes down to telling the story, allowing the characters to tell their story and as Sarah said allowing these young people to come in to their world and “tear it up!”
The Musical supervisor also spoke about the iconic score which was and still is so unique and defining as a musical masterpiece.
What is clear from hearing all of the creatives speak in the room is the passion that they each have for this project, this production, this time, this venue - and that is what comes from the director. When the director is so invested in a project and they have that burning desire to make it great then that transcends to the team around them and that’s when magic happens.
Sarah also gave each cast member her personal mobile number and spoke to them about if they ever feel like they aren’t getting something or don’t understand something to call her at any time. I know from my acting background that actors can sometimes internally start to have questions and doubts about the process - and then you can start moving into territory that isn’t mentally positive for you. So, I think it was really great of Sarah to offer this support to the company.
It was announced this week that Sarah will soon be ending her tenure as Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange. The sheer outpouring of admiration shown towards her since this announcement is testament to her work ethic, creativity, passion for the region and artistic programming. As Lyn Gardner put it in her article for The Stage;
“Sarah Frankcom has revitalised Manchester’s theatre scene.”
I certainly agree with this statement and already have the feeling that not only has she revitalised the whole industry in Manchester but with an incredible creative team, exciting cast and with the full support of the Royal Exchange team she will no doubt revitalise one of the most iconic musicals in history.
I am thrilled and honoured to observe this happening.
West Side Story runs 6 April - 25 May 2019, Theatre