This weekend, Four Seasons Theatre celebrates the 50th anniversary of West Side Story with a gala production at Wisconsin Union Theater. When it opened on Broadway in 1957, Leonard Bernstein's transcendent musical translated the Romeo and Juliet story to the streets of gangland New York, with lyrics by a fledgling Stephen Sondheim and dances by Jerome Robbins. Today West Side Story is considered the ultimate collaboration of dance, music, and lyrics.
Four Seasons is doing nothing by halves for the occasion. When the Sharks and the Jets hit the Union Theater stage for their opening rumble, the company promises Bernstein's full 27-piece original orchestration and every step of Robbins' iconic choreography. The large cast features dancers from Madison Ballet and actors, singers and production staff from across the full spectrum of Madison's performing arts community.
John DeMain, director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, is scheduled to give pre-show talks Friday (6 p.m.) and Sunday (12:30 p.m.) in the Memorial Union about the role West Side Story occupies in the canon of great American musicals. DeMain also promises to recount anecdotes from the production he conducted on Broadway with the original creators.
West Side Story will be the third Four Seasons production to catch the attention of area musical-theater enthusiasts. Last summer it was Sweeney Todd, and in 2005 Ragtime, both well received. In between they've offered a wide range of outreach programs for nascent musical stars, lecture series, and staged concert versions of musicals like Miss Saigon. Broadway star Tom Wopat has been signed for the company's staged concert version of Sondheim's Follies next February.
Artistic director Andrew Abrams returned from New York three years ago with a hefty musical-theater résumé and a plan: "Our ultimate goal is to create a Madison-based professional regional musical theater. The talent is here, the demand is here, and people are starting to understand the level we're trying for."
Until they meet their ambitious goal, Abrams and his small but dedicated staff support themselves with day jobs in the local arts community.
"Every penny goes into the next production - and we've never gone in the hole," says managing director Sarah Marty, a UW graduate MBA in arts administration who estimates she's written 25 grants during the past year.
"My eyes are on the stars," laughs Abrams, "but hers are on the bottom line."
Hey, does that sound like a plot for a musical?