Rumble of the Rivals: West Side Story’s Success

Emily Rutledge, Writer

A modernized “Romeo and Juliet” sparked attention in early January at the Royal Theater with many Bryant students making up the cast of “West Side Story.” Set in the 1950s, a similar concept of a tragic love story captivated the audience as two feuding gangs, the Jets and Sharks, vied to keep two opposing lovers apart.

Junior Gretchen Bush, who played the role of a Jet’s girlfriend, Clarice, was one of many Bryant students who contributed to the live show.

“You have Mercutio and Benvolio in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and we have Bernardo and Riff in ours,” Bush said. “It’s a love story between Tony, a Jet, and Maria, a Shark, and they meet at the dance in a gym; it’s magical and they immediately fell in love, but their families hate each other because they’re from opposite rival gangs. In the end, however, Tony does die, so it’s not much of a happy ending, but I think the message of it is [positive].”

With dedication and hard work, the cast was able to pull off a successful performance after devoting hours to preparation. Junior Brennon Humphry, who played a Jet named Action, spent time outside of class as well as winter break to practice for the show.

“There was a lot of work involved,” Humphry said. “We had about three weeks to put on an entire show, and by that last week we were there from like 9 o’clock to 10 o’clock at night. It took up [the majority of] my Christmas break, with the exception of Christmas Eve and Christmas. We also had to rehearse after school some days for a few hours.”

Members of the cast not only rehearsed together for hours, but individually as well. Sophomore Jack Clay, who played a Jet known as “Baby John,” was one of many to rehearse for several hours outside of group practice.

“I would always go home and play my part on the piano,” Clay said. “My brother was also in the cast, so we would sing our parts whenever we could. I would go to my friends’ houses, the ones that were a part of the show, and we would run our music, go over lines and do character studies.”

Although a lot of work was put into the show, Clay believes that the fun environment remained, overall relieving the stress involved.

“Rehearsal was always fun,” Clay said. “We were there for long hours with several 12 hour rehearsals over Christmas break, and as we did, we gave it our all, because we enjoy theater and enjoyed putting in the effort. It didn’t feel as strenuous.”

The friendly atmosphere would not have been possible without the efforts of the cast to ensure that their hard work did not occur without fun, laughter and companionship.

“The atmosphere of the cast was one of my favorites that I’ve ever experienced in a show,” Clay said. “It was genial and kind from every perspective. Everyone treated each other as though we were all a family. Being in a show where there [was] so much violence and hate, it was important to keep that at the forefront.”

Bush agrees that everyone in the cast developed strong relationships and created an enjoyable atmosphere for everyone, carrying the familiarity throughout the show and to the audiences as well.

“It is a family environment,” Bush said. “Everyone is a family on stage, and everyone wants people to feel like family in the audience, too.”

The outcome of the showings was successful, considering the numbers of attendees, high ratings and overall enjoyment brought about by the live performances. Profit was made from tickets sold; however, the production of these shows are not cheap. Producers and students must raise their own funds in order to present the quality performances they have. Bush acknowledges the effort of the producers, students and audiences to continue such productions.

“We do a lot of things to [contribute to the funding of our shows],” Bush said. “The Arkansas Repertory Theatre was closed down due to bankruptcy, and they reopened, but it closed down because they were putting on shows that weren’t new or liked. We try to do popular shows like ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Little Mermaid,’ so people come and see it. Sometimes we’ll do one experimental show to see if people come. We also do concession stands and ‘60 seconds of change’ where during intermission, we literally run around with buckets so people can just throw change in the bucket. [We’ll] do anything to keep our theater open.”

The production of ‘West Side Story’ was not only successful considering the level of the audiences’ enjoyment, but the messages presented by the cast throughout the show as well.

“As people, we tend to hate so much without giving any thought to it,” Clay said. “We treat people with an ‘us versus them’ attitude and we need to just stop hating. People can and will work to make the world better by loving. They have understanding and feel empathy, and that’s one of the great things about theater; it allows the characters and audience to share that empathy with one another.”

Bush agrees that the theme of love and acceptance is consistently displayed throughout the story. She also believes that it extends to the political and social issues that many face.

“This show [demonstrates] that love is love, and that we should accept people no matter what,” Bush said. “If you really dive into it, you know that these opposite gangs have no true reason to hate each other. Today in modern society, we have faced several problems dealing with LGBT, women and minorities, who are also a major part of the show.”

Assisting in any way she can to make this message a reality in modern society, Bush works to display her values outside theater as well.

“I like to call myself an activist,” Bush said. “I actually marched in DACA to protest and protect immigrants. The show has immigrants, Puerto Ricans mainly, and they are part of America, but we treat them like they’re not. It shows people that they want to be a part of the change, and for me personally, I want to do anything I can to help [in reality]. I am a white woman, so I do have privilege, but I want to use that to help.”

Now that it has come to an end, “West Side Story” has opened new doorways for students to take on different roles in other musicals. An upcoming school show, “Crazy For You,” is scheduled to take place in April, featuring more Bryant students.

“‘Crazy for You’ is going to be really good,” Humphry said. “It’s going to be full of dancing, fun and [laughter]. We’re already working on the cast; It’s going to be stellar.”