This past weekend, a few hundred lucky people had the privilege of seeing something truly special at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. I, like most people, had heard of West Side Story but had never seen it. I had hopes of being treated to an entertaining production, something a little more fun and high energy than the highbrow, somewhat pretentious theater you would usually encounter at the Schwartz. (Full disclosure: I adore that type of theatre.) But I knew that this was not an official Cornell-sponsored production, but rather a largely student run and conceived show, with students from both Cornell and Ithaca College coming together as part of Melodramatics Theatre Company to present their vision. Add in the fact that these students had but a short two months to bring this classic production from conception to the stage and, needless to say, I was not expecting anything too grandiose. I was very happy to be proven completely wrong.
What these dedicated students managed to achieve is something that some Broadway shows never accomplish, with budgets in the stratosphere and months of production work before they ever even begin rehearsal. Those who attended were treated to a show that not only had heart and soul, but was a genuine joy to watch. Every part of the show was a labor of love, from the magnificent, gritty set design, featuring graffiti, chain-link fences and scaffolding that towered above the audience in the Flexible Theatre, to the vibrant, thrilling choreography. I was completely captivated from beginning to end, and rarely has two and a half hours passed by so quickly. Sure, the dancers were not perfect, and there were many moments of someone being a step or two off the beat, but this only added to the sense of the immense difficulty they faced in putting on a show like this. What they were able to achieve was nothing less than spectacular.
Much of the credit has to be given to the hard work put in by the partnership of the Melodramatics Theatre Company with Teatrotaller. Together they were able to create an experience that not only captured the power and energy of musical theatre, but portrayed believably the unending struggle in this country to bridge the racial gap and find a way to live in harmony. The director, Andrea Fiorentini, called it “an homage with some modern twists” and it was amazing to see the way that this production was able to highlight the simultaneous optimism and darkness of the original work while contextualizing it in a way that is completely relevant to America’s current political atmosphere. Some parts of the plot of West Side Story are admittedly hokey and contrived, but in many ways the daring choreography and absolute commitment of the cast and crew made the central message of our common humanity and the need for respect shine through. Fiorentini said she had “never seen a cast so connected with the material,” and I couldn’t help but agree. Perhaps the show attributes a bit too much to the power of love, but it never shies away from showing the disgusting, vile sides of human nature in all their chilling foulness. I couldn’t help but be enraptured, and I never imagined that a former Broadway musical could portray sensitive issues of race, gender and class with such nuance and effectiveness.
This, perhaps more than any other show I have seen, presented the problems we face in a manner that is still lingering in my mind. As Fiorentini put it, “we have such a long way to go.” Although I absolutely loved the show, it inspired a surprising amount of melancholy within me, not all of which was due to the heavy subject matter. Why is it that the best show I have seen at Cornell was a completely student conceived affair? Why is it that in order to put on a show like this, the production team should have to fight through “so many obstacles,” to have to push back against doubters and critics at every level? At a time like the present, I would argue that this university would benefit greatly from more shows like this being put on. These are the type of experiences that help create community. And a sense of community is what makes this campus strong.
The other day I was walking up Ho Plaza right before sunset, and I watched in amazement as a group of students began to sing the alma mater. More and more joined in, until there were nearly a hundred students, of all races and genders, holding hands, singing a song I didn’t think anyone knew or cared about. It ended, and with peals of laughter, these students dispersed, each returning to their individual, seemingly disconnected paths. Rarely have I witnessed such a display of hope on this campus. It was one of those beautiful moments when for a brief, fleeting second it becomes possible to imagine a better world, to hope that Cornell in some small way can embody the theoretical values that supposedly underpin it, can be a place where any student can find acceptance, guidance and a sense of home. This was my experience watching West Side Story, and it is my sincere hope that this show did not represent an exception to the norm, but rather a resurgence of the welcoming, inclusive theatre this campus needs.
James Frichner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]