Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Worst Side Story

I was lucky enough recently to be involved with another ImproMafia musical, Worst Side Story. In assembling and staging the musical, we tried a few new things out, and learned a few things too, some of which I thought were worth sharing.


The general idea was to take some of the concepts and tropes from the iconic musical West Side Story, and fold them in to a fully improvised musical, under the guidance of directors Michael Griffin and Luke Rimmelzwaan. The goal wasn't particularly to hit the same plot points as the original – West Side Story does a pretty great job of doing that already. But we did think it would be fun to grab some of the elements and use them to weave a story based on audience offers.

The basic structure would be:
  • Two gangs
  • Set in 1950’s-ish unnamed American-ish city
  • Love blooms between two opposing gang members
  • Lots of finger snapping
  • A rumble would be nice

Many of the One Bride for Seven Brothers alum came back for this one, as well as someone new to ImproMafia productions, Kiesten McCauley. Kiesten and I have been friends for nearly 20 years, performing together regularly for Theatresports-branded shows as well as other projects, and it was a great pleasure to work with her again and see her gelling with my other impro family.

We established before the show that there would be two roughly-symmetrical gangs, each of them having a leader (played by Tom Dunstan and Amy Currie), a support gang member (Joel Gilmore and Alex Reichart), and one of the star-crossed lovers (Kiesten McCauley and Luke Allan). We also kept a father figure in reserve (Luke Rimmelzwaan) who could step in and perform other roles as required. The gangs’ mutual hatred would be based around an issue that came from the audience. As the story progressed, the two lovers (who had not previously met) would meet at a neutral location (decided by the audience) and fall deeply, irrevocably in love, then realise the conflict that came from their crossed allegiances. From there, the story went where it wanted.

The directors and cast kept the story tight and focused on the night; we had several B-stories in our practice runs, which tended to run quite long. On the night we kept it short and sharp; the other characters still had time to develop, but we really concentrated on the main storyline.

Training and tricks

Luke Rimmelzwaan again took the role of Vocal Director, teaching the cast about various song structures and vocal techniques. As with One Bride, these workshops were one of the high points of the process for me. The downside is that only the cast of the show get access to such great training. Luke and I try to pull together many of the important lessons and explain them on Musical Hotspot, but there’s no substitute for workshopping formats, performing using some of these techniques, and watching others do the same.

There were several devices we used successfully in this show, some of which we used in One Bride for Seven Brothers and you may have read about on this blog, others we tried for the first time.

We again had a triad of Lovers’ Duets - falling in love, separated and conflicted, and reunited. Luke Allan and Kiesten did an absolutely amazing job constructing songs for these, effortlessly reprising choruses from one to the next. I'll be sharing some of these in the coming weeks.

In both musicals we performed an introduction song, one opening number where many of the characters get a moment in the spotlight to introduce themselves and establish their characters. In Worst Side Story, one gang would sing about how they hated so-and-so from the other gang (naming them and establishing their character), then the other gang (set somewhere else in the city) would return the favour, and one by one they worked through everyone.

We practiced a rumble/rhyming battle sort of song several times, where the two gangs effectively fought with lyrics, gaining and losing ground on the stage as the upper hand shifted from one gang to the other. We never quite managed to get this format to work in rehearsals, and on the night an opportunity for this kind of song didn’t come up.

I’d intended on applying specific musical styles for both gangs, so their own songs would be quite distinct. On the night, though, we ended up having quite a few separated-gang-duets, so catering to two different styles would have been quite a challenge.

On the night

Fingers' gang: Kiesten McCauley, Tom Dunstan,
Joel Gilmore
We asked for three offers from the audience: Something you feel passionate about, something you’ve bonded with someone over, and something you do when you are sad. On the night, we selected "table manners", "roller derby", and "chocolate". (Based on the responses, about 20% of our audience eat chocolate when they are sad. I guess we could have predicted that one.)

Our opening song, where the gangs introduce each other, leveraged that "table manners" offer to set everything up. It’s quite fun having the gang members endow their opposition with their gang member names! The Hoity Toity gang (exquisite table manners) included Salad Fork (the gang leader), Teacup, and Napkin Ring. The other gang (the uncouth ones) included Fingers, Drive-Through, and Messy.

The Hoity Toitys: Alex Reichart, Luke Allan,
Amy Currie
Roller derby was a perfect setting for the two lovers to meet; it set up a fight between the female leads of both gangs, and further raised the stakes when the fight spilled out of the ring and escalated in to a gang stoush, accidentally killing kindly father figure Papa Chocolate with a knife. (A butter knife, to be exact.) Roller derby came up three or four times with our audience members’ offers, so again a popular choice.

Something very strange happened during the show – I can’t think of another time we’ve done an ImproMafia show that turned out to be a tragedy. In all of our practice runs for Worst Side, we never had one that ended tragically. I guess we just like happy endings. On the night, though, the story wanted a tragedy, and thus we ended up mimicking more of the original West Side Story plot line than we’d expected. We saw a moment of pure panic on stage that night; when one of the main characters died unexpectedly, the shock to both the characters and the actors was palpable. The story developed as it should have, the characters changed, and the ending was quite satisfying.

After a show like this, I'm always amazed at the talent on-stage. Somehow these people manage to tell a great story, create great real-feeling characters, and when the time is just right break in to song in just the right way.

Worst Side Story logo by Anthony Massingham.
Photos by Al Caeiro.


Anonymous said...

Just wrote a long rambling comment only to lose it forever when I discovered I wasn't logged in to OpenID. In summary: I really enjoyed listening back to the recording of the show. I like listening for your sneaky muso tricks, like the little nod to 'America' in the overture and how Luke and I were in major and minor keys respectively in 'That Girl' to match our characters' emotions. Wonderful to work with you, as always!

Kris said...

"Sneaky muso tricks"! I like that!

I'm enjoying the recording too. I'm addicted to listening to'We Don't Need Them', the trio of lovers' songs, and 'Today'. 'Today' is especially lush, you guys sound like a string section. I wish I could say the nod to 'America' in the overture was intentional, sigh :)

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