By Scott MacClelland
The oldest argument among opera enthusiasts is over what’s more important, the words or the music? The true answer: all the best operas, from Monteverdi to Mozart, Beethoven to Wagner, Tchaikovsky to Puccini, Richard Strauss to Britten, give primacy to the words and consign the music to a supporting role. The older he got the more Giuseppe Verde, composer of the superfluous Anvil Chorus, agreed. Prokofiev, in his ballet Romeo and Juliet, essentially a pantomime, understood this critical dialectic as well. In West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein did too, insisting that the big choreographed numbers owed their allegiance to the dramatic narrative.
That by itself is one of the show’s strengths and a reason why every revival is eagerly awaited. The time is nigh: The Western Stage opens West Side Story this weekend. Jon Selover, the company’s artistic director, has waited a long time to revive this masterpiece of American musical theater. “It’s been on my to-do list forever,” he says, citing its last Western Stage production in 1986. Why so long? “You need twenty-some young people who can dance as well as sing.”
Selover was a stage manager for TWS’ smaller Studio Theater at that time, but has been its AD since 2001. Pursuant to that position he has served as theater arts stage manager, production manager, casting director, producing director and instructor in directing, production and acting. He has taught theater arts at San Jose State University, CSU Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College. The dozens of productions he has directed for The Western Stage include Arcadia, Sweeney Todd, Uncle Vanya, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, Spring Awakening, Zoot Suit and John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven.
Preparing for a big show like West Side Story starts with casting, beginninig at the end of the previous season. “We do auditions, locally and out of town,” Selover says. “We beat the bushes.” For this production, the principal roles of Tony, Maria, Bernardo, Chino and Riff are all taken by out-of-town talent selected by casting director Samantha Sullivan. “The most we’ve brought in for a long time,” Selover adds. The main big auditions were held in February; rehearsals began on June 21.
“With West Side Story, the music is the biggest factor. What’s daunting is how much and how excellent it is,” he says. Like Romeo and Juliet, the story revolves around young people. In WSS there are only four adult roles. “The segues are written into the music,” he adds. “It’s very cinematic; at the time that was pretty radical stuff.” Music director Don Dally has assembled a 19-piece orchestra, “which is close to the biggest we’ve had,” says Selover. TWS stalwart Lorenzo Aragon has created the large amount of choreography.
Selover holds a BA in Speech and Drama from California State University, Chico, and an MFA in Directing from San Jose State. Among his studies at San Jose State, Selover recalls a comedy class. “It wasn’t funny, actually, but I learned a lot about the mechanics of it.” He also credits the late Hal Todd, who directed him in a couple of shows there, as a formative influence. His job at TWS has changed over the years. “I don’t directly teach any more except in rehearsals. Melissa Chin-Parker (Artistic Program Director) and I tag-team a lot.” His last actual stage performance was in the 1994 production of East of Eden. (Selover is seated among the cast, left.)
The Western Stage has faced some of the same challenges as the Monterey Peninsula College Theatre Company, but there are significant differences. TWS went through a crisis several years ago and Hartnell College—the then-independent company’s home venue—stepped up by bringing it back into the college curriculum and establishing a dedicated foundation to support it. MPC meanwhile has withdrawn most of its support of its resident company due to severe state funding cutbacks and other campus priorities. At both colleges there are now state imposed limits to the number of times a student can take the same class, or, more to the point, that the state will reimburse for those enrollments. “Times are tough in public education, and higher education is the last to get state support restored,” Selover says. Additionally, MPC has its own enrollment problems. “Hartnell’s enrollment is getting younger all the time. MPC’s isn’t,” he says. “Also, we’re here for all of South Monterey County.” And, he adds, TWS has the enthusiastic support of Hartnell President Willard Lewallen.
Selover is optimistic about the future. “For next season, we have not yet nailed anything down. But we will do our six productions, three in the Studio Theater and three on the Main Stage.”