The air is humming at Lyric Opera of Chicago these days. And no matter who you to talk to, there is a feeling that something great is coming. That something would be the highly-anticipated coproduction of “West Side Story” presented by the Lyric, the Houston Grand Opera, and Glimmerglass Festival, directed by Francesca Zambello and featuring Corey Cott as Tony, Mikaela Bennett as Maria, Amanda Castro as Anita, Brett Thiele as Riff and Manuel Stark Santos as Bernardo.
No matter whether you place your priorities on acting, singing or dancing—and everyone has to dance—the cast for the upcoming Broadway at Lyric show requires top-tier triple threat talent to deliver the magnificent Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score with Jerome Robbins original choreography recreated by Julio Monge. James Lowe will conduct members of the Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra.
Identifying talent is Artistic Administrator Cory Lippiello’s job at the Lyric. For West Side Story, the process started two years ago when the show was selected for the season schedule with research, attendance at out-of-town productions and consulting industry professionals. Things ramped up with development meetings prior to auditions that narrowed the talent pool for the creative team.
Any one of the hundreds of performers in New York and Chicago who auditioned for West Side Story will tell you that spending a summer in Chicago on the Lyric stage is a dream come true. Casting some roles are more difficult than others. There is much at stake and the process hinges on many variables. For the chosen few, a role at Lyric can be a career-altering experience. What may be less obvious is that perseverance is the watchword on both sides of the audition equation. For Lippiello and her colleagues, there are long days, and endless attention to details, with every decision carrying the high responsibility of ensuring a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the audience.
It’s all in a day’s work as you will hear in our behind-the-scenes CONVERSATION with Cory Lippiello who has the exciting job of seeing it all come together from the very beginning. PODCAST
Casting principals for West Side Story…
Tony (Corey Cott) and Maria (Mikeala Bennett) … “the roles are very difficult to sing. They are written very high, so you're not going to be looking for certain kinds of singers. And we made the decision that we wanted to not be looking at opera singers for this even though both of these roles can and have been played by more operatic singers. … Corey Cott is really extraordinary … (director) Francesca Zambello said: “I want Cott.” She had done a concert of ‘West Side Story’ with him in DC and knew how wonderful he was. … (Mikeala Bennett) was a student of Steve (Blier) at Julliard … very young, very talented and working both in the vocal and theater departments there. And he said that she's just an extraordinary performer. … when the time came to bring people in, Mikeala had done a concert version with the BBC Proms and was starting to be on other people's radar as well. … she really is the total package. The two of them have spectacular chemistry together.”
Anita (Amanda Castro) … “our Anita for this show is Amanda Castro, who had done the role at Glimmerglass. … She doesn't look like your typical Anita. She's petite, she's curvy, she's got short hair. She's very tomboyish in a way. And watching her dance ‘America’ of all things made me cry. It was so full of joy and so full of energy. She was just spectacular. She's a tap dancer. That's one of her primary dance forms. She was also a member of Urban Bush Women for several years. She's really bringing this kind of different, extraordinary energy to it. And that's the contemporary thing about her performance.“
Riff (Brett Thiele) … “the Jets do a lot of jumping--and a lot of jumping--and when you're in an audition room, a lot of times, we push the tables all to one end to give them the most amount of space. But here comes Brett Thiele. You really thought that he was going to jump off the table. It's just an extraordinary energy that he's bringing. And that's so much of Riff’s world … a kind of masculinity that needs to be extremely testosterone-fueled.”
Bernardo (Manuel Stark Santos) … “I saw Manny as Bernardo at Barrington Stage. He came in and he's got such an incredible presence. We also had him work a little bit with Amanda in the room. So much of the show really is about the chemistry of the leads. To see the two of them sort of squabble together a little bit, but also to dance a little bit of dance at the gym, it's one of those audition video tapes that I may revisit periodically.”
Inside the Jets and Sharks audition room … “if you watch the first 15 minutes of “All That Jazz,” you see this giant stage full of people and there's barely enough room for any of them to do any of the steps or to move. It is a little bit like that. … a mass of people. You can't make heads or tails. What's unique about someone isn't going to stand out compared to someone else until you start seeing them in smaller groups. It's a lot cleaner and nobody smokes, but it is very much like those early audition scenes where everyone's trying to get the combination and then as you start breaking them into smaller groups, you start to see the individuality emerge. … we're trying to create a room that is really positive and that is a good experience for those people auditioning because it's a tough job. It's the craziest job interview in the world… a really grueling process for them, so, we're trying to make a room that's friendly and supportive. … to have had a good audition experience. … we saw probably about 100 people in New York and about 120 here in Chicago. … in seeing principles, we also saw an additional 50 or 60 people for a cast of 37 people total.”
A coping skill … “I'm amazed when people can just let it roll off their back. That's really a coping skill that any performer needs to deal with. I guess the thing that I always want to convey, especially to younger artists, is that there are so many factors involved in casting that you can go in and nail an audition and you know you did a good job, and we know you did a good job, but you might still not get the role because there are so many other elements at play. Sometimes with a musical, we're talking about physical sizes. We're talking about groups together. With the opera, there are other mitigating factors that have nothing to do with how well you sang that day on your audition. But what I would also say is that it is never, ever, ever a waste because we don't just see you once. We see you again and again and again. … so the opportunity to get to know artists over a period of years as they are changing and growing. Sometimes it's the right fit and sometimes it's not, but it's never ever a waste to come in.” PODCAST
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
West Side Story Photo Credit:
Rehearsal-Andrew Cioffi | Lyric Opera of Chicago
Lyric Cast | Todd Rosenberg
LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO
WEST SIDE STORY
May 3rd - June 2nd
LYRIC OPERA HOUSE
20 NORTH WACKER DRIVE
PODCAST available on Apple Podcasts, Libsyn and Stitcher
ARCHIVE DE USURIS BLOG EMAIL WEBSITE SUBSCRIBE