Onstage & Backstage: Which Annie Author Starred in the Original West Side Story?

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage & Backstage: Which Annie Author Starred in the Original West Side Story? Cast members from West Side Story tell Seth backstage stories about working with Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins.
<i>West Side Story </i>1957
West Side Story 1957

Hello from the beautiful Anchor Inn in Provincetown, MA!

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Seth Rudetsky and Megan Hilty

I’m sitting on the deck outside my room overlooking the bay, and the weather is gorgeous. Speaking of gorgeous, I came from a weekend in Martha’s Vineyard at the stunning Harbor View Inn because I had a show with Megan Hilty. She took the red eye from L.A. to NYC then a flight to Martha’s Vineyard and then did the show…and sounded amazing! She’s in L.A. filming a pilot of First Wives Club, which she’s hoping will go to series.

I then came to Provincetown to do a show with Adam Pascal, who also sounded fantastic. I asked him about his day jobs before he got Rent, and he told me that he was a personal trainer at Equinox (with rock ‘n’ roll style long hair) but his favorite job was being a janitor at a girl’s Catholic school. He enjoyed spending hours with the other three guys who helped him clean. He also wanted my audience to know that girl’s bathrooms are actually more disgusting than boy’s ones. I asked for zero details. On a side note, I’m so obsessed with how his voice sounds so low and raspy yet he can easily, and I mean easily, hit a B and sustain it with vibrato. So crazy! Here he is on the Today show, and his last note of “Without You” is a B natural!

Watch at 2:40:

Last week, I was contacted by the BBC because they’re doing a piece on West Side Story, and they wanted me to do a panel with various cast members. I booked guests on my SiriusXM radio show “Seth Speaks” and had them film it. It went so great! I had original cast member Martin Charnin (Big Deal), replacement original cast member Harvey Evans who then did the film (Gee-tar and, in the film, Mouthpiece), Liza Gennaro (daughter of Peter who did all the Latin dances in the show), Jim Borstelman (swing in Jerome Robbins Broadway), Scott Wise (Riff in Jerome Robbins Broadway, Tony Award!) and Andrea Burns from On Your Feet, who danced as a Shark Girl and then took over as Maria in productions throughout America and Europe.

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Martin Charnin, Jim Borstelman, Scott Wise, Seth Rudetsky, Harvey Evans and Liza Gennaro

I first asked Martin how he got the gig and turns out, in the late ’50s, he was supposed to go to Italy to study art. He had just graduated from Cooper Union, but before he left he saw a little article in the New York Times saying that Jerome Robbins was looking to cast the last two “juvenile delinquents” in an upcoming musical. Martin went to the Broadway Theatre wearing blue jeans with his hair greased and joined around 1,000 other guys.

Ruth Mitchell, who worked with Hal Prince, looked each over guy and cut around 500 people. Peter Gennaro, who was working with Jerome Robbins, simply asked everyone to walk across the stage. Really! But the hard part was they had to snap their fingers while they did it. Martin remembers he was the only who could do it without wetting his fingers. PS, I wasn’t impressed til I just tried to do a snap dry. Silence. Wowza. I cannot make a sound at all without major moisture being applied. I hope after that audition Martin immediately amended the “special skills” section of his résumé and added snapping next to driver’s license and “good with children.” Anyhoo, his naturally moist fingers were enough to get him into the next cut where there were now only 50 people.

He went downstairs and a young man in a shirt and tie asked him to sing eight bars. Martin only knew one song, “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” and he did it. The guy asked him to do it again, but faster. Then one more time, faster. Then once again faster! Turns out, it was Sondheim wanting to hear how quickly Martin could sing while maintaining his diction. Apparently, he nailed it because he was then one of 25 other guys asked to stay, and was asked to read the line “Ooh! It hurts! It hurts!” He did it with a New York accent and got a laugh…from Arthur Laurents. That got him to the next cut where he had to do the walk with his non pre-moistened snapping fingers for Jerome Robbins. He passed that cut, and now it was just him and a couple of other guys who had to sing “Maria.” Not the whole song, literally just the three notes at the beginning. Why? Because the role required him to sing it solo offstage after Tony starts the song.

Martin got the role and you can hear him do just that on the recording!
TONY: “The most beautiful sound I ever heard…Maria”
OFFSTAGE VOICE: “Maria”
MARTIN CHARNIN: “Maria”
OFFSTAGE VOICE: “Maria!”

Scott Wise talked about playing Riff in Jerome Robbins Broadway and how it took weeks to rehearse the opening prologue. The first measures would play, Scott would take a step, and Jerome Robbins would tell him he was doing it completely wrong. It was relentless. He kept telling Scott he was going to be replaced! Yet, he would also take him aside and also say, “You can’t be star-struck by me. Don’t let me get to you.” Robbins told Scott that Riff owned the street and he knew everybody and everything. Scott would go to the street on his off time and try to visualize being Riff and owning the street but nothing was working.

They were in a rehearsal room at 890 studios and, at this point in his career, Scott had done around five Broadway shows that rehearsed there. Plus he had been onstage since he was four years old. One day, after weeks of not getting more than a few counts of eight rehearsed, he was thinking, as usual, “I have to be in a place that I own.” Then suddenly he realized, “Wait…I’m in a place that I own!” He knew these studios and he was completely comfortable onstage. When they started the prologue, he played it like everyone was on his stage. From that point on, Robbins never gave him another note! It literally just took a mental thought switch to make everything work.

You can see Scott’s amazingness in this:

Everyone soon began talking about their West Side Story injuries: Martin said that Robbins kept pushing for realism. If you going to hit someone, really hit them! Seriously! Scott Wise said he broke his foot at one point, Jim Borstelmann broke his rib, and Harvey Evans broke his nose!

Jim, however, had my favorite injury: He understudied both the Sharks and the Jets, and one night he got mixed up and, instead of turning downstage during The Rumble, he turned upstage and smashed into a portal. It was so hard that his tooth fell out...through his lip!!! His signature white T-shirt had turned totally red from all the blood as he ran offstage. The stage manager wouldn’t let him come back and he wound up missing his next move which was to catch a leaping Joey McNeely. Joey wound up landing on the ground and smashing his head, which added even more blood to the stage. Jim was taken to the hospital during intermission, and as he passed an audience member he heard them say, “Boy…the rumble tonight was so realistic!”

So many more West Side stories coming next week!!!

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