Three afternoons a week I have the pleasure of working with sixth grade students at Harris, Pecan Springs, and Winn Elementary Schools. This program is part of the 21st Century “Get Ready” program, aimed to get young students thinking about secondary education. Since September my students have been learning about the life and work of William Shakespeare, studying and performing Macbeth, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.
On Saturday, April 2nd we attended the Broadway Across America performance of West Side Story at the Bass Concert Hall on the University of Texas campus. The program coordinators and students from each campus enjoyed seeing this classic piece of musical theatre, infused with new energy by director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book for West Side Story in 1957.
In the weeks leading up to the field trip the students worked closely with Romeo and Juliet, studying the plot, analyzing famous speeches from the play, and learning about Shakespeare’s influence on modern adaptations such as West Side Story.
West Side Story takes the story of Romeo and Juliet and sets it against the backdrop of Manhattan’s West Side in the 1950s. Shakespeare’s rival families, the Capulets and Montagues, have become rival street gangs, the “Jets”, of Polish-American descent, and the “Sharks,” Puerto Rican Americans. Romeo has become “Tony” and Juliet is now “Maria,” but the central love story and the lesson about acceptance has remained the same.
From the beginning our Theatre Action Project students recognized the illusions to Romeo and Juliet. Afterwards they spoke with confidence about the many similarities and differences between the play and the musical. The Spanish speaking students were particularly excited by the amount of Spanish in this new production. Many of the Sharks spoke in Spanish to one-another and the popular song that Maria sings “I Feel Pretty” became “Siento Hermosa.” This is just one example of how Laurents and the creative team aimed to infuse new life into this production. Based on the critical reviews and the students’ reaction, I’d say they have succeeded with flying colors!
After the performance, as the students we’re waiting for the school bus, they spotted a young woman who looked a lot like the actress who played Maria. Cautiously the students approached her and asked, “Were you Maria?” Indeed she was. Spending some time chatting with actress Ali Ewoldt was a great end to a wonderful day. She answered their questions about learning a new accent, her vocal training, and how to cry on stage, with grace and enthusiasm.
For my students this trip was a unique opportunity to witness the power of live theatre. In our program we talk a lot about how a knowledge and appreciation of Shakespeare, and theatre in general, will serve them well in their college careers. Hopefully meeting performers like Ali and seeing theatre at this level inspired them to dream big. Because that’s what it’s all about.