West Side Story is one of musical theatre’s classic and well loved shows, featuring iconic choreography and a challenging score that requires true triple threat performers. It’s a huge show to produce within just a couple of weeks, but that’s the intensely short time frame The Production Company work with. It also means there is no time for understudies. It’s simply too short a rehearsal period and performance season.
Assembling the best of Australian’s musical theatre talent and creative team, West Side Story was looking and sounding great as opening night approached … until Deone Zanotto came down with laryngitis. Zanotto was to play Anita – and Anita has some big solo numbers in ‘America’ and ‘A Boy Like That’. There was no understudy and no time for anyone to learn the extensive choreography of this principal role.
With just one day before opening night, the production team had to come up with a plan – and they did.
As the audience took their seats in the packed out State Theatre at Melbourne Arts Centre and the lights dimmed, the Artistic Director of The Production Company appeared on stage with a microphone and announced that this was The Production Company’s 50th production. Wow – that’s quite an achievement; the audience applauded. The best possible cast and crew had been assembled. And then it came – the announcement that the cast were in fact “mere mortals” and Deone Zanotto who was to perform the role of Anita had been struck down with laryngitis. There were gasps from the audience. It was then explained the role of Anita would be played by three different performers: Deone Zanotto would play the role on stage and do all the dancing and acting, while assistant director Natalie Gilhome would deliver the dialogue and Amanda Harrison would sing – both from off stage.
Amazingly it worked – in fact it worked incredibly well. Zanotto acted and danced – executing every step of the choreography perfectly. Gilhome provided the voice for all the dialogue, while Harrison delivered the songs. It was well into ‘America’ when I actually considered what was taking place in this production. I was watching Zanotto – I could see her dance and I could see her mouth moving as if she was singing. I tried to hear Amanda Harrison’s distinctive voice come through (even closing my eyes to really concentrate) but Harrison was singing with the Puerto Rican accent the role required and she pulled it off, easily negotiating the complex Sondheim lyrics.
Sitting in the front row of the dress circle it was surprisingly convincing. There was only an occasional moment when there was an obvious lip sync difference. No doubt it was much more noticeable to the audience in the front rows of the stalls, but for most of the audience it really was effective. In fact it was so convincing, one critic was overheard asking who was the performer with laryngitis because he hadn’t been able to work it out from watching the show!
Harrison had never performed the role of Anita and didn’t know the score apart from being able to sing the chorus of ‘America’ like many other musical theatre fans. Anita sings the verses – Harrison didn’t know the verses. Harrison received the music with just one day prior to prepare. A day later she was singing off stage for the opening night of the 50th show for The Production Company. Despite being encouraged to go out for the curtain calls with the rest of the cast Harrison and Gilhome chose not to, but they were acknowledged with a huge round of applause at the after-party.
Opening night of West Side Story was a huge success. Now for the rest of the season, because as they say, “The show must go on!”
West Side Story is now playing at the State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne.
For more information and tickets: www.theproductioncompany.com.au