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February 8, 2018
Remembering ‘West Side Story,’ ‘In The Heights,’ and ‘Great Comet’ at BroadwayCon 2018: Audition Mishaps, Dressing Room Raids, and More!
Lin-Manuel Miranda in a scene from the original Broadway production of In the Heights. (© Joan Marcus)

While BroadwayCon 2018 gave us a first look at some of the new shows heading to Broadway this season, it also gave us a chance to reminisce about some shows that, while no longer lighting up Broadway, are still burning bright. The spirit of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 was alive and well at BroadwayCon, and the In the Heights and West Side Story reunion panels reminded us of some shows even farther back in Broadway history.

We've rounded up some of the highlights from each event for you here, so you can relive the "Hundreds of Stories" (well, a few anyway) that the writers, cast, and fans remember about each show:

"Something's coming": audition stories

At the In the Heights 10-year reunion panel, actress Karen Olivo (who originated the role of Vanessa) told about her audition for the show, which took place at 37 Arts. She had to do an improv dance number, but the dance partner they assigned to her was obviously nervous and not performing well. Olivo was afraid he'd make her look bad and she wouldn't get the part, so she ditched him. And you guessed it: that guy was Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lucky for Olivo, he apparently wasn't offended.

Meanwhile, when Jamie Sanchez (original Chino) was asked about his audition for West Side Story and how many auditions he'd had to attend before getting on with a show, he revealed that West Side Story was his very first audition. He learned acting from his Puerto Rican mother, who was constantly emoting, but he was working at a candy store when a repeat customer asked him if he wanted to be an actor. Apparently the customer was a casting agent for a new production by Leonard Bernstein, and the next thing he knew, Sanchez was auditioning for West Side Story. He read some lines, then came back a few days later and asked, "Did I get the part?" The answer was yes.

"Paciencia Y Fe": creating a show

As a college sophomore, Lin-Manuel Miranda knew he wanted to work in theatre. But he was frustrated by the small number of Latino roles available - so (in typical Lin-Manuel Miranda style) he wrote a musical with all Latino characters. One of the perks of this was a big turnout to the first performance. Miranda couldn't find enough Latino actors, so he had to do a lot of advertising and pull cast members from wherever he could find them. As a result, everyone in the community came to see the show because just about everyone had a friend in the cast. Thinking back to that first production and the show's enormous success thereafter, Miranda admitted, "I can't believe we're even talking about it tonight."

At the West Side Story panel, we got a sneak preview of the new documentary being produced by Joey Dedio and Dennis Grimaldi, who together rounded up every living cast member of the original Broadway production. As most of us know already, the idea for West Side Story came to Leonard Bernstein from Romeo and Juliet. On the first page of his edition of Shakespeare's tragedy, Bernstein wrote: "An out and out plea for racial tolerance."

Grover Dale, who played Snowboy (a Jet) in the original West Side Story production, credited choreographer and director Jerome Robbins with much of the show's success. When asked if it was true that Robbins kept the Jet and Shark actors segregated during practice, Dale said it was. He also said Robbins knew the end result he wanted for the show and never once compromised or wavered.

Meanwhile, at the panel "All My Revels Here Are Over: Remembering the Comet," Dave Malloy sadly wasn't in attendance, which meant we couldn't ask him how he created the show. But his appreciative fans still found plenty to talk about. Harley Ann Kulp, one of the panel's two moderators, talked about how surprising it is that such a small section of War and Peace makes such a perfect full-length musical. Having read the novel, she commented on how the 70-page slice from which Great Comet is adapted really has its own arc. Her fellow moderator Chelsea MacKay talked about how impressed she was by the show's solutions to staging problems and how it turned these problems to its own advantage. Of course, keeping with the diversity of In The Heights and West Side Story, we also talked about how diverse Great Comet was - not only in its casting, but in its creative and tech teams as well.

L-R: Elizabeth Taylor, Carmen Guitterez, Marilyn Cooper, and Carol Lawrence from the original Broadway cast sing "I Feel Pretty" (1957)

"Hundreds of Stories"

Seth Stewart (Graffiti Pete) said the Off-Broadway run of In The Heights was one of the most beautiful experiences of his life. The whole cast shared a dressing room, and he still remembers "all the smells, all the emotions." Olga Merediz (Abuela Claudia) also remembers the show as an emotional time. Her Cuban roots allowed her to really connect with the character she played, and she drew on memories of her mother and grandmother. But she also found it emotionally difficult to perform that part every night for the same reasons.

Grover Dale, on the other hand, had no shortage of humorous anecdotes from his time on West Side Story. He also showed us a few pages from the sketchbook he kept at the time (including a sketch of the dog he kept in his dressing room). One of these stories concerned Carol Lawrence, who played Maria. Apparently, Dale and three of his fellow Jets were always fascinated by Lawrence's emotion in the final scene when tears would roll down her cheeks. The guys decided those tears couldn't be real; she must be taking some kind of medication to make her cry like that. So, one rehearsal, while Lawrence was onstage practicing, the guys snuck into her dressing room and raided her medicine cabinet. They didn't find anything, though, and when they came out of Lawrence's dressing room, they found Chita Rivera watching them, horrified at what they were doing. The guys took home an important moral from that experience: they had a lot to learn about acting.

The cast also verified the story about Jerome Robbins backing up so far during one rehearsal that he fell into the orchestra pit. As Dale remembered, Robbins fell into the orchestra pit and hit a base drum - so the whole cast ran over to try and help him out. Robbins refused help, got out of the pit, and got everyone back in line, after which they did 30 more dance runs.

In the Great Comet panel, we did, of course, discuss the million dollar question: which seat is the best? And Kulp was well-qualified to answer that question, as she's seen the show 11 times and from just about every angle (though the record went to a fan in attendance named Hailey who saw the show 15 times). Kulp said her favorite seat was BB17, which most fans know better as "the Anatole seat" because if you sit there, Anatole will at one point sit down beside you and cuddle up. However, Kulp said it's her favorite seat not for Anatole, but for Helene - his sister. When you sit there, you see a lot of Helene and really get a different perspective on her character.

Talking characters

The In The Heights cast commented on the dignity and pride of the show's characters. Karen Olivo said her character, Vanessa, basically was her at that stage in her life. Meanwhile, Priscilla Lopez loved playing a tough character (Camila), and channeled her mother for the role.

The Great Comet panel focused mainly on characters, with many fans weighing in on what makes characters like Natasha, Anatole, and Pierre so interesting and so, well, charming. We also discussed character similarities. For example, Natasha and Anatole both push back against societal rules, and Natasha and Pierre have opposite character arcs: Natasha going from happy to sad and Pierre from sad to happy over the course of the musical. Depending on where you sit, everyone agreed, you see a slightly different show - which means you interact with the characters in different ways and learn different things about each of them.

"When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way...."

Across all three panels, love and enthusiasm for each separate show was evident. As one of the West Side Story panelists remarked, "when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way" - meaning these people are still dyed-in-the-wool original Broadway cast members. And several moments proved that.

One of the most electrically charged moments up in the Heights occurred when one cast member mentioned a song that got cut from the show's final version. Miranda got so excited, he ran over to the onstage piano and started playing it, afterward saying that was the first time he'd played that song in 13 years.

A similar moment occurred over on the West Side when someone asked Marilyn D'Honau - who played Jet girl Clarice - if she remembered any of the dances from West Side Story. In response, D'Honau got up and started dancing right there on the spot. Soon Grover Dale jumped up and joined her. It felt like every audience member was holding their breath.

In 19th-century Russia, meanwhile, there was also some dancing going on. The panel culminated in an improvised flashmob that started when everyone in cosplay recreated the show's opening "Prologue." Things eventually spiraled out of control (in the best way possible) which culminated in some poor Pierre cosplayer accidentally dropping a bottle ("smash your glasses on the floor," right?) - and the ever-accommodating BroadwayCon team had to relocate our festivities to another location so we wouldn't be blocking the hallway anymore.

"All my revels here are over": final impressions

Lin-Manuel Miranda loves the way In The Heights creates communities for so many people, and he's still amazed by the show's impact. When the show first opened back in 2008, Miranda's fellow cast members likened it to a ripple in a pond - which led to a great little story. After the success of Hamilton, Miranda told Olga Merediz, "I just wanted to create another ripple." "Ripple?" Olga replied. "This is a tsunami!"

The West Side Story panel ended with a tribute to those no longer with us, like Larry Kert (Tony), Jerome Robbins, and of course, Leonard Bernstein. Thinking back on what an amazing show West Side Story was, especially for its time, Grover Dale observed, "West Side Story was a miracle" and remarked that in our world today, "we need more West Side Story."

Great Comet fans touched on how seamlessly the production blended audience and cast. As an immersive show, the musical brings cast members into the audience at various points throughout; but the climax of this progression comes at the very end, when Pierre stands onstage watching the comet. In fact, he's the only one on stage at this point - everyone else, including the rest of the cast, has now become spectators. It's a reminder that, in art, we're all spectators - watching the drama unfold from behind the production box, up onstage, or seated in the audience.

In any case, let's hope these shows - In The Heights, West Side Story, and Great Comet - continue to entertain and inspire us years from now, and that they keep "blossoming into a new life" - as indeed they already have.


Check out our gallery of snapshots from that impromptu Great Comet flashmob:

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Written by: Erin Kahn
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