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Making the Music of West Side Story


Often with musicals, the lights are on the actors, focusing on the stories they tell and the songs they sing. We don’t get a glimpse of the musicians below the stage that help create the magic that pulls you into the production.

In this year’s production of West Side Story, instead of professional musicians providing their expertise like has been done in the past, the Hamilton College Orchestra stepped in and decided to make a guest appearance.

Last fall, Mark Cryer, the director of the production, approached the music department and asked if he could borrow some Hamilton student musicians.

“I knew this music was incredibly difficult, like professional level difficult. I thought this was a major project,” said Heather Buchman, the chair of the music department and director of HCO. “I had to gauge the level of interest and see how many people were willing to sign up for this and how many of them actually wanted to do it.”

Even though Buchman made participation in the musical voluntary, almost every member of the Orchestra wanted to play the classic Bernstein score. The 50-person pit is made up of primarily students, plus five professional musicians that include the Leonard C. Ferguson Professor of Music Michael Woods and Director of the Jazz Archive Monk Rowe.

Some members of the orchestra came have had prior experience playing in pits before, like Anthony Christiana ’22 who played trombone for five years in his high school productions. “I’m definitely excited to be in a space like this, in a real pit and to have an actual string section. I’ve never played with one before.”

West Side Story

Get tickets for the production's final two shows.

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Later this semester, the Orchestra will perform Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. The contrasting styles between the classical feel of Brahms and the jazzier West Side Story has been a welcome challenge for all the students.

“The best part for me is to feel like the orchestra is in a different tone, with the saxophones and playing a new kind of music,” said Tyler Boudreau ’20 was plays the baritone saxophone. “The orchestra plays classic music, but this is kind of jazzy, it’s Broadway. It’s a new stop for the orchestra and a great opportunity for the ensemble.”

“We’re not used to playing with actors and it started as a rocky transition, but we’ve gotten there,” said percussionist Austin Ford ’19. “It’s really great to play with the whole orchestra and really hear what we’re doing on stage.

The scale of the production is much larger than Hamilton has ever seen before. “This is the first time we’ve had a collaboration between the music, theatre and dance departments on this scale,” said Buchman. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with all my colleagues and friends. As well as working with the theatre students, who are terrific, and just have the students come together on something like this.”

“There’s nothing more powerful than when the pit works with the actors like that,” said Christiana ’22. “It’s just such a huge, all-encompassing medium.”

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