June 13, 2023
The great American musical at Lyric
The presence of West Side Story on the grand stage at Lyric Opera may for a moment seem surprising, but in fact this stellar production is just the latest offering in a crowd-pleasing run that has gone on for more than decade.
"This season began with productions of Verdi's opera Ernani and a Fiddler on the Roof coming to life in our rehearsal rooms and on the stage at the same time," says Anthony Freud, Lyric's general director, president & CEO. "Now we close with director Francesca Zambello's bold vision for West Side Story. We've found that the vibrant music and large-scale storytelling of musical theater thrill our audiences much like grand opera."
The company first began producing musicals with Show Boat in the 2011/12 Season and then Oklahoma! in the 2012/2013 Season. Following the artistic and audience success of those productions, Lyric began expanding its traditional opera season to include a musical as the thrilling finale of each season, including The Sound of Music (2013/14), Carousel (2014/15), The King and I (2015/16), My Fair Lady (2016/17), Jesus Christ Superstar (2017/18), and West Side Story (2018/19). This season, Fiddler on the Roof and a reprise of West Side Story provided lively bookends.
Consistent among these wide-ranging titles are the star-studded casts, featuring leading lights of stage and screen; imposing sets and extravagant costumes; and productions that marshal the powerful forces of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus to bring the musicals' theater-filling orchestrations to life. The grand scale of these shows would be impossible on nearly any other stage in the country. Both of this season's offerings featured massive ensembles of nearly 100 musical and dramatic artists on the stage and in the orchestra pit, far bigger than any ensemble currently on Broadway or at any of Chicago's other storied theaters.
Musicals are also, of course, a profitable audience-development engine. Proceeds from these successful shows serve to help nourish Lyric's regular opera activities, including the two Chicago-set world premieres from this season — The Factotum and Proximity — plus more new works planned for future seasons. The costs of developing new operas from scratch are significant, and their reception with ticket buyers is not guaranteed. Revenue raised from the musicals helps provide the financial wherewithal to allow Lyric to continue experimenting with new works in a way that is central to its mission and vision as one of the world's leading opera companies.
"The Lyric Opera House continues to be a destination for all of Chicago," Freud says. "Whether West Side Story is your first time or just your most recent visit, we welcome you with open arms."
As this production makes vividly clear, “West Side Story” is as musically substantive and theatrically compelling as any American opera, and it deserves to have a place on the opera stage just as it does on the Great White Way.”