by David Green
The McCallum Theatre presents WEST SIDE STORY: IN CONCERT for five performances Friday, March 9 through Sunday, March 11. This classic musical is being exclusively produced by the McCallum Theatre as part of its Leonard Bernstein Centennial Celebration. Produced and directed by Chad Hilligus, the limited McCallum engagement will feature an onstage 40-piece orchestra and an all-star cast direct from the Broadway and National Tour companies of West Side Story, I had the chance to catch up with Mr. Hilligus as he was preparing for this highly anticipated concert. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation:
DG: Before we talk about West Side Story-- let's talk a little bit about you. Where are you from and how did your life lead you into a career in professional theatre?
CH: I was born and raised near Kansas City. My parents got me a Fisher-Price karaoke machine for my seventh birthday and that was pretty much it. There's home video somewhere of me giving a concert in my living room wearing a karate uniform that would melt your heart. I was very involved with choir and musical theatre all through high school. In fact, it was my high school choir teacher who went to my parents and suggested I audition for the local civic opera at age 16. Opera became my world for the next ten years. Eventually I ended up at San Diego Opera as a resident artist. While I was performing there, I got a call from the casting director for the 50th Anniversary World Tour of West Side Story who had found some video footage of me singing on MySpace of all places! They flew me out to New York to sing for the producers and I was offered the role of Tony in the room. So it was really West Side Story that catapulted my professional career. I owe a lot to this piece and that's partially why this project is so special.
DG: Who were your mentors or role models growing up?
CH: I wanted to sound like Sammy Davis, Jr., act like Dustin Hoffman, dance like Gene Kelly with the comic timing of Tim Conway.
DG: What's your proudest professional accomplishment so far?
CH: Since moving to Palm Desert, I've become very close with Carol Channing, which, even saying, sounds surreal. In 2016, it was my honor to create, produce and direct a tribute concert at the McCallum celebrating her 95th birthday. The evening was hosted by Alan Cumming, with appearances by a multitude of celebrity icons and closed with a full scale performance of "Hello, Dolly" with the last line sung by Carol herself from her front-row seat, with Tommy Tune by her side. I'll be hard-pressed to top that anytime soon.
DG: What brought you to Palm Desert and The McCallum Theatre?
CH: Not what, but who. Mitch Gershenfeld, McCallum CEO and Executive Producer on this project. I had been based out of New York City for nearly eight years, performing on the road for most of that time, and I was ready for more. I sought advice from Mitch, having performed at the McCallum several times while I was touring with the Australia-based classical crossover group The Ten Tenors. He saw something in me, gave me a chance and I'm forever grateful. This is an incredible place to live with such rich entertainment history and the McCallum is at the heart of it all.
DG: Do you have a preference for being on the stage, or what you are doing now in your role as producer and director?
CH: I enjoy both. And I haven't stopped performing entirely. In fact, I have a concert gig coming up at the end of March. That being said, unless you're at a point where you're a household name, it's virtually impossible to be a "part-time singer" and I have no desire to get back out on the road. Touring is tough. In many ways, producing seems like a more natural fit.
DG: What made you decide to bring a concert version of West Side Story to The McCallum this season?
CH: This year is the centennial of composer Leonard Bernstein. Many venues across the country are presenting various Bernstein tributes as part of their season, but no one was touring a major production. Although we are primarily a roadhouse, presenting well over a hundred different acts during our 6-month season, we are very fortunate at the McCallum to have the resources to produce a grand spectacle like this in-house. And because of my personal connection to West Side Story particularly, we decided to take it on. It's a rare opportunity for our audiences and the response has been overwhelming.
DG: How did you go about assembling your stellar cast?
CH: With our back-to-back season calendar at the McCallum, we knew we would only have 48 hours to put this together, so it was crucial to assemble a cast of singers who had not only performed their roles before, but also performed together in a major production so the chemistry would already be there. That rules out a lot of people, but what you're left with is a cast with dozens of Broadway credits amongst them, all of whom have been hand-picked from the National Tour, the International Tour and the 2009 Broadway Revival. It's a reunion for most of them!
DG: Describe the theatrical style of this concert version of West Side Story.
CH: Bottom line? The score is the star. You're seeing a concert version of the entire score of the greatest musical of all time, with a 40-piece orchestra performing on stage with a cast of singers direct from Broadway. Even without the full choreography, it's still an incredible piece of theatre.
DG: I love to end my interviews with this question. What advice would you give to young people who have aspirations for a career in professional theatre?
CH: Be nice to your cast mates. You never know who might be running a Theatre someday.
Tickets for West Side Story: In Concert are $107, $97, $77 and $47 and are available at the Theatre's website at www.mccallumtheatre.com or by calling the McCallum Theatre Box Office at (760) 340-ARTS.