This week I had the good fortune to attend a performance of West Side Story, one of my favorite musicals. The cast was superb, and the orchestra more than did justice to the score. The costumes were perfect, bright, frilly, off-the-shoulder dresses; trim suits, skinny jeans, caps and sneakers and the set was simple but effectively portrayed the tenement buildings of New York's 1950s era lower class neighborhoods with chain-link fences, tall structures with fire escape staircases. The Jets and Sharks leaped through the air, spinning, crouching and glaring at each other. The girls flirted shamelessly, flouncing their skirts and throwing coy looks of temptation. In the end, the message of tolerance, acceptance and understanding evoked tears from the performers and audience alike, who understood that the theme is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.
I saw this amazing performance in a brand new, state of the art theater 10 minutes from my house, and the $20.00 ticket price seemed reasonable for my unobstructed view and two hours of emotional entertainment. I saw this performance of West Side Story at Calabasas High School, produced by the wonderful, and amazing performing arts program my own daughters were privileged to be a part of and one where I volunteered for 12 years.
I watched these 14-17 year old performers with amazement, as they seemed bigger than life, talented and professional. The musicians were right on cue and the actors displayed emotion, projected their voices, sang and danced without inhibition while the technical crew handled scene changes, lights, sound, hair, make-up and costumes. It was amazing to watch these young performers, whose obvious hours of dedication and practice under the direction of their talented teachers, delighted the audience and led to a standing ovation.
Education is more than academics, standardized testing and athletics. The performing arts, so violently slashed from many school budgets, provide a place for high school students to grow into young adulthood in an accepting environment of collaboration and friendship. The adults who work with these students, guiding them in acting, choreography, voice, instrumentation and technical direction give these students life skills that they can carry with them as they go on to college and to work.
For many students, my own daughters included, the ability to have performing arts classes in high school made high school a positive experience and gave them lifelong friends and a career direction. As politicians and educators look for ways to improve attendance, graduation rates and test scores, I would challenge them to support the arts, provide funding and treat the artists and their teachers with the respect they deserve. The Las Virgenes Unified School District and its community (by supporting a Bond measure) have done just that.