Net­flix’s re­al­ity show has nine strug­gling singers but prom­ises the songs as co-stars

Variety - - Focus - By JAMES PATRICK HER­MAN

With the iconic Hol­ly­wood sign at sun­set as a back­drop, two of the stars of “West­side,” Net­flix’s first mu­sic re­al­ity se­ries (ar­riv­ing Nov. 9) — and ar­guably its most ex­per­i­men­tal and am­bi­tious show to date — de­scribe their real lives as aspir­ing stars. Meta enough?

“What I love about ‘West­side’ is that it’s the first of its kind,” says Pia Toscano, who may be the most rec­og­niz­able cast mem­ber, hav­ing placed ninth on sea­son 10 of “Amer­i­can Idol.” “I’m fi­nally able to tell my story and peel back those lay­ers and write and col­lab­o­rate with other in­cred­i­ble artists [on the show]. But we weren’t com­pet­ing with each other, so there was this ca­ma­raderie — we be­came a tight-knit fam­ily. We re­ally grew and learned from each other. It wasn’t like: Who’s go­ing to win this week? And who’s go­ing to get voted off?”

“I don’t nec­es­sar­ily con­sider this a re­al­ity show,” adds Sean Patrick Mur­ray, one of the eight other cast mem­bers and co- cre­ator of “West­side.” (These two have al­ready come up with a nick­name for them­selves: Sepia. Get it?) “Pia’s not try­ing to be a re­al­ity star from this. I’m not try­ing to be­come an In­sta­gram in­flu­encer. We’re all mu­si­cians, and we al­lowed cam­eras to ac­cess our lives. Our goal is to share our mu­sic and tell our sto­ries. We’re all just try­ing to be the best ver­sions of our­selves.”

In­deed, “West­side” is hardly your typ­i­cal un­scripted show. Pageantry doesn’t fac­tor; rather, we see the hope­fuls at their worst — con­fronting per­for­mance anx­i­ety, al­co­holism and drug abuse — in a way that feels at once fresh, gritty and un­de­ni­ably au­then­tic.

“I strug­gled with my ca­reer,” Toscano says. “As you can see on the show, I went from be­ing a house­hold name and tour­ing and hav­ing a record deal to los­ing it all — very quickly. Peo­ple would at­tack my phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance on so­cial me­dia and rip me to shreds, from my weight to my fea­tures. They called me Gonzo! I felt so de­feated. I felt ugly. I felt like I was a has-been who had let my fam­ily down. I had to deal with re­jec­tion and fail­ure and go­ing back home and singing with a wed­ding band.”

All this may sound some­what de­press­ing but, in fact, it makes for highly watch­able en­ter­tain­ment. “When we first started the un­scripted ini­tia­tive here al­most two years ago, like ev­ery­one at Net­flix, we were en­cour­aged to take risks, in­no­vate, find the most ex­cit­ing projects out there and sup­port that cre­ative vi­sion of our pro­duc­ing part­ners,” says Jenn Levy, di­rec­tor of un­scripted orig­i­nals and ac­qui­si­tions for the stream­ing gi­ant. “‘West­side’ came along and checked all of those boxes. It was like noth­ing we’d ever seen be­fore and we thought it was a heck of an idea. And so we de­cided to jump in with Love [Prods.] and Mad­wood [Stu­dios] and the whole team.”

As Kevin Bar­tel, one of “West­side’s” co- cre­ators and ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, who heads up Love Prods. USA and is ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the com­pany that is best known for “The Great Bri­tish Bake Off,” re­calls: “Our ini­tial, knee-jerk re­ac­tion to that was: Does the world need an­other one of those shows? … But in meet­ing what ul­ti­mately be­came the cast of the ‘West­side,’ there was some­thing re­ally in­ter­est­ing about a group of twenty-some­things that are pur­su­ing their pas­sions on a daily ba­sis de­spite all the ad­ver­sity that they en­counter daily.” (For the record, the cast ranges in age from 20 to 32; Toscano, for in­stance, re­cently turned 30.) “We started to dig deeper to get to know and un­der­stand their re­la­tion­ships and their fears — and the de­ci­sions they were mak­ing that were im­pact­ing their lives. These are re­ally cap­ti­vat­ing in­di­vid­u­als. And the break­through mo­ment for us was: ‘Well, wait a sec­ond. What if we could turn the genre on its head and re­ally make this about the peo­ple?’ If you fall in love with the peo­ple, you’re go­ing to fall in love with their mu­sic.”

The mu­sic plays a co-star­ring role in “West­side.”

“We col­lab­o­rated with some of the best and the bright­est in the mu­sic in­dus­try along with the cast to write and pro­duce mu­sic that’s in­spired by the sto­ry­lines in the show,” Levy says. “And then we weaved those [songs] into the nar­ra­tive of every episode that then el­e­vates and fur­ther il­lus­trates the sto­ry­lines.”

En­ter ex­ec­u­tive mu­sic pro­ducer James Diener, who pre­vi­ously served in se­nior ex­ec­u­tive roles at A&M/ Oc­tone Records and RCA and now co-man­ages sev­eral acts in­clud­ing Avril Lavigne and the Struts.

“The vi­sion for mu­sic for this show had never been done be­fore, which is one of the rea­sons I was in­ter­ested,” he says. “You have an un­scripted show where all of the char­ac­ters are com­ing into place dy­nam­i­cally in real time, and then you’ve got 25-30 multi-plat-

We took a doc­u­men­tary ap­proach. It al­lowed for them to live their real lives — and that’s un­cen­sored, so they’re deal­ing with su­per­heavy stuff.”

Kevin Bar­tel

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