West Group is America's preeminent producer of printed statutory case law, CD-ROM law journals, and electronic legal-research tools. If any of those things excite or even vaguely interest you, you might like working at West Group. Legal publishing is, as they say, a fast-growing field, and one would guess West Group compensates its workers generously. There are benefits, too: One floor of the company's sprawling Eagan campus is devoted to a "Main Street" arcade, where employees can drop off their laundry, pick up a quart of milk, or sip Caribou Coffee. If you worked here, you'd never have to go home again.
West Group also claims a large contingent of employees who, for reasons unknown, are fervently devoted to classic American musicals. Every year or so, this enterprising band organizes under the imprimatur of the West Theatre Group, rents a concert hall, and puts on a show--not an amateur show, mind you, but a bubbling, hugely expensive, meticulously rehearsed spectacular, complete with professional costumers, and set designers, and a full pit orchestra. They may be cogs in a corporate juggernaut, but these folks, who mostly seem constitutionally incapable of doing anything halfway, gladly go through it all for a few hours of refracted glory in the footlights--and top billing in the company newsletter.
Marc Paez, an affable and robustly built online content developer, has appeared in every West Group production since the troupe's inception in 1985. The whole thing began, Paez recalls, when two female staffers decided that if the company was going to fund sporting clubs--there is a crew of West Group skeet-shooting enthusiasts, along with the requisite softball team--they might also support a more rarefied endeavor. "I did a little theater in high school," he says. "But I never got to play a lead. The first show I did at West was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I played Elvis. I got to make an entrance on a motorcycle.
"I think we charged like $1 for tickets the first year, and it only ran for one or two weekends. But we got standing ovations." Rivulets of sweat run down Paez's face as he talks, despite a bandanna positioned to soak up the glandular torrent. We're in the guts of the old Science Museum in St. Paul, where, it seems, air conditioning is no longer one of the technological wonders on display. There was concern, Paez continues, over whether the theater group would endure after the Toronto-based media conglomerate, the Thompson Companies, swallowed West Group in 1996 for $3.4 billion.
While the theater group continues to report lower profit margins than the multinational's other divisions, the show has gone on. Two years ago Guys and Dolls sold out St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater for four nights--something most local professional theaters can only fantasize about. West Group underwrites part of the theater guild's budget, but in past years the troupe has paid most of its own expenses from ticket sales alone. These costs--which include renting a major venue for a week and hiring professionals to construct costumes and a set--are roughly comparable to those of an established professional theater. Fortunately, though the group has never opened the box office to anyone other than their co-workers and families, neither have they ever played to a less-than-full house.
The theater group has co-opted one of the museum's empty auditoriums for an evening rehearsal, which, I ought to note, was harder to infiltrate than if I'd walked into Los Alamos National Laboratories with a photo of Mao pinned to my shirt. (There were, according to a friendly but maddeningly diligent corporate communications rep, certain questions w/r/t how this article might reflect on West Group, its corporate parent, and its employees. Which hints that though the theatrical life may be freewheeling, the culture at West Group may not be entirely conducive to rampant bohemianism.) For rehearsal, the dress code has been downgraded to business casual: skirts and ties have been shed in favor of short-sleeved polo shirts, khaki shorts, and sneakers. The director, Warren Schueneman, who, as in past years, is a professional hired by the group to shepherd them through rehearsals, is stationed front and center, gesticulating vigorously at a clump of actors onstage. "Lights up," he roars with mock-theatrical aplomb. "Go!"
A youngish woman in a T-shirt reads hesitantly through about half a scene before losing her place. "Line?" she asks meekly, then snaps her fingers twice. There's some wincing, then some more reading. The director takes his seat again and calls for a ten-minute break. Bob Holmes, an eight-year West Group veteran in marketing services and a five-time performer in the theater company, wanders over. His introduction to the stage, he explains, came when one of the producers, who happened to sit next to him in the office, recruited him because he looked like he might make a good Irish policeman. "I thought I'd be scared the first time," he says, "but we do this so much." He gestures at a line of chorus girls practicing a tap number. One of the dancers wobbles off the side of the stage.
According to Holmes, the musicals have become something of a bonding ritual for the participants. West Group is a big place, after all, with 6,000 workers in Eagan alone. Spending three nights a week together for two months is a good way to get outside the cubicle warren; morale is being built here. This seems a common theme among West Group hoofers: What better opportunity to foster corporate goodwill than to spend time working in the intensely familiar atmosphere of the theater? If they were really smart, management savants would begin recommending the dance numbers in Oklahoma to their executive clientele in lieu of rope courses and the mandatory whitewater-rafting trips.