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Mounting an Ethnically Ambiguous West Side Story

By Michael Gioia

This weekend, a semi-immersive West Side Story will open in a warehouse setting with a multi-racial cast. Director Amanda Denhert weighs in on the piece’s relevance now more than ever before.
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Skylar Astin and Morgan Hernandez in rehearsal

West Side Story is dancing its way to Queens, where it will open March 4 at a restored 50,000-square-foot factory—setting the audience around the action (and the production’s 40-piece symphonic orchestra). Aside from the new aesthetic, director Amanda Dehnert has cast a diverse company that deviates from the traditional white/Puerto Rican delineation of Jets and Sharks. Instead, ethnicity is more ambiguous, but themes of hatred and discrimination still make their way to the forefront.

Working with the Leonard Bernstein estate and in celebration of Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary season, the Weill Music Institute (WMI) launched The Somewhere Project, a citywide exploration of West Side Story (anchored by the upcoming production at The Knockdown Center). As part of the project, high-school students join the production’s professionals, and a chorus of 200 will sing new choral arrangements specifically created for this production by Thomas Cabaniss.

Though society has come a long way since the musical debuted on Broadway in 1957, director Dehnert points out that we still have a long way to go.

I’m very intrigued by what’s going to be new and what’s going to be different for this production. Give me a sense of that. It will be a multi-racial cast, where we can’t really determine Sharks and Jets by their race. Is that true?

Amanda Dehnert: Well, yes and no. Race and ethnicity is a really complicated and important conversation in the American Theatre right now, and I purposefully wanted to not only cast a lot of Latin actors in the show as the Sharks, but also cast a lot of actors of color throughout. The point that is really made in the script is that it’s a battle between the people who think they got there first and the people who are new. When the show [debuted in 1957], the Puerto Rican community was the biggest immigrant group coming into New York City at that time, but the script also clearly refers to the Jets as being not just a bunch of lily-white [people]…. “There’s the white folk, and there’s the brown folk,” it’s not really written that way. [Lt.] Schrank says [that they come from] “tinhorn immigrant scum,” so everyone in America is an immigrant. The more we continue to be an immigrant nation, the more complicated these conversations get, and the more they tend toward being about not only skin, but also where you identify and what group you place yourself with. So I’m just trying to be very cognizant of that in this production.

In an era of Donald Trump and anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., it seems as though we can still relate to the message of West Side Story.

AD: Look, race isn’t over. [Laughs.] We’re not in some sort of Utopian era where we are post-discrimination. Discrimination happens every day, and in really conspicuous and violent ways. … The older the piece gets, I think even the more powerful it becomes because you can see how little things have really changed. We often look at the past and say, “Well, that was then, and this is now,” but there’s nothing in West Side Story that seems like that was then. It’s all still really “this is now.”

You talk about going back to the text. In your direction, how much are you incorporating from pre-existing knowledge of the piece, since it is such an iconic work? How much are you stripping away and relying directly on the text?

AD: I would say that West Side Story has a really interesting, rich and complicated production history. We are using some of the original Jerome Robbins choreography, [but] we are also using some new choreography. The libretto is still the original libretto—not the revised one. The score has kind of always been the score, although through its various reprints and production traditions, it’s got its own quirks. What I try to do is just pull together the most important aspects of all of those elements and put them on the stage. It’s never about completely recreating something that was done before. The theatre should never be about completely recreating something that was done before, in my opinion, but you do start from the text. And, in this case— West Side Story—the text means the choreography and score and the book. [Laughs.] Those are all really core elements of the piece, and you look at them, and you make sure that you understand what they’re really doing, and then you make sure that you are dealing with those elements authentically onstage and getting the story told. [You’re] not trying to turn it into something that it’s not, but just allowing yourself as interpretive artists—as a director—to be present to your own reading of it, the way it effects you and the way you think it’s going to effect audiences.

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You previously directed a production of West Side at Trinity Repertory Company, using elements such as spray paint to describe location change. Are you still incorporating some of those elements?

AD: No, no. This is a highly, highly minimalist production because it’s not so much a “production” of West Side Story, as it is part of a much larger project of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall called The Somewhere Project. These performances of West Side Story are one component of that, and the focus—all the energy and all the focus and all the attention—has gone into the creating and supporting of a 40-piece orchestra. And we have a 200-voice choir, and we have an additional cast of 14 apprentice dancers…and we’re in this really funky space, so trying to pull all that stuff together early on made it really clear that it was never going to be about the production values. It’s about really relying on the story to be able to make itself clear with very little support, which it can and does.

Tell me about the space and why it was chosen and how it’s going to function and operate for the show.

AD: When I came on board, the people at Carnegie had already selected the Knockdown Center… It was really important to them that we be doing this in a borough—that we’d be doing this in a place that is more connected to where the story might have come from in the first place, and to let the audience be in an environment that was not really a traditional theatre environment or a traditional symphonic environment. That’s how we ended up at the Knockdown Center. It’s challenging because it’s not just a big rectangle. It was a working factory, so it has a shape that is based on what its function was, and incorporating a stage space and a dance floor and an orchestra space and also an art gallery—because we’ve got all this art to display from other sides of The Somewhere Project… It’s like designing a building inside of a building, which is really fun.


I imagine that “Dance at the Gym” is going to be epic because it’s just this big space, where you can play around and do tons of different things. How has it been working to your advantage? Instead of just a regular proscenium staging, how are you enjoying working in this big factory?

AD: The best place to put the action meant that we needed to have the audience almost completely around the whole stage, and so that’s just always exciting because you get to not only watch the action, but you also—as an audience member—see the rest of your cohorts seeing the story… We have a really, really, really long stage. [That] is the best way I can describe it. That’s really great because there are times in West Side Story where the characters want to run—like full-out run—and you can’t do that on most stages. Just about the time you get up to full speed, you’re kind of out of room, and that’s not the case here. So, even in the “Prologue,” when we’re working with the original Robbins choreography—just seeing those steps really be able to travel [and] really cover ground is so exciting.

Is it immersive, in a way?

AD: Yeah, I would say that’s true.

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Tell me about getting to work with these high-school students. It must be so exciting for them.

AD: They’re just great. Something that really matters to me is being able to show young artists that you can have a life in the theatre. And, these are amazingly talented young singers and dancers and actors, and they’re getting paid, and they are in an environment where they can be mentored. When you first start out in this business, you usually don’t have a chance to be a working professional. Also, if you mess up [here], nobody’s going to take your head off. That’s what we’re able to give these kids. They’re partnered with mentors in the cast, they can ask questions, they don’t have to be afraid of making a mistake. They can really try—like 100 percent try—and then get a note if something isn’t going right, or get extra rehearsal if something isn’t going right. And, I’m hoping that just helps them even more in becoming the next generation of the people who do what we do, and I hope that it lets their parents see that you really can do this. You can be a performer, you can be onstage, you can do this with your life, and it can be enriching and meaningful and viable as a life choice.

Are there any other plans for the production aside from this weekend?

AD: No. It was always understood that this was kind of a three-performance, massive celebration of a year’s worth of educational work that the Hall has done.

How is the chorus of 200 functioning? Where and when are they singing?

AD: Really early on, there was a lot of conversation and work done with the Bernstein estate to make additional choral arrangements for “One Hand, One Heart” and for “Somewhere” and also to find ways to incorporate those voices into some other pieces of the show, as well. And they are witnesses to the event; they are sometimes participants. They are, again, a huge population of the people who are really going to make the future. They’re the next generation…and when you think about a concept like “Somewhere," “Where is that ‘Somewhere’? Where is that place?” I don’t think that we’ve come close to making a place where everyone could belong and be together peacefully yet. We don’t have that on this planet, so we’re going to have to keep looking for the people who are coming up underneath us to make the kind of choices that will help shape that world. And, it’s just really important, you know? It’s not only really impactful for those students, but I think it reminds us—the audience—that we have a responsibility now to them to at least try and create some space where they might be able to make things better.

http://www.playbill.com/article/does-race-still-matter-mounting-an-ethnically-ambiguous-west-side-story

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