by Karen Price
For little over a year, Rhys Taylor has been performing the score of West Side Story eight times a week.
If you do the maths, that’s almost 500 times. So isn’t he a little bored of it all by now?
“Not at all,” says the Aberystwyth-born clarinettist, who is part of the 20-strong orchestra on the road with the touring musical, which heads to Wales next week.
“I’m tired but I’m not bored. You can be having the worst day ever but as soon as you play the first notes of the prologue, life’s ok. It’s just wonderful music and a fabulous story. It really cheers you up. And even the sad parts are scored so beautifully.”
West Side Story is one of the nation’s most popular and long-enduring musicals.
Set in New York City in the mid-50s and based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, it opened on Broadway in 1957 and in the West End a year later. In 1961 a film was released starring Natalie Wood as tragic heroine Maria and it was nominated for 11 Oscars, winning 10.
But it’s the score by Leonard Bernstein (featuring lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) which is arguably the real star of the show.
Taylor, who previously played for the touring production of Oliver!, is a massive fan of the composer.
“West Side Story is my favourite musical,” he admits.
“I’m classically trained and it combines musical theatre and classical music perfectly. The score is so demanding and even when you’re playing it eight times a week for more than a year you can’t be caught off guard.
“It’s a challenge every show, which keeps our brains ticking over and maintains our concentration. The songs are a work of genius and Bernstein is up there with Mozart and Beethoven but just from a different era. He’s written some close to perfect material here.”
The new touring production, which is at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff for two weeks, is directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely using the full original Jerome Robbins choreography and features Katie Hall as Maria and Louis Maskell as her star-crossed lover, Tony.
Exploring the rivalry between two teenage gangs – one white, the other Puerto Rican – when Tony falls in love with Maria, the sister of the rival gang’s leader, the feud takes on a new dimension.
As Tony and Maria’s love blossoms, so begins a fatal journey overshadowed by violence and hatred. The musical score includes memorable, much-loved songs Maria, Tonight, Somewhere, America and I Feel Pretty.
Taylor, a graduate of Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, is thrilled to be performing in the pit at the WMC as it’s his home venue during the tour and somewhere he’s familiar with.
“It’s one of my favourite places in the world – we took the Oliver! tour there and I performed as a soloist during the 10-year anniversary concert for the Bryn Terfel Urdd Scholarship, which I was the recipient of in 2006.”
So which tracks will the 31-year-old be mostly looking forward to playing?
“It’s got to be either Mambo or Cool. I play a bit of jazz as well so it’s nice to bring those elements to the music here. We have a 20-piece orchestra and when we are all playing Mambo or Cool the sound is just incredible.
“But you can’t ignore the brilliance of Maria which is close to perfection as a song and even the background music has some fantastic moments. The whole score is a collage of beautiful art.”
TAYLOR’S TOP 5 TRACKS
"It’s technically demanding as a musician – there’s a South American element which, in the UK, we’re not very used to playing. But it’s nice to play different music. There’s quite a party atmosphere in the pit when we play this."
"This has more of a big band feel. I’ve got my own big band so my heart is quite close to that music. Cool is a huge contrast to things like Mambo and Maria but generally every single song has a different style."
"This sets the scene for the whole show. It’s quite a huge statement at the beginning. The first couple of notes are so iconic – it’s only two notes but they’re two huge notes. And we get to see the first stages of the rivalry between the two gangs on stage."
"Probably the piece which most people associate with the musical. It’s a beautiful song and it’s quite nice that it’s the male character who gets this aria. I get to play quite a bit in this. But everyone in the orchestra has a really important part to play and if anyone was missing it wouldn’t work. This is a legato number which is lovely after the razzmatazz of the big numbers. It’s a pleasure to play it."
Gee, Officer Krupke
"It’s a chance for the musicians to let their hair down a bit. You can hear the audience laughing and have a bit of fun. You still have to concentrate but you can sit back and enjoy this one too. It’s a totally different style to the rest of the songs which is great."
West Side Story is at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff from August 12 to 23. For tickets, call 029 2063 6464 or visit www.wmc.org.uk