Alex Biese, @ABieseAPP
In the nearly 50 years since it first debuted on Broadway, “West Side Story” has earned a prominent place in the public consciousness. But still, Natalie Cortez knows the show better than most.
A Manhattan native who now calls West Orange home, Cortez appeared in both regional and Broadway productions of the Jerome Robbins/Arthur Laurents/Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim classic over the years.
This month, she’ll be reprising the role of Anita at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn for a production directed by Mark S. Hoebee and running through June 26. She recently discussed the role, the legendary show and more in a telephone interview.
Q: This is a show, and a character, that you have history with. How is it re-approaching the role of Anita in this new context with different co-stars, a different director and in this new setting at Paper Mill?
A: The reason why I keep going back to Anita is because I think that the show changes drastically with every different cast there is, and that’s kind of what I love about it. I think the writing of the show is actually almost Shakespearean in the sense that there is no right or wrong way to do it. It is written so well that it can have lots of different interpretations for every single character.
That’s kind of what I love and kind of what I feel is exciting about the work, that as many times as I’ve done the role it really does change every single time there’s a different Bernardo, or if a Bernardo understudy goes on or if there’s a different Maria, it changes the relationship, and not in a bad way. Everybody is different. Everybody brings their own energy to it, and it really is fascinating how the show works with all sorts of different personalities.
... And that’s exciting for me because then I get to explore different choices, different character ideas that come up because this Maria’s a little different or that Bernardo said that (line) a little differently. That’s fun for me, too, it’s never the same twice.
Q: That attitude has to help with really making this part your own because Anita is a role that has been famously played by a few show business icons over the years. With the attitude that every night the part and the show has the potential to be unique, the burden of precedent has to be gone.
A: Absolutely. There’s always precedent when you do a revival or when you replace someone in a show. There’s always this precedent, and you have to have this (attitude) of, “Well, I’m never going to be that, I’m going to be this. I’m going to be me, and I have to figure out what that is going to be.”
I’ve had the opportunity to work with Chita Rivera, who is the kindest, most open person you could ever meet, and she would never expect someone to try to mimic her. In fact, she probably wouldn’t like it. She’s always open to see what someone else’s interpretation is.
I feel the same way when I watch someone do a role that I’ve done. I’d hate to think that they would want to try to mimic what I did or what Priscilla Lopez did in “A Chorus Line.” I would like to see what they have to offer because there’s a reason they’re sitting there right now. I think that’s always a danger when you talk about revivals. You always have to have an open mind about yourself and trust yourself. You’re there for a reason.
Q: For this Paper Mill production, some elements of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography are going to be utilized. So, you’re bringing one traditional aspect back into the show.
A: I’ve actually only done it with the original. There are different versions of the original, depending on if you did the 1957 version or Chita has a very different take on it than Rita Moreno from the movie does, but it’s all a version of Jerome Robbins.
Now, what (choreographer) Alex Sanchez is doing is brilliant because he actually worked with Chita Rivera, so it has been another thing, I’ve even learned more about the original choreography than I thought I already knew. And there’s even more information because he worked with Chita Rivera at a different time, so I feel like the knowledge of the choreography is even deepening for me.
I love this choreography. It really is my favorite choreography, I think, of all time, so to do it is unbelievable. Even in different versions, and when people have different takes on it, to me it’s the heart and soul of the piece because these are kids that their communication skills are lacking — so they only way they can speak is through fighting and physical encounters. That’s their last resort for everything.
So the dancing is so important because that’s the only way they know how to communicate when it really gets tough. They’re not well-educated and they’re not a very philosophical group, which is why they turn to violence so much or sexual innuendo and things like that.
That’s why I feel like the choreography and the movement of these characters is so important, so much more important than dance in other shows. It actually is intrinsic to the show.
Q: Next year is the 60th anniversary of “West Side Story's" Broadway debut. What do you think it is about this work that not only has kept people coming back but makes it a vital, necessary story for right now?
A: I think it’s actually a couple of things. I think that on a large scale, the social implications of racism and xenophobia are obviously still very prevalent in the country, and we constantly need to be addressing it and we constantly need to remember that this is not something we want to repeat.
Even though we still keep repeating it, we need to be aware that it is a problem that we’ve come across many times, whether it’s Irish, Puerto Ricans, whoever it is next, it is a problem that is just a human problem to be afraid of what we don’t know.
The other (reason) is a more personal level, I think. These characters are written with heart and soul and humor, and I think that when characters are written and they’re very personable and they’re very real and you want to love them and you love them whether they’re a Jet or a Shark, then I think people will constantly be going back to it the way people are constantly going back to “Romeo and Juliet.”
I think that you make the characters real, you make them human, and people always want to see that. They’ll always connect to those characters. And then on the large scale, there’s something much more important to think about, too.
So, between those two things, that very human element and the more political, grander, element, the attractiveness of the show will never fail.
WEST SIDE STORY
WHEN: Through June 26, performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays
WHERE: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
TICKETS: $87 to $140
INFO: 973-376-4343, www.PaperMill.org