petzipellepingo (petzipellepingo) wrote in westsidestory,

West Side Story dances on

Inspired by William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story marks its 60th anniversary this year but its cast says its tragic tale of teenage love is just as relevant today as when it was first staged in 1957.

Centering around doomed lovers Tony and Maria, who find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter feud between rival street gangs, the popular musical takes place on the mean streets of 1950s New York.

But, it could just have easily have been set in London or even Auckland, says Eric Rolland who plays school dance director Glad Hand.

"It's the same story throughout the world," Rolland says, when I meet him and other members of the cast and crew backstage after a show at Dublin's Bord Gais Theatre.

"It hasn't changed one iota. Culture clashes are still going on everywhere, whether it be in America, in Ireland or wherever."

Jenna Burns, who takes the lead role of Maria, says the story told in the musical is probably always going to be relevant.

"We're always going to have things we disagree on and that's why it's so important to keep telling the story, so people can - hopefully - be encouraged to learn how to live together and work with each other."

Kevin Hack, who plays Maria's love interest, Tony, says attending a production of West Side Story could be a good way to unite disparate groups.

"It brings everybody together and you can see that at the end of the show, even though there's a bit of a sad ending, love will always be there."

In the middle of a world tour that has so far encompassed much of Asia and Europe, it's the well-known songs that get the most enthusiastic response. " ... If we tell people we're doing West Side Story they'll say 'oh, Maria!'" adds Burns.

"That's something that jumps out at them even if they haven't seen the show or don't really remember it."

Produced by the legendary Jerome Robbins and with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, West Side Story tasks veteran musical director Donald Chan with ensuring the original text is adhered to.

"We haven't updated anything as far as the show itself is concerned," says Chan, who has supervised more than 3000 performances of West Side Story during the past 35 years.

"The music is the same and the storyline and the dialogue the same, but we have perhaps altered a couple of the musical tempos."

Much of Robbins' original choreography is unchanged.

"Jerome had a unique way of choreographing things, and he was a genius in terms of arranging fight scenes and doing beautiful ballets as well," says Chan. "He knew exactly what he wanted."

Having performed in one of Robbins' own productions of West Side Story on Broadway before moving into choreography, director Joey McKneely knows exactly what is required for the dance sequences.

"In the scene where I'm watching the Jets and the Sharks [the show's rival gangs] going at each other in the gym, Joey was telling me how my character is screaming until he just can't take any more and then the dance takes over," says Hack. "It's almost like when words don't come any more, you have to dance it out."

Despite being the introductory point for many people, including several of the younger cast members, Chan insists the theatrical version of West Side Story shouldn't be compared to the 1961 movie, which won 10 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for co-directors Robert Wise and Robbins.

"Theatre is always a very different experience to film," says Rolland.

"The great thing about doing this is that every night we're creating the show all anew. We have some things that we always do but we have a different audience every night, and different circumstances on stage, so every show is different and new. It's never been seen like that before, and then it will never be seen like this again."

What: West Side Story
Where and when: Civic Theatre, from June 22
Tags: 2016-17 centennial world tour, donald chan, interviews, jenna burns, kevin hack
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