60 years & counting: Why West Side Story never gets old
By Nathalie Tomada
Sixty years ago, the West Side Story was born on Broadway.
Now, after three productions on Broadway, twice on London’s West End, a film version in 1961 that racked up 10 Oscars including Best Picture, various US, UK and international tours, and local adaptations such as in the Philippines, the dance musical remains a veritable stage favorite.
Pinoy musical-theater fans can experience (again!) this love story set to the rhythms of mambo, rock n’ roll and jazz at The Theatre at Solaire. It’s a three-week Manila run that forms part of a world tour with stops in Paris, Sydney, Berlin, Singapore, among others.
So, what makes this classic a classic?
The STAR had an exclusive chat with the show’s lead characters Tony (Kevin Hack) and Maria (Jenna Burns) arranged by promoter Concertus Manila last Wednesday.
Asked why the six-decade-old story never gets old, the actors said it’s because West Side Story is still relevant and reflective of what’s going on around us.
Inspired by the Shakespearean tale Romeo and Juliet, the musical tells of star-crossed young lovers Tony and Maria who are caught up in a racial turf war in 1950s New York. Boy and girl belong to rival immigrant gangs Jets and Sharks, but they fall in love with each other anyway, throwing at the audience the Big Question: Can love conquer all?
“There’s going to be always two groups of people that don’t necessarily get along. We’re always seeing that — racial differences, or whatever differences people have with each other,” Kevin said.
“Nowadays, we’re surrounded by multicultural relationships. Whether it’d be like someone who is white, or someone is black, or someone Spanish, it’s all around us, and it’s really beautiful to see that... different cultures coming together to create, you know, one love. It’s pretty awesome!”
According to Jenna, “What’s important is what this show portrays. You can handle (differences) the way the Jets and Sharks do. They let the fear of people different from them become hatred or violence. Or handle it like Tony and Maria do, not necessarily fall in love, but they choose to see each other for who they are, they embrace differences and they look at each other’s hearts.”
We have yet to see this production, which opened last Aug. 10 at Solaire. From the photo handouts, however, Kevin and Jenna’s chemistry seems to leap out at you. Everyone knows this is crucial for a play anchored on a love story to work.
Interestingly, it wasn’t chemistry at first show. “I don’t think we hit it off right away (laughs)” admitted Kevin. “(The chemistry) generates over time. We’ve done this show over 200 times now…”
They’ve actually been on the road for 10 months now. During that course of time, Jenna said they were able to develop more trust and openness. “When you have to be as vulnerable as we have to be onstage, with each other and with the rest of the company, trust is really important and over time, it just grows.”
Perhaps, it also helped that both Kevin and Jenna can identify with their characters.
“I always say that I find a lot of my natural self in Tony. It’s not really a mental battle to prepare for the show. I just have to put my shoes on, make sure I can sing and I’m ready to go,” Kevin said.
Physically, he lost 60 pounds for his role. But, he added, “the only time I really have to prepare for anything, like mentally prepare, is the final scene. I’m just like, ‘Let’s do it!’ (Laughs) I’m not a teenager anymore, but I can relate to how excited I was as a teenager, and about life in general.”
Jenna, for her part, said, “Me as a person, it’s not too far of a stretch from who Maria is. However, I’m 10 years older than Maria. So, it’s more of having (to relive) the first time I felt something with someone on a romantic level, the feelings of ‘Oh my gosh, this is something so new!’ and that discovery there? I just have to go back to what it felt like, that first time, because as we grow older, we’re a little more comfortable with our feelings and what’s going on inside of us.”
As mentioned, West Side Story is a theater favorite, even spawning local productions such as the first-ever in the Philippines back in ’81 and in 2008 with Karylle/Joanna Ampil and Christian Bautista as leads. To paraphrase lyrics from one of the musical’s most famous songs, Somewhere, it seems “there’s a place, there’s a time” always for another production of West Side Story.
Nevertheless, Kevin and Jenna believe that theirs is unique because of the kind of energy, professionalism and interpretation they bring to the table.
Jenna said, “Anybody who does the show is gonna be a different thing just because we’re different human beings even if we’re given the same direction, blocking and intention from a director. Like my Maria is different from my understudy’s understanding of the role.”
She further said that the show is the closest to the original, owing to the fact that showrunners Joey McKneely and Donald Chan have long ties to the people behind the pioneering production.
Director McKneely was a student of Jerome Robbins, who created the musical’s original choreography. Musical supervisor and conductor Chan trained under American conductor/composer Louis Bernstein himself, the creator of West Side Story’s now iconic music.
“Joey and Don have such a knowledge of this show and the material, and it’s the closest to the original production that you’re basically gonna get. I mean, they worked with the original creative team, Bernstein and Robbins, and so there’s something really different in this production that people will see,” Jenna stressed.
“It’s incredible to bring the show to different cultures and see how they react to the story. I never performed in the Philippines before but I’ve been here in the past (Manila, Boracay and Palawan in 2015),” added Kevin, who worked with Filipinos for two years on a cruise ship. “So, I’m very, very familiar with how Filipino people are. I’m just very excited to be back.”
Meanwhile, the two were asked if they always wanted to become thespians.
“No. I started really, really late in life. I found out I can sing at 18,” revealed Kevin.
Beforehand, he played ice hockey for 12 years and did so well that he got college offers at a very young age. He was asked to play for the Ontario Hockey League and skate with the USA Olympic Team. He played semi-pro for two years, quit at 17 because “I wasn’t just into it” and found himself just hanging out in high school, doing nothing. Then, he was asked by a friend to audition for the school play Les Misèrables. He was clueless in musical theater, but he fell in love with it.
“I absolutely dived into it everything I could. I took classes. I auditioned for every local community theater just to get exposure and sing in front of people and that led me to meeting my voice teacher, who ended up being my mentor.”
Eventually, he got himself a manager, who would send him to masterclasses and auditions. “I started to get callbacks and here I am now.”
Kevin continued, “This is something I enjoy working for. I’m more or less doing the same amount of work I would have had to do for hockey. Hockey was just taking over my life and I had no social life. When I was a freshman in high school, I missed about 40 percent of (my freshman year) because I was always traveling with hockey. (Theater) is more of a social thing for me. I get to work for what a long-term goal is, at the same time have a social life. Right now, I’m incredibly happy doing what I’m doing.”
Jenna’s story, on the other hand, was a contrast from Kevin’s. “I’ve been doing this as far as I can remember, as soon as I could talk basically. My parents noticed that I had a singing voice, like at the back of the car, I was singing Disney songs, and they’re like oh, she kind of has a sense of pitch. For a two year old, I was definitely musically-inclined. They put me on dance classes, then I started singing in church, doing musicals when I was 8 and haven’t stopped ever since. But I did decide to pursue this as a career a little late for most people. I was convinced that I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher until I was 17.”
Then, she decided to go for it, earned a degree in musical theater and moved to New York. “And my love for it has just grown. The more I work, the more I learn.”
Jenna’s portfolio showed that she also starred in Into the Woods, Legally Blonde the Musical and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Kevin, on the other hand, won an NJACT Award for his role as Enjolras in Les Misèrables in the US and a nomination for Best Lead Actor for his portrayal of Capt. Billy Pierce in The Civil War; and was part of Next to Normal and The Broadway Revival Concert alongside theater stalwarts.
Jenna is eyeing to do more classics in the future like “Rodgers & Hammerstein, Julie Jordan in Carousel, Hope in Anything Goes. Most of my career were contemporary music theater and belting, but West Side Story has rekindled this desire for me to do the old stuff.”
For Kevin, his dream role would be Chris in Miss Saigon. Said Kevin, who hopes to meet the Pinoys who were part of Miss Saigon like Lea Salonga and Rachelle Ann Go, “The show means so much to me. I’ve never been able to connect to a show more than that one. (Why?) Long story. Just in my personal life, I’ve had similar situations where I can really see myself in the role and be able to give it everything I have, like emotionally. I don’t wanna say too much about myself but I feel like I could bring something to that role that not a lot of people can.”
(West Side Story is presented in Manila by Globe Live and produced by BB Promotion GmbH in association with Sundance Productions, Inc. NY, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and David Atkins Enterprises. Ticket prices range from P7,000 [VIP] to P1,500 [D Reserve] and are available via Ticketworld.)