The people behind one of the world's most beloved musicals connects with the show in more ways than one.
by Dylan Tan
SOME of us have grown up watching West Side Story but for certain members of the cast and crew, the Arthur Laurents musical is part of their lives.
Take director Joey McKneely. He was first introduced to the show by its original choreographer Jerome Robbins, and impressed the latter so much that he was asked to direct and choreograph his version at La Scala Opera House in Milan 17 years ago.
McKneely's touring production has since played all over the world - enjoying two sold-out runs at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and the Sadler's Wells Theater in London where it was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Revival - and is currently running in Singapore.
The show here also reunites him with musical supervisor Donald Chan who has conducted over 3,000 performances of West Side Story to date, including McKneely's directorial debut in 2000.
Of the more than 100 musicals and operettas that Maestro Chan has worked on, this is the one that he returns to most often.
West Side Story also runs in cast member Daniel Russell's family - his role as Baby John is the same one his father Robert played in 1988 at Cleveland Opera House, which Chan also incidentally conducted.
Hailed as "Broadway's greatest dance musical" by the United Kingdom's The Times, the show is inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
The story revolves around two teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, in 1950s New York, and how their rivalry comes between the blossoming romance of a young couple - Tony, a Jet, and Maria, sister of the Sharks' leader.
Over the course of two days in the middle of a sweltering summer, the boys and girls in the Upper West Side neighborhood sing and dance, while tensions slowly rise and a clash remains imminent between the European-American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks.
It is a love story, action thriller, musical and social study rolled into one, and has been produced three times on Broadway, twice in London's West End, and enjoyed numerous US, UK and international tours over the last six decades.
The 1961 big screen adaptation was nominated for 11 Oscars and went on to win 10 including Best Picture, further cementing the reputation of this masterpiece which has spawned popular show tunes like Maria, Tonight, Somewhere, America, and I Feel Pretty.
Aside from Leonard Bernstein's classic score and Stephen Sondheim's (then a young unknown who would later go on to write works such as Gypsy, Sweeny Todd and Into The Woods) timeless lyrics, McKneely's version playing here is the closest to the version that made its debut on Broadway back in 1957.
"(This is the only production in the world to feature) the original choreography from Jerome Robbins which is part of the fabric of West Side Story - it's iconic!" states McKneely. "Others that use different choreography will always be derivative of the original, and if you have a choice when experiencing art, do you want to look at the original or the copy?"
Chan, who leads a "live" orchestra of 21 musicians and studied under Bernstein, says the musical is unique because the music, dance, and acting are all equally represented. He adds: "You'll also find that the music has several different elements - in most (shows), the same style is presented throughout, while in West Side Story, you'll find jazz, latin, (and) classical."
McKneely, who has earned a Tony and two Outer Critics Circle nominations, plus has won NAACP Image and LA Ovation awards, shares that one of the toughest parts of directing the show is ensuring the casting is right.
"Once you are there, then it's about teaching these young performers to express themselves emotionally - this may sound easy, but the emotions in West Side Story are very deep (because of the themes that include) racism, hatred, grief, violence," he explains. "Showing a new cast how to do this is the most challenging and also the most rewarding; if they can make the audience feel these characters' emotions, then that really is the power (of the show)."
The 21-year-old Russell adds he never had a chance to watch his father perform the Baby John role because he wasn't born yet but both of them enjoy sharing anecdotes about their performances: "There was never a time where he said: 'Make sure you do this', or anything like that. So much of what I do on stage now though is testament to the knowledge Dad passed down to me when I was younger, and his endless support."
Russell's Puerto Rican co-star Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva might look like he was born to play Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, but more than that, the actor says he takes inspiration from his father for the role.
"My dad has a lot of Bernardo (in him) or (should I say) Bernardo has a lot of (my father)," Quinones-Villanueva laughs, before adding on a more serious note: "He is a natural leader and puts his family first ... No matter what happens, he always walks with his head up without hiding who he is and where he comes from - in those aspects, my father, Bernardo and I share the same ideas."
He says West Side Story is special to him because as a Puerto Rican himself, he identifies with the events in the musical: "Sadly after (more than) 50 years, few things have changed about racism and tolerance - the message and the story of this show is essential for people to become aware of how harmful and horrible it is."
He explains: "No matter your race or nationality, in the end we are all equal; and most importantly, love at one time or another will always beat the hatred."
•West Side Story is playing at Grand Theatre, MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands until Sept 30. Performance times are Tuesday to Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday 1pm and 6pm. Tickets from S$55 available from Sistic and at the box office