“West Side Story” continues to inspire in Milwaukee Rep’s new production
By Misha Berson , for Milwaukee Repertory Theater
On a summer night in 1957, four daring theater artists sat in a posh Manhattan apartment, describing their new musical, playing songs from it and fervently hoping those listening would sign some fat checks to back it.
Auditions were over. Rehearsals were about to start. Everything was on the line. But as the show’s librettist Arthur Laurents later recalled, the gathering “didn’t raise one penny.”
It was only when the intrepid young Broadway producers Harold Prince and Roger L. Stevens put up the cash at the last minute that the show went on. And without them, or those four brilliant collaborators – playwright Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim – “West Side Story” may well not have premiered on Sept. 26, 1957.
The rest is history for the unique, groundbreaking classic that propels Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” into the gritty streets of Hell’s Kitchen, where rival Puerto Rican and Euro-American gangs duke and dance it out, and a boy named Tony meets a girl named Maria – setting in motion a rapturous love story, and a heartrending tragedy.
As much as its creators understood how radical the piece was in style (the music was jazzy, the dance modern) and content (themes of juvenile crime and xenophobia), they couldn’t foresee what a phenomenon “West Side Story” would become.
The new Milwaukee Repertory Theater staging by artistic director Mark Clements more than 60 years later is one sign of the play’s lasting resilience. Others: A Broadway revival (the sixth), staged by Belgian director Ivo van Hove, opening in February 2020. A movie version (the second), helmed by Steven Spielberg, script by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) set for a late 2020 release.
Though “The Music Man” beat it out for the 1958 “best musical” Tony, “West Side Story’s” international popularity and impact has lasted several generations.
Clements says he has “probably seen ‘West Side Story’ more than any other musical. I expect I’ve seen 10 to 15 productions in the U.K. and here. It’s always been something I’ve been familiar with and loved.”
He also knows, despite the benefits of Bernstein’s glorious score and an archetypal love/hate saga, “it’s important to make it alive for now. It’s the ultimate triple-threat musical, and it’s hard to pull off.”
One strategy for Clements, in his first time directing “West Side Story,” was hiring Jon Rua, an actor (“Hamilton,” “In the Heights”) and award-winning choreographer, to create fresh dances – risky, given inevitable comparisons with Robbins’ magnificent original choreography (preserved in the hit 1961 film).
“Jon’s style does pay homage to Robbins because he loves and respects that work,” explains Clements. “But he’s got a modern take on how modern bodies and dancers move. Seeing the power he creates in rehearsal, how he elevates the performers, is just beautiful.”
Rua is Colombian-American. And like most recent “West Side Story” mountings, Milwaukee Rep is using only Latinx actor-dancers to play the Puerto Rican roles. This was not the case in the original show and film, because in the 1950s few Hispanic performers had the training, experience and opportunities needed for Broadway.
Now there’s a wide talent pool of Hispanic performers nationally. Clements says casting them is not only more true-to-life, but reflective of Milwaukee’s diversity. “There’s a big Latino community here, including Mexicans and a lot of Puerto Ricans. We’ve produced Lin-Manual Miranda’s ‘In the Heights,’ commissioned works from Latino playwrights and continue to build connections with the community.”
Clements also feels “West Side Story” is timelier than ever. Gang violence continues across the U.S. And the crisis over the influx of Latin American refugees at the Mexican border, and waves of anti-immigrant political rhetoric and violence, echo the bigotry the show depicts.
“Regardless where one sits on the political spectrum, we’ve become a polarized nation. So there’s something about the metaphor of ‘West Side Story,’ and the need for reconciliation, that feels really pertinent now.”
But to be truly successful, Clements believes “West Side Story” must stir hearts. “I want you to be moved by it, ultimately. I want you to sense the tragedy of those young people. And if you don’t feel that by the end of the show, we’ve failed. But I don’t believe we will.”
If you go:
Milwaukee Repertory Theater performs “West Side Story” September 17 – October 27 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com or call 414-224-9490.