By John Benson
When Ali Ewoldt was named as Maria in the touring production of the Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” which comes through Cleveland May 3 through 15 at the Palace Theatre, the veteran stage actress felt comfortable in the role. After all, she’d played the lead in an international tour of the Tony Award-winning musical written by legends Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
However, this all changed when Ewoldt had a chance to talk to Laurents, who consulted on this show, which features such classics of the American musical theater as “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere.”
“The general concept of Maria is she is this young girl that things kind of passively happen to,” said Ewoldt, calling from Baltimore. “She’s very innocent. And in this production, Laurents — who wrote the script in 1957, directed the production that this is based off of and consulted on our production — had a different concept for Maria. He wanted her to be the smartest girl in the room. He wants her to play an active role in kind of controlling her fate. So that’s kind of reversing what I have been taught about what Maria was. It was definitely a challenge for me but a really exciting one because it’s a lot more fun to get to play her sense of humor and her intelligence.”
Ewoldt added that it was a magical and unique experience to actually get to work with the playwright from decades ago. More so, once she embraced the more confident Maria, she began to see scenes differently. Such as when Tony talks about going to the police, Maria takes control and tells him to stay with her.
From an acting standpoint, Ewoldt feels she’s always in control of her characters, which have ranged from a national tour of “Les Mis rables,” which brought her through Cleveland a few years ago, to Disney’s “Aladdin,” “The Fantasticks” and “Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Granted she’s been studying theater since she was a young girl, but Ewoldt feels it’s her academic background – she graduated from Yale University with a degree in psychology – that helps her define her characters.
Whereas she learned to study people and why they do the things they do, the idea of acting – learning why people do different things in different situations – isn’t too far removed. That’s why she fell in love with the role of Maria, who for decades has been a favorite of audiences.
“It’s the romance of the show,” Ewoldt said. “It’s Tony and Maria, star-crossed lovers who are fully committed to each other from the minute they see each other. As an audience member, that’s always exciting, either remembering all the love you’ve experienced in that way or wishing to kind of be that romantic and in love. Also, Maria gets to have a backbone in the end and be a strong woman. I think all of those kind of make her very appealing.”
Finally, something that makes “West Side Story” truly a classic is the fact its plot remains relevant in an ever-turbulent world. Ewoldt, who witnessed the phenomenon a few years ago as a cast member of an international tour, said this continues to inspire her today.
“What makes the show so amazing is that it’s very timeless and the themes continue to be relevant, which is of course unfortunate that the world hasn’t changed enough to make it where all people can love who they love openly and not be a conflict about that,” Ewoldt said. “On the international tour we performed in Tel Aviv, where the media told me a story about how an Israeli woman was in love with a Palestinian guy and basically it was ‘West Side Story’ all over again.
“That’s also why it’s really important to get the message across – love attempting at least to triumph over hate and people trying to understand each other. I think it makes me feel very lucky to get to do a piece that has such a wonderful message to it.”
‘WEST SIDE’ GLORY: Ali Ewoldt, starring as Maria, says revival of Broadway classic spiced with authentic Latin flavor, polished by original creators
By MARK MESZOROS Special to Tempo
Ali Ewoldt is rather unlike the poor, innocent Maria she portrays in the new tour of the acclaimed Broadway revival of “West Side Story.”
After graduating as valedictorian of her high school class in Pleasantville, N.Y., Ewoldt attended Yale University to study psychology.
But psychology was her fallback.
Although she clearly had no issue with academics, Ewoldt — who brings her portrayal of Maria Tuesday for a two-week run at Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare — was, apparently, born to perform. Her parents enrolled her in dance classes at age 3, and she never looked back.
“According to them I was always dancing and jumping around anyway, and they figured they could channel that into dance classes,” said Ewoldt, during a recent phone interview, adding that she doesn’t feel her parents forced this stuff on her. “I did love it.”
Growing up 45 minutes from New York City, she was taken to see Broadway shows regularly by her parents. She became obsessed, she said, with shows and movies such as “A Chorus Line,” but she never lost perspective, even when it came time to pick a college.
I knew the (performing arts) business was not the most stable thing in the world, so I was looking for a school where I could focus on academics but also performing,” she said.
Although she graduated from Yale, performing won out over psychology, with Ewoldt winning roles in productions such as the Broadway and touring productions of “Les Miserables,” in which she played Cosette.
“ ‘Les Mis’ was the first show where I’d memorized the entire CD,” she said. “I loved it all.”
And while she made her Broadway debut in that show, the highlight of her young career is probably playing Maria in this current tour of “West Side Story,” she said.
“I grew up on the movie, and Maria is just one of those iconic roles that girls dream of playing,” she said. “Maria gets to fully start off as a young girl and transform into a woman … over a very short span of time over the course of the play.
“It’s very fun to dig into all the dramatic stuff that Maria gets to go through.”
A 60-year legacy
“West Side Story” is a beloved American musical, written about six decades ago by Arthur Laurents (script), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), with choreography by Jerome Robbins. (Lorain native Gerald Freedman was the original assistant director and has co-directed previous Broadway revivals.)
Loosely adapted from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” is set in 1950s New York City, where a pair of street gangs — the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white Jets — are clashing. Thus, it’s a complicated situation when Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo.
Debuting on Broadway in 1957, “West Side Story” boasts many well-known musical numbers, including “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “A Boy Like That,” “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Maria.”
The tour is based on the Broadway production that began a run at New York’s Palace Theatre in early 2009, directed by the aforementioned Laurents and earning critical raves and recouping its $14 million investment after 30 weeks. The Broadway cast won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
Originally, with the help of Laurents and Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the multilingual show “In the Heights,” producers hoped to infuse the show with a significant amount of Spanish. However, while the Spanish didn’t disappear altogether as the show was workshopped and run on Broadway, it did decrease significantly as the show ran on.
Spanish and English
“Our tour is kind of what they settled on as the best ratio — a little more Spanish than the original production but not so much that the story isn’t clear,” Ewoldt said. “I think it’s a really good mix.”
She said it’s used to show two schools of thought within the Puerto Ricans living in America. While Anita wants everyone to speak to her in English, Bernardo wants to be spoken to in Spanish.
“It has a dramatic sense to it,” Ewoldt said. “When it’s used, it’s used very specifically.”
Although similar to the original Broadway show, this “West Side Story” still has a lot to offer fans who’ve only seen the movie, she said.
“It’s a completely different experience,” she said. “I think it’s part of the thrill of doing live theater — that we get to take this story around to people and show it to them in a new light.
The production boasts a wonderful orchestra and incredible dancers, Ewoldt said.
“Having grown up dancing, I would not consider myself Broadway-caliber,” she admits. “Our dancers are just so phenomenal.”
Having played two major roles in musical theater, Ewoldt hopes to expand her résumé to include straight plays, television and film. But she knows nothing is guaranteed.
“I’m going to try to do this as long as I can,” she said. “It’s the kind of business where you never really know what’s around the bend.”