Kyle Harris, an Orange County native, won the lead role for the iconic musical, which arrives at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts
By Candice Baker, Special to the Pilot
Newport Beach-born actor Kyle Harris wasn't a fan of "West Side Story" while growing up in Orange County, but the musical has since touched his life again and again.
He was selected for the leading role of Tony in the show's touring Broadway production — to arrive at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa — after appearing in a sketch comedy production called "Web Site Story," which appeared on YouTube.
"It's about Tony meeting Maria on Facebook, and it blew up and became viral really fast, which I did not expect at all," the 20-something Harris said in an interview.
And, like Tony, Harris found his life's trajectory changed because of a girl.
The avid soccer player had never considered drama until he was convinced to try out for a show at Woodbridge High School in Irvine.
"I was dating a girl who did musicals, and she said I should do it," Harris said. "I ended up getting bit by the theater bug."
He went on from high school productions to studying theater in Arizona, award-winning stints in New York and regional productions, with roles in "Hair," "Newsies," "Urinetown," "The Who's Tommy" and more — and his star began to rise.
As a cheeky addition to his résumé, Harris noted that he was an excellent stage kisser.
"I threw it on there as a conversation starter, and here we are talking about it," he laughed. "It's definitely one of the perks of my job. Basically, every show I've been in, I've had to kiss a girl. So I put that as a personal skill."
Harris moved to New York after college and began making the requisite rounds at various open-call auditions, not expecting "Web Site Story" to be a game-changer for him at all — but the casting directors loved it.
"I auditioned for the matinee Tony who does two shows a week on Broadway," Harris recalled. "But they told me they wanted to save me for the national tour, which wasn't coming up for like seven months."
Harris didn't take this claim seriously, and assumed he was being given the cold shoulder in the politest way possible. But he soon found himself packing his bags for an epic road trip.
He now spends six nights a week — and two matinees — singing and dancing as star-struck lover Tony across the country.
Harris said his hitherto-mild esteem for "West Side Story" began to change as he got to know it.
"I definitely have a great appreciation for it now," he said, citing its superb blend of story, dancing and music. "There are very few things that are able to come close to it."
He also was surprised at how strenuous it is to travel around the country as part of a touring Broadway production.
"I don't have a 'home' to go home to every night like the actors on Broadway," he said. "That's the hardest part for your body. You don't really have a time to rest, and every theater, hotel room or city has its own kind of mold or allergen. It gets easier as you find your groove and your routine.
"I knew it would be tough, but I didn't know it would be this tough," he added. "I do recommend it for any actor, though, to go through this experience. Playing a Broadway house, it's pretty tiny and quaint. But when you're playing the road, you play houses that can fit 7,000 people."
Harris is looking forward to spending two weeks at home and at the beach, when "West Side Story" begins its Costa Mesa run. He also looks forward to seeing a slew of friends, family members and neighbors at the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall.
"Another thing I've learned from traveling the country is that there's really no place like Orange County," he said. "Although I'm glad I got out of there … I'm very, very grateful to have grown up in Orange County."
‘West Side Story' star comes back to O.C., briefly
Newport’s Kyle Harris gets to play for his pals when musical plays Segerstrom Center.
By PAUL HODGINS / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Born in Newport Beach, Kyle Harris caught the acting bug at Irvine’s Woodbridge High School before going to the University of Arizona to hone his theater skills.
Now Harris is a busy New York-based theater actor with some impressive credits under his belt: “Sondheim on Sondheim” on Broadway, “Mrs. Sharp” at New York’s Playwrights Horizons and major regional productions of “Hair,” “Dream A Little Dream,” “The Full Monty” and “Urinetown.” He has also landed some film and television roles.
Harris’ family and high school pals will have a rare chance to see him locally when “West Side Story” opens Sept. 6 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Harris plays Tony, a young tough who falls for Maria, a girl from the other side of the cultural divide in 1950s New York. This is the touring version of the 2009 Broadway revival by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original “West Side Story” script.
We caught up with Harris on the road to talk about his journey so far and his feelings about coming back to O.C. to perform.
The Orange County Register: Were you a “West Side Story” fan before landing the role of Tony?
Kyle Harris: I wasn’t really not a fan, I just wasn’t into it in a big way; I’d never seen the movie or a production of it. I knew the music and the general story, and I knew that Tony was in my wheelhouse. Being a theater major, I was never really touched by it in any way. Until I was in rehearsals and we got to see the (new) Broadway production – then I started getting excited.
Register: How did you prepare for the role of a young streetwise teen in ’50s New York?
Harris: I never really looked at it as a challenge. I wanted to tell the story from my point of view and didn’t really bother with how anyone else told the story. The most important thing is having the audience believe that Tony and Maria are in love. I knew this was an iconic role. But at the same time it’s just a young guy in love.
Register: How are people around the country reacting to the revival? I understand there are some differences from the 1961 film everyone knows – there’s more Spanish, for example.
Harris: Playing around the country, you meet people who say, “Hey, you’re changing things, doing stuff they didn’t do in the movie.” I remind them, “You know, the stage version came first. And this was revised by the guy who wrote the original.”
Register: “West Side Story” never seems to lose its appeal, even though it’s well over 50 years old now. Why?
Harris: I think it’s because it’s sadly still relevant, these issues. Discrimination and people being afraid of things they don’t understand – that’s the story of the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets hate the Sharks because they can’t understand them. That still holds very true: People not liking something outside of their belief system.
Register: Is the language a challenge? Some people think it sounds a little dated and cheesy.
Harris: The script is definitely written in the fashion of the time. That’s a challenge for the actors: Making the dialogue believable and sounding like modern speech. It’s all about committing to the role and what you’re saying. If you do that, the rest will follow. There are so many more bad productions of “West Side Story” than good productions. It can become so cheesy and poorly executed. If you’re not giving everything to it, every ounce of passion, the audience will be able to call you on it. If you don’t believe Tony and Maria’s love story, the rest doesn’t matter. That was definitely the main focus of our director David Saint (he was associate director of the Broadway revival and helms the touring production). He wanted to cast actors rather than singers first and foremost. He’s after big emotions.
Register: Why did you go to Arizona to study theater?
Harris: I had to get out of Irvine. It came down to Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State. I went to Arizona and everything fell into place after that. It was a great program. Every show I did I was the lead in; it was awesome. I was blessed to do that. Real hands-on experience. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t gone there.
Register: Do you have any butterflies about playing in O.C.?
Harris: I sat in the theater thinking it was massive when I was a kid. I might be a little nervous on the other side, looking down on the audience. But the lights go out and you can only see the front row. Then every place seems the same!
Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or email@example.com
UA alum, energized by late director's praise, portrays Tony
'West Side Story' stamp of approval
Kathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star
Kyle Harris knows how lucky he is. The 2008 University of Arizona alumnus got an agent and an Equity card two days before he graduated.
He landed the lead in Arizona Theatre Company's "Hair" the next year, a role in "Sondheim by Sondheim" on Broadway after that, and now he is touring with "West Side Story," which Broadway in Tucson brings to Tucson next week.
It's not just any role - he plays the male lead, Tony, in the classic musical about warring gangs and the lovers caught between them.
And it's just not any production - this is the last show directed by the legendary Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the 1957 musical. Laurents was 93 when he died earlier this year. The revival hit Broadway in 2009 and praise and awards came its way.
Though the road show of the musical had Laurents' direction re-created by his co-director, David Saint, Laurents was involved with rehearsals.
At one of those rehearsals, he pulled Harris and the actress playing Maria, Ali Ewoldt, aside.
"He held our hands," recalled Harris, speaking by phone from Greenville, N.C., where the show was doing a run.
"He said, 'You two are the best Tony and Maria I've worked with. Your chemistry is so strong, and with that, the show soars.' It's unbelievable that we were in the last production he ever worked on. We knew we were in the presence of genius."
That little talk gave Harris the best gift he received from the great director:
"I'm getting to carry the torch for him. We are the living, breathing Arthur Laurents on stage. I'll always remember that when he directed this, he was happy with it."
That motivation carries over to his portrayal of Tony.
"I just want to make him as believable as possible," Harris said of the character.
"I want the audience to say, 'I know that guy,' or 'I am that guy.' I want them to remember the first time they fell in love; that they would do anything to make the love work. And I want them to be changed when they leave."
That said, this hasn't been an easy gig - most road shows aren't.
There are eight performances a week, a different city every week, and the day off - Monday - is usually a traveling day.
Harris has been doing the show on the road for a year.
"The music is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he said. "It's awesome because you get to sing these songs that everyone knows and loves. However, the reason it's so epic is because everything about it is so difficult."
About halfway through this tour, Harris said, "I was definitely hitting a wall. It tried my patience, and pushed me into thinking I couldn't do it. But I was able to push through it."
These days, he's completely energized and committed to the role and the show.
Part of that is because he's returning to Tucson, where he learned his craft and has so many friends and fans. But it's also because the end is near - after the Tucson run, the musical heads to Tempe for a week, and then Harris' contract ends and he's opted to not sign on for another tour.
He'll return to New York City and, he hopes, something less grueling.
"There are 26 television pilots filming in New York City now; that's more than ever," he said.
"I would love to land a pilot for a TV show. I still love theater, but I'm ready to do baby steps in TV."
From a Wildcat to a Jet
By JAZMINE WOODBERRY
Kyle Harris was an athlete in high school, until he followed a girl to the Arizona Repertory Theatre at the UA. Now he is ending a one-year stint as Tony in a national touring Broadway production of “West Side Story”.
As a soccer player, he came to the UA to see his girlfriend in a production of “Guys and Dolls” in 2004.
“I was blown away. I grew up as an athlete and a soccer player,” Harris said. “I had no idea young people were so capable of doing professional work.”
Harris said his reaction to the show was this: “It was like, ‘This is a college? This is a theater program in the desert? What?’ I didn’t expect any of this.”
Later that year, he went to audition for the UA’s theater program. It only took 15 minutes for the panel to decide he was in.
Four years and plenty of shows later, Harris graduated with Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater from the UA in 2008, and a week before graduation was casted in a show in Florida.
“It was exciting. I was already on my way to becoming a professional actor before I had graduated,” Harris said.
Harris couldn’t stay away from Arizona for long. After living in New York City for a month after the run of the Florida show, he saw Arizona Theater Company doing a rendition of “Hair” and jumped on board.
Soon, though, he was back in New York City, back to a pastime of many a struggling actor — a waiter.
And then there was Tony.
Premiering last September in Detroit, Harris is now on the last few stops of the national tour of “West Side Story” when the show stops in Tucson later this month, showcasing a cast that won a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album last year. He’s Tony.
“I just owe it all to the teachers and the experience to shape my career,” Harris said. “I think I had a lot of raw talent, it just needed to be honed, to be guided and polished.”
Harris said he’s most excited for things to come full circle — to share with his teachers and other students who came to see him in UA theater now get to see him professionally act and sing in “West Side Story.”
“It’s kind of my thank you card to Tucson,” Harris said.
Harris said he hopes to go back to New York with this credit on his resume and work on musical theater. He said he wants to eventually end up back in his home state of California, channeling his work on the stage into a film and TV career.
And for people trying to make it like him, Harris has one piece of advice: Be willing to starve for what you love.
“It’s the highest highs and the lowest low, and if you can get through the lowest lows and still have an appreciation for what you are doing, then you are meant to do it,” Harris said.
See Harris and company at the Tucson Music Hall for eight shows beginning on Sept. 20.
Acting wasn't Plan A for UA alum, 'West Side Story' star
by Kerry Lengel
The Arizona Republic
University of Arizona alum Kyle Harris is starring as Tony in the national tour of "West Side Story," but his real life sounds more like "High School Musical."
He was a jock growing up in Orange County, Calif., and planned to play soccer in college. But then he fell for a budding actress, who talked him into auditioning for a student production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods."
He was instantly hooked. So when the girl moved to Tucson to major in musical theater at University of Arizona, he followed on her heels.
"As soon as I got there we broke up, but of course that's a different story," he says.
Since graduation, Harris' ascent on the career ladder has been swift. He got his Equity union card -- an actor's version of going pro -- when Phoenix Theatre artistic director Michael Barnard cast him in "Dream a Little Dream: The Nearly True Story of the Mamas & the Papas," which he was directing for Florida Stage in West Palm Beach.
The next step was a move to New York City. But then his next big role brought him back -- that of Claude in Arizona Theatre Company's production of "Hair" three years ago.
"I slept in my bed one day and was on a plane to Arizona to do 'Hair,'" he says. "I had to sublet my apartment."
Back in New York, he got his first Broadway gig as an understudy in "Sondheim by Sondheim," which led directly to an audition for "West Side Story" when Sondheim himself recommended Harris as a "natural."
He also had an offer to take over the role of Sky in "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway, but he chose a year on the road, and a much more challenging part, instead.
"I've never worked with so many dancers in my life," he says. "And this show being one of the celebrated choreographic pieces in musical-theater history, getting to see these dancers from Juilliard do what they do every day, I was just blown away, thinking, 'I do not deserve to be here.'"
He may not have the dance chops to join the ballet, but his co-star in the national tour, Ali Ewoldt, agrees that he's a natural as a leading man.
"He's a guy," she says. "He brings such a natural charisma and masculinity to the part that possibly has been lacking in other incarnations.
"He and I met for the first time in my auditions. He was already cast, and he was kind of trying out different Marias, and we had an instant stage chemistry together. We really connected that way, and offstage we're great friends. We have a really good time together."
As for romantic chemistry, however, that is strictly for the stage.
"Opening night in Detroit, my boyfriend was sitting next to Kyle's girlfriend, which I think was very helpful, because they got to talk about it together and agree that what happens onstage is not real life," Ewoldt says. "But it is very interesting. You get to know people very well, not in a romantic sense, but, you know, they have onions for dinner, you can smell it. It's a lot of things that aren't very romantic, but hopefully looks so from the audience."
It may be strictly business, but Harris says that doesn't mean he can't have a good time pretending.
"I absolutely love it," he says. "My 'special skills' says, 'Excellent stage kisser.' If you throw me a girl onstage, I'll kiss her. It's the one little thing as a guy doing theater: Anybody that gives you a hard time, you say, 'Listen, I get paid to kiss girls onstage.'"