A fresh take on ‘West Side Story’
Maui Chamber Orchestra gains rare chance to present production in concert
Just after World War II, choreographer-director Jerome Robbins approached composer Leonard Bernstein and writer Arthur Laurents about collaborating on a contemporary musical based on “Romeo and Juliet.” Robbins suggested changing the classic love tragedy to focus upon an Irish-Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant girl was conceived as a Holocaust survivor and the conflict was to be centered on anti-Semitism by the Catholic “Jets” during the Easter-Passover season. The original title was “East Side Story.”
The project was tabled for close to a decade until Bernstein proposed, while in Los Angeles with Laurents in 1955, that they reset “East Side Story” in East Los Angeles with a focus on the Mexican community. Laurents felt more familiar with New York Puerto Rican immigrants, and when the two contacted Robbins to discuss that new direction, he was ecstatic about a musical with a Latin beat. Eventually a very young Stephen Sondheim was added to the dream team as lyricist.
Bernstein composed the music to “West Side Story” and the American opera “Candide” at the same time, and the material was frequently exchanged between both productions. “One Hand, One Heart” was originally composed for “Candide,” as was the music that became “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The story was eventually placed in the ethnic, blue-collar Upper West Side neighborhood, prompting the title change. Ironically by the early 1960s that West Side neighborhood was transforming to accommodate the new Lincoln Center. It has since evolved into a mostly upper-class neighborhood and home to several elite private schools, museums and concert halls.
This weekend, the Maui Chamber Orchestra celebrates the 60th anniversary of “West Side Story,” as it becomes one of only five orchestras in the world granted the rights to present the production in concert. The show will bring to the stage some of Maui’s best singers and actors, including Lia Krieg-DeSouza, Kathryn Holtkamp, Ricky Jones, Hoku Pavao Jones, Leighanna Locke, Lin McEwan and David Tuttle along with Tully O’Reilly, Isaac Rauch, Shawn Naone-Berger, Stephen Webb and many more.
In the story, Tony (Ricky Jones) dreams “Something’s Coming” and sings “Could be. Who knows?” I asked Maui Chamber Orchestra conductor Robert E. Wills how the project came about.
“Three years ago, I started talking about the idea that there are a whole bunch of musicals that are not done because the production cost is too high,” he said. “So, the idea came about to do a musical in concert series, but which one do we start with? I took out several people in the theater community, but then I talked to Ally Shore, who suggested ‘West Side Story.’ The minute she said the word ‘West,’ that was it, I knew that we had to do ‘West Side Story.’ It is the best musical of all musicals — from a music point of view.”
Because the production is a concert version, nontraditional casting was a possibility. I asked Shore, the director of “West Side Story,” about the choice of color-blind casting.
“Since this was approached as a concert and a celebration of the music, we felt it was an opportunity for people who might not normally be cast in a role to have a chance to play that role,” she said. “This wasn’t necessarily just a color-blind thing. It was an opportunity for a non-dancer, a non-actor or someone who might not physically be your immediate idea of the character.”
In 1957, “West Side Story” was bestowed the highest critical praise. “This is a bold new kind of musical theatre — a juke-box Manhattan opera,” observed the New York Daily News, and Time Magazine praised the musical as a “milestone in musical-drama history … combining the classic and the hip … capturing the angry voice of urban youth.” Despite its revolutionary impact, not unlike last season’s “Hamilton,” “West Side Story” received very few Tonys while up against the more traditional “The Music Man” in 1957. It would take the 1961 film version for it to begin to be recognized as an American classic, winning 10 Academy Awards that year.
But getting the Maui rights for 2017 was no easy task for MCO. Maestro Wills wrote to Music Theater International, only to be denied by its Hawaii representative because the rights holders didn’t want it performed in concert.
“Me being me,” said Wills, “what I hear in that is ‘the rights holders,’ and that he wasn’t the rights holder, just the messenger. So, I call the Leonard Bernstein office and was put in touch with the vice president of MTI, Richard Salvas. We struck up an email conversation and I said I only want to do it in concert. So he says, ‘We’ll give you the license,’ but sends me the license to just the songs. I wrote him back and said, ‘I can’t do this’. If I’m not doing the Prologue, the Dance at the Gym, the Rumble, the Ballet Sequence, the Procession and Nightmare, the Haunting and the Finale, I’m not doing a decent job of presenting the show.”
Salvas asked Wills what he was planning on doing with the climactic and deadly rumble scene.
“Richard, bear with me for a moment,” replied Wills. “When ‘Jaws’ was being filmed, (Steven) Spielberg could not get the mechanical shark to work right, so he decided to put on scuba gear. He went out under the water, and when the naked girl went out swimming in the moonlight, he grabbed her leg and pulled her underneath the water. She wasn’t aware that he was going to do that, so he got that real visceral reaction from her.
“People who saw that movie said that they were more scared of a shark that they couldn’t see than the one they could. As iconic as Jerome Robbins’ choreography was, no matter what you do, you don’t have a real rumble. Without the dancers on stage, and people just listening to the music, they may hear it as more violent than it is when you watch a stylized version of a rumble,” shared Wills.
MCO would have to cross its fingers that Wills’ case struck a chord with Salvas.
Wills said, “Two weeks later, I got an email saying, ‘You have the rights to do the entirety of ‘West Side Story’ in concert.’ Then, two days later, I got an email from Richard’s boss, the senior vice president of MTI, saying, ‘I regret to inform you that Richard has passed away.’ He died almost immediately after they gave us the rights!”
The first orchestra to present “West Side Story” in its entirety was the San Francisco Symphony in 2014, followed by the New York Philharmonic in 2016. For the 60th anniversary in 2017, only three additional orchestras were granted this prestigious license — the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cincinnati Pops, and believe it or not, the Maui Chamber Orchestra.
“For people who have seen ‘West Side Story’ before, they’ve never heard it with a 40-piece orchestra, ever, even if you’ve seen it on Broadway, you’ve never seen it with a 40-piece orchestra. We’ve been rehearsing since the beginning of February; it’s perfect, you don’t want to miss this,” Wills said.
Also this week
BAMP presents comedian Nick Swardson in concert.
* The performance is tonight at 7:30 in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului. Tickets range from $30 to $50 in advance (plus applicable fees) and are available at the box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.
Seabury Hall Performing Arts concludes its season with the 21st annual “Side Shows,” a wild array of 10-minute plays.
* Performances will be at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the ‘A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center at the school’s campus in Makawao. Admission is free, with donations welcomed.
Rick Bartalini presents Trevor Noah, the award-winning host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” in concert. Seats still remain for the 10 p.m. performance on May 25 in Castle Theater at the MACC.
* Tickets range from $79.50 to $99.50 (plus applicable fees) and are available at the box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.