Vancouver Opera steps it up with Jerome Robbins' original choreography in West Side Story
When you put four geniuses together to create a musical based on the play of another genius, you get a piece of work that will remain relevant and compelling forever. West Side Story, produced by the Vancouver Opera and running at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from October 22-28, is a collaboration between composer Leonard Bernstein, Lyricist Stephen Sondheim in his Broadway debut, writer Arthur Laurents and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Based on Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet", the story of the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian working class Jets, rival gangs who gear up for a rumble amidst a doomed love story between former Jet Tony and protected younger sister of the leader of the Sharks, Maria, West Side Story debuted on Broadway in 1957.
The 1961 film directed by Robert Wise and Robbins starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn and Russ Tamblyn and won ten Academy Awards out of eleven nominations.
Robbins won the 1957 Tony Award for choreography for West Side Story and the Vancouver Opera’s production is remaining true to his choreography.
Choreographer Tracey Flye explained: “I’m doing the Jerome Robbins’ choreography just as his estate requires. Being on a list of choreographers who knows the original choreography and are accredited to do this show, this is not my first West Side Story. I was the associate choreographer at Stratford in 2009 where I learned the choreography from someone who had learned it from Robbins.”
Apparently, if you get creative with the staging and choreography, you can get fined. So Flye remains true to the original. “Honest to Pete, it’s some of the hardest choreography there is as it’s so technical and athletic. It doesn’t leave your body,” she said.
Referring to how she remembers the phrases of movement and how they correspond to the music, she took detailed notes the first time, but muscle memory takes over when she gets in that rehearsal hall again.
“It’s a privilege to do work that he set in 1957, as it's so amazing," said Flye. “ I work with a partner, an assistant, and reading the detailed notes helps clear up any discrepancies but when we work something together, it makes sense. You might need a refresher, but it’s in your body. [The performance] never leaves you.”
Bernstein’s rhythms are known for challenging singers and dancers as the time signature can change from bar to bar. Maria (Lucia Cesaroni), Tony (Colin Ainsworth) are opera singers while leads Riff, leader of the Jets (Scott Augustine), Bernardo, leader of the Sharks and Maria’s brother (Dani Jazzar) and Anita (Cleopatra Williams) need to be triple threats- singer/dancer/actors.
With 40 triple threats in the show gleaned from all across Canada, led by director Ken Cazan and VO’s chorus director and associate conductor Leslie Dala leading the 30 piece orchestra, the set design by Cameron Anderson has to accommodate huge dance numbers while placing the intimacy of a love story contextually. “That is the challenge of this piece because the dance numbers are so vast. We are recreating a fifties ghetto.”
Yes, this musical debuted in the fifties but Shakespeare’s timeless story still resonates.
“This story is incredibly relevant, “commented Flye. “The team started it in the late forties, after the second World War, when Bernstein, Robbins, and Laurents began working on a story about a liberal Catholic boy and a rich Upper East side Jewish girl called East Side Story.”
Not produced due to various issues at that time, the idea was tabled.
“During the fifties a huge influx of Puerto Ricans came to New York City. It was a time of gangs fighting over turf and there was lots of violence. The creative team decided to make West Side Story about two factions, two cultures who hate each other and are threatened by each other’s existence.”
Flye remains hopeful but realistic about the relevance of a story like West Side Story to future audiences. “Hopefully someday this kind of hatred will be history," she said. "But I don’t think so.”
Single tickets are available from the Vancouver Opera Ticket Centre, online at www.vancouveropera.ca, or by phone at 604-683-0222.Ticket packages for families are available for matinee performances of West Side Story; contact the Ticket Centre at 604-683-0222 for details.