Sunday, December 12, 2010

West Side Story

Michael Brenner for BR Promotion GMBH, Howard Panter for Ambassador Theatre Group, The Bartner group, Norman Tulchin, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions & David Atkins Enterprises present WEST SIDE STORY at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

LAURENTS, BERNSTEIN, SONDHEIM, ROBBINS, four greats of the American Musical Theatre.

Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins and WEST SIDE STORY. Five reasons for one's heart to skip beats with anticipation on entering not just the auditorium of the theatre but just, even, into the foyer.

And this revival production directed by Joey McKneely; Musical Supervision and Direction by Donald Chan; Choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely; Set Design by Paul Gallis; Costume Design by Renate Schmitzer; Sound Design by Rick Clarke and Lighting Design by Peter Hals delivers in still spine rippling waves of pleasure.

That this company of performers are good rather than great does not diminish the pleasure of this experience but rather baits the appetite to yearn to see it in a stellar casting - if that is ever possible. For all of the elements of the original production are of such a ' fantastic' (meant as "incredibly great"), sublime potency that magic is inevitably possible when all drawn together. The 1961 film is a remarkable case in point - projected onto the big screen with full symphonic volume it has, still, great kick and punch - all of those elements expertly drawn together by another 'genius', the film director, Robert Wise.

This famous musical uses the Shakespeare ROMEO AND JULIET as inspiration but translates it into American contemporary terms (1950's) so that it becomes the story of two star-crossed lovers from ethnically opposed street gangs, The Jets and The Sharks. It replaces the power figures of the Prince and family with that of the police and alters the ending to only the death of Tony (Romeo) and to the heart-breaking monologue of Maria (Juliet), alive, and pleading for civilised understanding and perhaps tribal reconciliation. Wheras," ROMEO AND JULIET is conceived as a Liebestod, WEST SIDE STORY is a social document" (Norris Houghton). This is still its great power as an emotional experience in the theatre, both hauntingly Shakespearean and yet achingly, tragically, of our times, Arthur Laurent.

"WEST SIDE STORY appropriated the substance of a European classic even as it updated and Americanized it, yet changed its meaning utterly by replacing the courtly society of the original with a contemporary society rent by urban anxiety, underclass rivalry, and ethnic hatred". Arthur Laurents "wrote a drama that moved swiftly and not without humour towards its tragic end. It was muscular and unusually lean ... For Shakespeare's characters were inescapably verbal creatures while WEST SIDE STORY's teen-age toughs were hard pressed to put their feelings into words. Laurents gave them a jargon (a slanguage!) of their own, but their instinctive mode of communicating was less verbal than it was geared to the senses and above all physical." (1)

The greatest ingredient of this enterprise, for me, is the score by Leonard Bernstein. From the first great blaring, pulsing notes of the opening ballet to the orchestral exit music blasting, after the curtain call (how can one exit/lleave one's seat while this orchestra under the guidance of Musical Director and Conductor, Vanessa Scammell, plays thrillingly on, with great vigour, now, that it is just the musicians in unleashed spotlight, is beyond me? I was pinioned with awe to my seat by the sheer vivacity of the music sounds and energy of the musicians), one is grabbed and held breathlessly with excitement, anxiety and ultimately grief. The throbbing chords of the finale over the body of Tony as it is carried, jerks the tears out of one, physically, forcibly.

"Bernstein wrote a score that caught the teenagers' alienation and restlessness in a musical language of angular melodies, dissonant harmonies, and cross-rhythms. It was a language new to Broadway and he filtered it through a variety of contemporary styles - from neo-classic Stravinsky ( "A Boy Like That") to Latin ("The Dance at the Gym") to modern jazz ("Cool") - but in ways still accessible to listeners more attuned to the traditional to the sounds of show music." (1). That this score filled with music and lyrics that are part of one's own subliminal vernacular: SOMETHING'S COMING; MARIA; TONIGHT; AMERICA; I FEEL PRETTY; SOMEWHERE; GEE, OFFICER KPUPKE, always awakened when the music indicates, is testament to creativity that is truly great. The combination of music that was dance, music theatre scoring and operatic demands, reflects the ambition and achievement of this score. That Bernstein "…also knew when not to set a lyric to music - even one meant for the dramatic climax of the show where music was expected" as at the lament of Maria over the body of Tony, is further proof of Mr Bernstein's capacity. I tried to set it very bitterly, understated, swift. "I tried giving all the material to the orchestra and having her sing an obbligato throughout. I tried a version that sounded just like a Puccini aria, which we really did not need. I never got past six bars with it. I never had an experience like that. Everything sounded wrong. [And so] I made a difficult, painfully but surgically clean decision not to set it at all'." (1)

That "Bernstein further unified his score by continuing where most Broadway composers normally left off and writing his own dance music. And with five ballets and several smaller choreographed numbers in the show, there was much dance music to write."
And this is where the next genius enters: Jerome Robbins. What struck me powerfully the other night, was the physical storytelling and the huge amount of it that often substituted verbal altercation, to move the story on.

"Robbins had conceived WEST SIDE STORY in the spirit of the ballet - one with a story, dialogue, and songs - a ballet d'action. In addition, Robbins presided over the execution of WEST SIDE STORY as both choreographer of the show and its director... Robbin's double function had far-flung consequences. In hiring performers, for example, he did not cast separately for actors, a singing chorus, and a chorus of dancers, as was customary, but for dancers who could do it all: dance, sing and act. This enabled him to realize a production concept that blurred the boundaries between what was acted and what was danced so that the narrative of the show might proceed by moving freely between musical and non-musical staging. Everything was so fluidly staged and in such a constant state of stylistic motion, in fact, that there were few clearly defined moments in WEST SIDE STORY when physical action could be said to stop and danced movement to begin... 'The opening is musical: half-danced, half-mimed' the script now reads. 'It is primarily a condensation of the growing rivalry between two teen-age gangs'. Thus, before an intelligible sentence has been uttered onstage, or a phrase of music sung, dance conveyed the show's dramatic action with Robbin's choreography stylizing streetwise moves and gestures to show the rivalry develop… And so the show proceeded throughout, in ever shifting balances and combinations of theatricalizing modes: ballet, film, play, musical comedy, opera" (1) "What made Jerry's (Robbins) touch individual and so brilliant were his humour and his use of dance to express emotion. He would not choreograph dance as dance, he had to know what the dancing was about." (2).

This was revolutionary and, of course, makes this musical a taxing chore to cast every time it is re-staged. The demands for all of the performers are hugely difficult and truly demands the almost fabled "creature" of the theatre, the Triple Threat: that is, the actor, singer, dancer, with all three skills equal to the highest of standards. They are truly, in my experience as an audience, extremely RARE. Usually two of the skills, whatever the mix, but hardly ever the three.This is true of most of this company. Two skills and a laggard, sometimes too obvious, third.

So we come to the last of these great collaborators, Stephen Sondheim. Famously Sondheim is very disparaging of most of this work, in this his first Broadway musical. He began with Bernstein as co-lyricist and "immediate causes for disagreement were the lyrics Bernstein had already written". Says Sondheim "He wrote a lyric for a tune,' I Have a Love.' His lyric was - it's hard for me to do with a straight face -' Once in your life, only once in your life/Comes a flash of fire and light.' Wait for it! 'And there stands your love/ The harvest of your years.' That was his idea of poetry."(2). Bernstein's purple passages of language were an embarrassment and always a struggle to overcome.

Arthur Laurents talks of the work method of Sondheim: "Using only the outline, Lenny wrote bits of lyrics as well as sketches of music without waiting for the first scene to be written. Not Steve. I always wrote ahead and he waited because before Stephen Sondheim wrote a lyric, he had to know the characters, their diction, the situation. That known, he wrote lyrics that could be sung only by the characters they were written for at that moment - one of the many reasons he is unsurpassed as a lyricist." (3).

Today, nearly sixty years on, the lyrics of this show are part of one's vernacular and the words of most of the songs spring immediately to the tongue when the music triggers the memory. Both entwined indelibly into the psyche of any musical theatre goer. The wit and passion of the lyrics: AMERICA; GEE OFFICER KRUPKE; MARIA; SOMEWHERE unforgettable.

"The happy result of the collaboration on WEST SIDE STORY owed as much to the nature of the collaboration as to the talents it comprised We enjoyed being together: we liked each other...We admired, we challenged each other, we respected each other's opinion as well as each other’s work." (3). A lesson for all aspiring creators. If you read the many and varied accounts of the creation of this work this is the general gist of the working relationships. True, there are many anecdotes of struggle and angst as well! Worth it, if this is the result.

This revival production is encased in new designs. The original scenic art by Oliver Smith has been replaced by Paul Gallis' selection of photographs of period New York, towering majestically over all, on the back cyclorama, framed by two large hinged walls of skeletal tenement walls and fire escapes, that sit on the sides or dominate across the stage to support the scenes. The lighting is dramatic and always persuasively accurate in creating the shifting moods of the narrative. The fluid movement of the story is served well by the ingenuity of the design. The costumes are contemporary and have a freshness about them that may slightly undermine the socio-economic reality of the world of the characters. Slightly too 'pop' to be believable or anchoring in real references for the world of the play- a little too scenic art for my taste.

The performances by the company are energised and fully concentrated. I felt the supporting work in the adult roles were outstanding in their small opportunities. Frank Garfield as Doc anchoring the world of the gang, Jets, remarkably, and drawing a fine line of judgement with the sentimentality of the scenes. Berynn Schwerdt in a brief cameo as Glad Hand also hits the mark with the accuracy and insight to his character. I also was impressed with the singing and acting of Julie Goodwin as Maria and the vivacious attack and energy of Alinta Chidzey as Anita. The duet, A BOY LIKE THAT/I HAVE A LOVE between Maria and Anita outstanding. The AMERICA song and dance especially memorable.

A recent feast of musicals for me. MARY POPPINS and HAIRSPAY, two shows I can and have highly recommended. However, when one meets and experiences WEST SIDE STORY one appreciates the greatness of collaborative genius and are placed in an admiring appreciation of the comparative quality of achievement. WEST SIDE STORY is over sixty years old and will never date in any of its outstanding qualities and will remain a benchmark for all who work in that genre of the theatre to aspire too.

Timeless and great.

Notes from:
1. SHOWTIME by Larry Stempel. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
2. STEPHEN SONDHEIM by Meryle Secrest. Alfred A. Knopf,Inc, 1998.
3. ORIGINAL STORY by Arthur Laurents. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
4. LEONARD BERNSTEIN by Humphrey Burton. Doubleday, 1994.
5. The theatre program notes.

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