ON THE mean streets of New York’s Upper West Side, where rival gangs jostle for territory, and will fight dirty for it, where newly arrived immigrants compete among themselves - and against other ethnicities - to survive in a society hostile to them, two young people fall in love.
Tony and Maria’s love is a romance in the eye of a hurricane. He is a member of The Jets, a gang of European immigrants who resent the presence of the newly arrived Sharks, a gang from Puerto Rico, led by Bernardo, the brother of Maria - star crossed lovers in a dangerous turf war.
This is West Side Story, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by two of musical theatre’s heavyweights - composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. First staged on Broadway in 1957, it will be performed by The Galway Patrician Musical Society in the Town Hall Theatre next month.
“It’s a classic, it has something for everybody” declares GPMS committee member Helen Cooke. “Over the last few years we’ve developed a marvellous company of wonderful singers and dancers and you couldn’t find a better musical to showcase their talents. I think of it as an opera. It has great songs, huge dance numbers, and you have to be really good to deliver it, and this cast we have is that good.”
“It’s an old story that people will never get tired of,” says Declan Gardner, the choreographer for the show, who also plays the role of Bernardo. “There is always something fresh people can find in it. The music is just phenomenal and just brings out the emotions of it all. It really grasps you. The music is a character in itself in the show.”
‘We’re gonna cut ‘em down to size’
As with any classic musical, West Side Story features songs that have taken on a life outside the show itself, and indeed they seldom come bigger than the exuberant ‘America’ - one of musical theatre’s greatest numbers. “That’s the one people are going to be waiting for,” says Declan.
The song, which on the surface appears almost jingoistic, in fact captures the mixed feelings of the Puerto Rican emigrants towards their new home. “The song starts with a naïve young girl who says that life in America is wonderful, but her friends remind her of the prejudices and hardships they face and how they still have nothing,” says Declan. “In turn she replies that they had nothing in Puerto Rico but here they may have a chance, that it’s still better than the lives they left behind.”
That struggle to make something of life in a big city is made no easier by those who resent the newcomers’ presence. “The Jets and The Sharks are marked out by the clothes they wear,” says Declan. “The Jets dress in chinos and white T-shirts. The Puerto Ricans wear tailored suits as they feel it marks them out as people of worth. In reality, both groups have nothing. The Jets have been in New York longer and feel they own the streets. The battles are all territorial.”
Those rivalries, and their underlying violence, explode in the dramatic ‘The Rumble’ scene where The Jets and The Sharks face each other in a vicious street battle. It is also a major turning point in West Side Story, and it will be a key scene for Declan, as Bernardo.
“Bernardo is the leader of The Sharks,” says Declan. “His woman is Anita and she looks out for Maria, Bernardo’s younger sister. At Maria’s first dance at the gym, she meets Tony. That does not wash with Bernardo. The script says they have only arrived a month in New York and already they are being taunted and beaten up by The Jets. Eventually Bernardo organises a ‘rumble’. He thinks it will be an evenly matched fight, but he ends up having to take on someone twice his size - Biff, The Jets leader. So Bernardo produces a knife and through an intricate series of manoeuvres, there are two deaths and Tony becomes responsible for one of them.
“It is a really intense scene. You need to be so angry doing it. Everybody has to be gunning for each other. Each actor needs to know what direction the other is going to fall in so we can pick him up and send him back into the fight. The tension has to keep rising so that when the knife is produced it gets higher, and when the stabbing takes place it should still come as a shock to the audience. The first act ends with two dead bodies left lying on the stage for the cops to find as the gang run.”
‘Such a pretty face’
A more innocent side of the lives of the characters is captured in another of the show’s iconic songs - ‘I Feel Pretty’ which Maria sings after falling in love with Tony, unaware that dark forces have already conspired to doom their romance.
“Her friends tell her she’s crazy,” says Declan. “Maria’s truly in love and hopes to elope with Tony. She has no idea her boyfriend has just murdered her brother. There is a great energy in that scene. The characters featured in it are all very different. They are not carbon copies of typical teenage girls, they all have their own personalities. One is rather silly, another is very sharp. There is a lot of quick comedy before and after that song.”
West Side Story was turned into a film in 1961 and went on to win 10 Oscars. Among its most celebrated features are the dance scenes choreographed by Jerome Robbins, which Declan admits have influenced his own choreography for the GPMS production.
“Robbins’ choreography is so iconic that you have to use some of the moves that are associated with it,” he says. “Even you saw the dances but heard no music, you would still know it was West Side Story. That said, you do bring you own ideas and movements into it and you have to remember that not everybody is a professional dancer, so you have to work within that. The gym scene is where we get to feature dance moves that have some Cuban, mambo, and salsa influences, and for our dancers and singers, you couldn’t ask for better than the music in West Side Story.”
West Side Story runs from Tuesday March 3 to Saturday 7 at 8pm with a matinée on March 7 at 2.30pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie