'It threw off the shackles': How a modern take on Romeo and Juliet paved the way for Hamilton
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'It threw off the shackles': How a modern take on Romeo and Juliet paved the way for Hamilton

Six decades is a long time to live with an attention seeker, but Jamie Bernstein has only kind words to say about her younger, showier sibling.

The latest incarnation of the romantic duo: Julie Lea Goodwin and Alexander Lewis.

The latest incarnation of the romantic duo: Julie Lea Goodwin and Alexander Lewis.Credit:Janie Barrett

“I was five when it came out so I can barely remember a time in my life when we didn’t have West Side Story around us,” she says. “We love our fourth sibling, but I bet our Dad got impatient with his fourth child because it got so much attention at the expense of all those other children he composed.”

The daughter of the musical's composer Leonard Bernstein, she was too young to watch knife fights and shootings between rival New York City gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, when the musical opened on Broadway in 1957.

Bernstein, whose memoir Famous Father Girl was published last year, had listened to the cast album but she says “the penny didn’t really drop” until she saw the Oscar-winning 1961 movie version of Maria (played by Natalie Wood but sung by Marni Nixon) and Tony’s ill-fated love story.

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“When you’re a 10-year-old girl, you’re just so full of romantic fantasies so I was completely immersed in the love story,” Jamie says.

Critics lavished the musical with praise for its innovative choreography, sophisticated music and social commentary.

“The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning,” wrote Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune.

But it was the Romeo and Juliet-inspired story of young lovers caught in the crossfire of warring gangs that won the attention of Bernstein and her peers.

“Among the kids I knew, the boys liked the fighting and the girls liked the love story,” she says.

"Indeed an unusual show", commented the Queen when she saw the show in London with Princess Margaret in 1959.

"Indeed an unusual show", commented the Queen when she saw the show in London with Princess Margaret in 1959.

It has been a long time since teenage gangs fought turf wars on the gentrified streets of New York’s Upper West Side.

But Opera Australia is counting on the Jets and the Sharks attracting audiences to the stage floating on Sydney Harbour as well as a separate production that will be staged concurrently in Melbourne before opening at the Opera House in August, directed by Joey McKneely, a protege of the original choreographer Jerome Robbins.

“I didn’t know they were doing [the touring production] until recently,” confesses Francesca Zambello, who will direct the outdoor production of West Side Story. “But I think ‘Whatever, cool’.”

Zambello directed the inaugural Opera on Sydney Harbour’s production of La Traviata in 2012, describing the experience of watching an outdoor performance is “magical”.

But some elements are beyond the director’s control.

“When it comes together with perfect weather and the sound is great and the wind’s not blowing and an airplane is not flying overhead, it’s amazing,” she says.

The challenges of performing outdoors pale in comparison to the hurdles faced by West Side Story prior to its Broadway premiere.

The show was initially conceived in 1947 when choreographer Jerome Robbins sought out Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about collaborating on a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet featuring rivalry between Catholic and Jewish families living on the lower east side of Manhattan.

But East Side Story was shelved over creative differences for years until the men decided to relocate the story, with the Sharks and Jets taking the place of Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues.

Narelle Yeo, a senior lecturer in opera production and vocal studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, says West Side Story expanded the music theatre genre by borrowing from the world of opera.

“Robbins wanted to ensure that Bernstein didn’t write an opera,” she says. “While it is strictly musical theatre and not through-composed, some operatic elements are evident in the cathartic libretto and frequent use of a tessitura most suited for lyrical singing.”

Yeo says the musical was an expensive risk when it premiered against the family-friendly The Music Man, which won the Tony Award for best musical in 1957.

“It also lost its first producer before it opened,” she says. “Robbins had notoriously perfecting standards, and performers were required to act, dance and sing with a high degree of competency in each discipline. This is now commonplace in musical theatre, but was rare in the 1950s.”

Yeo also points to the fraught politics of the era when a number of people in the entertainment industry were investigated for communist sympathies.

“The four creatives who developed West Side Story - Bernstein, Robbins, Laurents and [Stephen] Sondheim - were New York-based Jewish, gay men, three of whom were politically active and caught up in the House Un-American Activity Committee hearings,” she says.

Composer Leonard Bernstein in 1965.

Composer Leonard Bernstein in 1965.Credit:Malcolm Holmes

Choreographer and associate director Julio Monge says the elevation of dancers to principal performers was a departure from their previously limited role in musicals such as Carousel or Oklahoma.

Monge says the musical’s portrayal of ethnic tension in New York City was a radical departure from what audiences were used to seeing on the stage.

“The 1950s was an escapist era for America, especially for the Broadway entertainment business,” he says. “Things were light, people didn’t want to go to deep.”

Joey McKneely in an early production of West Side Story.

Joey McKneely in an early production of West Side Story.

Tyran Parke, the head of music theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts, agrees the musical developed the genre. He says the blockbuster musical Hamilton owes its existence to West Side Story.

“It threw off the shackles inherited through the origins of musical theatre – vaudeville and revue - and replaced it with a new kind of story, told with a dramatic integrity not seen before,” he says. “For the first time dance was a primary caretaker of narrative, not just a light-hearted diversion.”

Parke says the show’s dance sequences told much of the story “and yet I think the choreography, though brilliant, does threaten to make it a museum piece”.

“As creative artists our job is to re-encounter and re-invent a piece according to our world, not recreate the past,” he says.

Zambello says her outdoor production is not an update of the 1957 musical, but will give “it an edge that makes it feel more contemporary”.

She adds: “The original was in a teeny proscenium theatre. We’re on a space the size of a football stadium. Of course it’s going to be radically different.”

The large stage - open to the weather and with no wings to hide from the audience, also requires changes to how the dancers move, Monge says. “It’s not the nice surface you would have in a theatre, It’s a floor that holds the dancers back so I cannot have any slides really because it will rip their skin apart.”

Zambello says the set evokes modern New York, with iconic architectural symbols such as the Statue of Liberty and subway carriages covered in graffiti.

Graffiti covered subway carriages will bring New York to Sydney harbour.

Graffiti covered subway carriages will bring New York to Sydney harbour.Credit:Steven Siewert

She is adamant the musical is not an exercise in nostalgia and “feels even more contemporary” in an era riven with gun violence and divisive debates about immigration and refugees.

“I keep thinking the world’s going to get better and it’s not,” she says.

Mark Gaal, the director of vocational studies at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, attributes the enduring popularity of the musical to the drama that envelops its love story.

“Updating Romeo and Juliet and contemporising the racial and generational tensions at its core captured audience’s imaginations as much as it’s astonishing score and dance,” he says.

The politics of West Side Story are as significant as its music and dance, he says. “Connecting its passionate, ostracised characters to our own world is as crucial to its success as realising the score. If you rob West Side Story of its very real and painful characters tensions, it falls apart.”

Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin will play Maria on Sydney Harbour after winning acclaim for the role in a 2010 production, while tenor Alexander Lewis plays Tony.

The casting of Maria, the sister of Sharks’ gang leader Bernardo, has proven controversial overseas, with Broadway performer Sierra Boggess withdrawing from a concert performance of West Side Story in London last year after complaints about whitewashing a role that is meant to be Puerto Rican.

Parke says he is a fan of Goodwin and calls her Maria a “delight”. But he says colour-conscious casting is a complex question, and “rightfully under much scrutiny”.

“In my position as head of a prominent music theatre course at a major university I can tell you, our students - and the younger generation in general - care about this a lot and are boycotting productions that don’t acknowledge the requirement to offer minorities the roles they deserve,” he says.

Sondheim initially expressed concern about his ignorance of Puerto Rican culture and experience with poverty, according to Frances Negron-Muntaner in Feeling Pretty: West Side Story and Puerto Rican Identity Discourses.

“I can’t do this show,” he said. “I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even met a Puerto Rican.”

Negron-Muntaner says the musical’s depiction of Puerto Rican characters is regarded by some commentators as promoting racial stereotypes.

“And what did the ‘real’ Puerto Rican, Anita, do in the film?” asked journalist Blanca Vázquez in Puerto Ricans and the Media: A Personal Statement. “She not only was another Latina ‘spitfire,’ she also sang a song denigrating Puerto Rico and by implication, being Puerto Rican ... I remember seeing it and being ashamed.”

West Side Story has been a fixture on stages around the world since 1957, including one floating on a lake for Austria's Bregenz Festival in 2003 that was directed by Zambello.

Her 2018 production of West Side Story for the Houston Grand Opera ended up inside a convention centre after Hurricane Harvey damaged the city’s opera theatre.

But the musical’s reach extends beyond Sydney Harbour and Texas: a Broadway revival of West Side Story, with new choreography, is scheduled to open in December 2019, while Monge will stage productions in Tokyo and Puerto Rico.

Sophie Salvesani and Todd Jacobsson as Tony in Opera Australia's touring   production of West Side Story.

Sophie Salvesani and Todd Jacobsson as Tony in Opera Australia's touring production of West Side Story.

Hollywood is also taking on the musical, with a new version directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring relatively unknown 17-year-old Rachel Zegler as Maria.

The original Australian production of West Side Story opened in 1960 at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre before touring to the Tivoli in Sydney, which The Sydney Morning Herald said left the audience “limp with exhausted tension”.

“From the moment that the rival gangs of Jets and Sharks shrug themselves into action at the beginning of the first act the stage is rarely at peace from stealthy tension, explosive gaiety, and acrobatic pummelling.”

However, the show reportedly lost its promoter Garnet Carroll £30,000, according to Amanda Card, a senior lecturer in performance studies at the University of Sydney.

A 2009 Broadway revival included Spanish lyrics and dialogue by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who later created Hamilton, with the production translated in other languages including German, French and Cantonese.

The musical also inspired the parody short film West Bank Story about the owners of rival felafel restaurants, Kosher King and Hummus Hut, in the West Bank, which won an Academy Award in 2007.

But a production proposed by a Hollywood mogul and featuring Michael Jackson as Tony did not find favour from Bernstein’s estate.

Jamie Bernstein estimates she has seen at least 50 stage productions of the musical: “I think I enjoy myself the most when I see it performed in a high school.

“Sure it’s rough around the edges, but the energy they bring to the performance is so authentic and they get so invested in the story because they’re living it,” she says. “They are the age of those characters.”

West Side Story on Sydney Harbour runs from March 22 to April 21; the touring production is at the Sydney Opera House from August 16 to October 6. West Side Story is at the Arts Centre Melbourne from April 6 to 28.

Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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