West Side Story has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I first saw the film at age seven and I was utterly transfixed. It captivated me then and the strength of its grip has not weakened over time.
Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled when I heard West Side Story (WSS) had been chosen as COCA’s 2018 Summer Musical, and I was equally thrilled to be asked to direct. The story is as relevant today as it was in 1957, or one could say as relevant as it was in the 16th century. In 1947, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents (and eventually a young Stephen Sondheim) put their considerably gifted heads together to create a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They wanted to translate the enmity and beautiful romance captured in Shakespeare’s tragedy to a working-class neighborhood in Manhattan. Rather than Montagues and Capulets at one another’s throats, they ultimately pitted against one another two street gangs made up of immigrants of different ethnicities at the heart of the story’s conflict. The two gangs are the Jets and the Sharks, made up of a mixture of European immigrants and Puerto Rican immigrants respectively.
The manifold relevance of the themes touched on throughout WSS make it an ideal piece to explore in an educational context. The story is populated with teenagers full of angst, confusion, passion and conflict, emotional shades readily available to our student’s psyches. Couple that with themes of race, bigotry, immigration, tribalism, young love, and you have a virtual gold mine of relevant touching points for a cast such as ours to explore.
Finally, it’s not simply that the characters and themes are so accessible and relevant, but that these characters and themes are etched in a work so masterfully rendered. The musical beauty and brilliance of WSS is, in my opinion, unparalleled thanks to Bernstein and Sondheim. The book is economical, lively and crystal clear thanks to Arthur Laurents. The opportunity for engaging and dynamic movement and choreography is all built on the blueprint laid by the genius of Jerome Robbins. In sum, it is one thing to explore “relevant” subject matters, but it is quite another to explore said relevant matters through such a lush vehicle.
COCA is a unique educational playground in which to mount this production. We get students from all over the Metropolitan area and even beyond. The cast is diverse in almost every way imaginable: racially, ethnically, socio-economically, experientially. Some of the students have been in dance class, music lessons and on stage since they were children, for others this is their first play. It is that diversity that makes this production so exciting.
Creating theatre is a context for creating community, and these young people have done just that. It is a joy to introduce the next generation of theatre artists to this sublime material along with Choreographer Chris Page-Saunders and Musical Director Ron McGowan. It is equally delightful to watch these young people collaborate, create, and connect as they form friendships with people they might have otherwise never met. That is the beauty of West Side Story and that is the power of creating Theatre.
Jim Butz is the director of West Side Story.
West Side Story runs July 27-28 at the Edison Theatre on Washington University’s campus. Purchase tickets here