By Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter
West Side Story
The Theatre, Solaire
Resort and Casino,
SIX DECADES AGO, a musical opened on Broadway tackling the issues of racism and gang violence wrapped in a tragic romance and decorated with snappy dance moves. At the time it premiered in 1957, news of gang violence abounded as the US was still grappling with the changes brought about by WWII.
Sixty years later, West Side Story is as relevant as ever in light of one of the most divisive times in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
“Maybe we haven’t learned any lessons,” mused Donald Chan, musical supervisor and principal conductor of the Manila leg of touring production during the media call shortly before the gala performance on Aug. 11.
This, he said, is what makes the musical relevant and a must-see, especially for the younger generation. He noted that one of the difficulties of mounting a half century-old musical is how it will interest the young as its lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and the estates of Jerome Robbins (book, director, and choreographer) and Leonard Bernstein (music) insist that everything from the music to the dances remain the same.
“People have flocked to this story and they see love in the show and they can see the hate in the show and they can see how people can get along, so it’s an idea that we hope is carried through,” he said.
A re-imagining of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet where the fair town of Verona translated into the concrete jungle of New York – the story opens with the conflict between two gangs, the Jetts, a white gang with Polish roots headed by Riff, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang headed by Bernardo.
Tensions rise as the Puerto Ricans arrived chasing the American Dream as the Jets saw the PRs (as they call them) as intruders. Along the way, the former Jets member Tony falls in love with Bernardo’s sister Maria, and tragedy ensues.
“The more I do the show, the more I realize [the character I’m playing]. If he didn’t start it, it would never have happened,” said Lance Hayes, who plays Riff. “If he just made time to really know the person, and I’m hit with the realization that this person (Bernardo) just got here and he (Riff) already hates him.”
While many might get distracted by the amazing dances that set this musical apart from others – the performers said they had to undergo months of intense dance classes – or the romance between Tony and Maria, what the audience is reminded of many times in the story, usually through the monologues of Lieutenant Schrank (played by Michael Scott), is that the entire issue here is racially motivated conflict.
In fact, “Somewhere” – the song which paints a dream paradise where everyone gets along set against the backdrop of the gang deaths – is more poignant in the light of the recent news of violence which erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia on the night of Aug. 11 when hundreds of white supremacists staged a rally protesting the removal of the statue of Confederate army icon Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. The violent rally, where the alt-right clashed with the anti-racist protesters, left a woman dead and dozens injured after a car rammed into a crowd of anti-protesters.
“This is one [show] that’s always going to be relevant… in the show, the message is you can handle the [differences] like the Jets and the Sharks do and let your fear of the unknown translate into violence or hatred, or do things the way Tony and Maria do and see the differences and embrace them,” said Jenna Burns who plays Maria.
“If we can touch a single person and the message gets passed on, then we’ve done our job,” she noted.
That alone makes West Side Story worth watching a few times over.
West Side Story’s ticket prices range from P1,500 to P7,000 and are available through TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph).