Monday, July 28, 2008

West Side Story returns to London

West Side Story, one of the world's best-loved musicals, has returned to London 50 years after its UK debut.

The story's focus on social problems made it a landmark in musical theatre when it opened in New York in September 1957.

Packed with memorable songs, the new production at Sadler's Wells adopts choreography from the original Broadway show but with new costumes and set design.

But it is the storyline of menacing aggression and gangland culture that is likely to strike fresh chords.

'Event' theatre

Based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, critics could barely contain their excitement when West Side Story first arrived on Broadway.

This was "event" theatre. Critics talked about how the new work would influence the course of musical productions.

What had not been done before was the idea of making the dancing and music, integral to the plot rather than an add-on, for the sake of entertainment.

It also saw the musical genre tackling dark and difficult subjects, such as social problems, immigration and gang violence.

But its crowning glory was the rousing score by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim's brilliant lyrics and Jerome Robbins' iconic choreography.

West Side Story was seen as a work which had taken up the American music idiom where it had been left when George Gershwin died 20 years before.


Joey McKneely, the director and choreographer of the London revival, trained with Robbins. He said performing in West Side Story changed his life as a dancer.

"I wanted to share that excitement and inspire other dancers to feel what I felt," said McKneely, adding that it propelled him away from dancing to full-time choreography.

The Broadway stage show went on to spawn a hugely successful Hollywood film version in 1961, which won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and introduced the show to millions more fans.

Robbins' estate does not allow productions to change the choreography, but McKneely is committed to ensuring his revival does not feel dated.

"It's really important to cast young and inject the production with energy, so that it doesn't feel like a musical comedy, a caricature," says McKneely.

New sets and new costumes have energised what might otherwise have felt like a tired formula.

But for the cast in this touring production, it is the live nature of a stage show which they hope will excite audiences.

There is a brio to the ballet scenes and a conviction to the performances, which has won the new production rave reviews in Beijing, Tokyo and Paris.

Lead actress Sophia Escobar, who plays Maria, is convinced that the musical continues to speak to people.

"It is immortal. The themes of love not possible because of circumstances will always be something people identify with".