With gun violence and immigration continuing to be front page news, West Side Story remains one of our most relevant and thought-provoking musicals. Since its debut on Broadway 60 years ago, the show has been subject to much tinkering by producers and directors wishing to update it, by incorporating ethnic-relevant casts and even, in the case of the most recent Broadway revival, dialog and songs sung in Spanish. 5-Star Theatricals’ forthcoming version of the show, which debuts at the Kavli Theatre July 26, promises more reverence to Jerome Robbins’ original production, but includes some innovations as well. We spoke with director Larry Raben recently during a rehearsal session.
VCOS: So here we go again with another Larry Raben production.
LARRY: Yes, it’s nice to be back!
VCOS: West Side Story always seems to come around at an opportune time, doesn’t it? Talk about the relevance of this story, which has been around not just for decades, but for centuries, if you count Romeo & Juliet.
LARRY: Regrettably, it’s still relevant. There are some lessons we just can’t seem to learn. But I feel very excited to tell this story right now. In looking at it, casting was a very interesting thing for me, because you can cast brown and non-brown people and let that be your world, but really, what we’re talking about isn’t skin color but national identity. And that was a really interesting thing to wrap my brain around. Who are the Americans in this story? And who are the people from this sovereign Caribbean island and what are their hopes and dreams and how are these worlds colliding? So it’s been fascinating because every day you listen to the news, this is in the press: people leaving one world and looking for a better world and finding resistance there.
VCOS: Has the time frame changed in 5-Star’s production?
LARRY: No. It’s still the ’50s. I think that’s it’s very important that it stays in the ’50s. Yes, you could update it, but for me, partly, it’s the sound of the music, that edgy, pseudo-classical, angsty jazz that lends itself to that time period in New York.
VCOS: Afro-Cuban rhythms such as mambos were very big in the mid-to-late ’50s.
VCOS: When you think about casting, it’s really not that much of a challenge to think about the ethnicity in casting the Sharks as it is the Jets.
LARRY: Yes! There are some clues to this in the script, where it says “an amalgamation of all that is American.”
VCOS: Which includes the Sharks, since Puerto Rican citizenship has been recognized since the early 20th century. But how do you, as a director, envision the ethnic makeup of the Jets?
LARRY: Well, these are disenfranchised street kids. Partly, I find it interesting to look at the Sharks that came into this world. They weren’t a street gang in Puerto Rico, they came to this country looking for jobs and a life and they found that they had to fight to be able to belong or to have legitimacy in this world and so I think they have more elegance or class about them until they encounter the Jets, and then the Jets pull them down to their level. And the Jets, in their own sort of way, are trying to hang on to any kind of family they can make.
VCOS: Over the years there has been a lot of tinkering with West Side Story. You had the initial casting of Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence, neither of whom were “ethnic,” if you will, and then Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in the movie version. In its various revivals, you had directors incorporate more accurate ethnic casting and even having the Sharks speak and sing in Spanish. Have they gotten it right yet? If not, what is the major fix that you decided to incorporate in 5-Star’s version?
LARRY: First, I love the Jerome Robbins version of the show. It is beautiful and exquisitely crafted, but in decided to do this show, we’re doing our own choreography and our own staging. So when we look at things like the “Prologue” and “The Rumble,” I wanted these scenes to have a fight authenticity that the really balletic Robbins version only touched on. So we hired a fight choreographer and although we are using the cues in the music, we are not locked into the musical structure the way Robbins originally envisioned it.
VCOS: For me, there has always been an incongruity in seeing street gangs making ballet movements. How do you feel about this? Do you put rough edges in the dancing?
LARRY: When we went to cast this, we were every bit aware of what we needed to do this right. We needed dancers who had enough technical vocabulary but they also needed to look like they could fight. So we were looking for both things. We were also looking for people who did a lot of parkour – climbing walls and buildings – like the guys in American Ninja Warrior. And we thought that if they showed enough grace in doing that, we could blend the worlds of dance and storytelling with actual fighting. And that’s where we wanted to go. When my guys look like they’re landing punches on each other, it looks dangerous, and that’s the thing I wanted to capture. I really wanted the audience to get a sense that these aren’t just misunderstood kids, these are people who, because of their circumstances, have developed a really thick shell. I have worked with Tony Danza. He’s from Brooklyn, and when I was talking to him once, he said, “Larry, you don’t know what it was like. My dad was a garbage collector. We had nothing. We were poor. Dirt poor. We would come home from school and my buddies would say, ‘You wanna shoot baskets?’ ‘No, I don’t feel like it.’ ‘You wanna throw dice?’ ‘Nah, that doesn’t really interest me.’ ‘You wanna go beat somebody up?’ ‘Yeah, let’s go beat somebody up.'” So they did it for entertainment, to get a thrill. That took his whole career to the Golden Gloves and all that kind of stuff, but it affected me when he said that, and I thought, wow, Tony’s a nice guy; it’s hard to imagine him going around pummeling people out of sheer boredom.
VCOS: In any of the versions of West Side Story that I’ve seen, it’s hard to see Tony, not Danza, but the Tony in the story, being part of that gang. He seems too earnest and good-hearted.
LARRY: Well, the script calls for it.
VCOS: So do you toughen him up?
LARRY: Yes, I do. As a matter of fact, we had a big discussion of this yesterday. The first song Tony sings is “Something’s Coming.” Something’s coming / Something good / If I can wait. And I said that we have to look at that text and play against it. This is a street kid that just got off the street. He’s gotten his first job. He’s trying to turn his life around and trying to do something different because he sees that he was in a dead end life. Only six weeks ago, he was helping the Jets in fights against rival gangs because they said they couldn’t win without him. So I said, when he’s singing this song, it needs to be from a place of angst, not idealism. There is this thing that is nagging at him, he can feel it’s out there. He doesn’t know whether it’s going to make his life better or worse, he just knows that he’s drawn toward a “something” and that fate is calling him. So I keep getting him to play against the earnestness of that moment.
VCOS: How do you see the relationship between Tony and Riff? Who was the leader of the gang?
LARRY: According to the script, Tony was the leader but Riff was his “Ace Man.” They had “Ace Man” and “Rocket Man” and Riff was his number one “Ace Man.” He was his next in line. And for the last four-and-a-half years, Riff has been living with Tony and his mom so they have this crazy brotherly bond. So I also want to make sure that we get glimpses of the humanity between these two people but we also can’t forget that they’re dangerous. That, to me, is the thing that I keep working on, because I think that humanity is there in the music and the lyrics.
VCOS: Humor being one of your strong suits, there are some humorous moments in the show, which are used to relieve the tension, such as “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “America,” but who do you see as the main purveyor of this humor?
LARRY: Anita. She actually has the best punchlines and they come oftentimes when they need them. But I’m also discovering exactly how funny Maria is as well. I wasn’t expecting that. Maria has always been played like the only thing she has is innocence. We actually have a 17-year-old girl, Giselle Torres, playing Maria, which I’m thrilled about. But she has a very wry sense of humor herself and it’s funny to see it come into play. She says “I’m no longer a baby.” Our Maria lets us know that she is on the cusp of womanhood. She knows herself. She’s fully baked. She’s just waiting for the opportunity for love to come into her life.
VCOS: Why doesn’t Tony have a nickname?
LARRY: Well, Tony IS his nickname. Maria asks him, “What does Tony stand for?” And he says, “Anton.”
VCOS: But it’s not a colorful nickname like Riff, Action, A-Rab, or Ice.
LARRY: True. When Arthur Laurents was researching it, he was trying to create a book and a world that would be timeless. So if they said things like “cracko-jacko” or “pow, pow,” it would do this. I think that if he were to do it today, he might rethink that. To me, it’s a wonderful time capsule for that period.
VCOS: Have you performed in the show before?
LARRY: Ha-ha. I played Tony in high school in a truncated 20-minute version. We had a contest called “Play Cuts” and we had to take the show and the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors all competed. We actually won. So that’s my closest. But my mom was great about sitting us down and having us watch movie musicals whenever they were on TV or would take us to the local revival house, but I’ve been mesmerized by this story and the Bernstein/Sondheim score since I was a kid. And I think it’s why I’ve had a lifelong love affair with Stephen Sondheim. The Bernstein music is so complex. There’s so much going on. It’s not linear. It’s not obvious. You can listen to the same piece of music again and again and you can hear different discordant tones in it that you haven’t heard before. It’s a constantly shifting ground.
VCOS: Even the ballads, the melodies go where you don’t expect them to go, like the last note in “Somewhere.”
LARRY: Yes. That lets you know that nothing is resolved. And it couldn’t be more appropriate, because here we are in 2019, fighting a lot of the same battles.
VCOS: So you’re growing up, watching West Side Story all these years, and then you become an actor, and then a director. Are you thinking, “When I get to do this show, I’m going to….”?
LARRY: Ha-ha-ha! You know, I actually thought I would play Tony at some point during my career, but I was a lyric baritone, never a tenor, and I didn’t follow that dance trajectory. I’m a song-and-dance man, not a Jerome Robbins dance guy, so I kind of let it go. Besides, the show had fallen off the map for a long time, but this year, it’s come back like a comet, and it’s only just now revving up to the next Broadway revival and the Spielberg film. But I think people are programming it again because it is so timely, as Romeo and Juliet always will be. There will always be star-crossed lovers.
West Side Story opens at the Kavli Theatre in the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on July 26. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. Stay tuned for interviews with the show’s choreographer, Karl Warden, and actor Patrick Ortiz (Bernard).