In the 1950s, Jerome Robbins’ desire for a modern day version of “Romeo and Juliet” ultimately became “West Side Story,” a powerhouse Broadway production that continues to be far-reaching and multi-layered.
Two years ago, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute launched The Somewhere Project to honor the venue’s 125th anniversary and explore aspects of “West Side Story” with a year of events and songwriting workshops across New York City. In the workshops, high school students, single mothers and people from the criminal justice system wrote lyrics inspired from the musical’s song “Somewhere,” under the guidance of professional performers.
This year marks the 100th birthday of Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, who were the choreographer and music composer, respectively, of the iconic 1957 Broadway show.
Celebrations of the two American treasures are taking place across the country. In Atlanta, the Atlanta Opera will perform “West Side Story” starring Vanessa Beccera in November at Cobb Energy Centre.
Atlanta is the final city of opera director Francesca Zambello’s contemporary version of the Tony- and Academy Award-winning love story. Zambello created a production for the Houston Grand Opera last spring.
“It’s such a big show to be bringing to Atlanta,” says Eric Sean Fogel, who is directing the Atlanta Opera’s November performances. “It is the original libretto with all of the original music, lyrics and the original Jerome Robbins choreography.”
“What’s new is the set is up to date with an abstract modern interpretation of New York City. And the costumes are current clothing, as you would find in the streets of any urban landscape.”
The Atlanta Opera’s show will be a mix of local and touring performers. Veering from the original Broadway and film productions, the gang members will not be represented as solely Caucasians vs. Puerto Ricans. The Jets gang is a mix of Caucasian, Asian and African-American dancers. And the Sharks are primarily Hispanic and African-American performers, Fogel says.
“Francesca said, ‘If you want to comment on original gang war in New York City or territorial rights in the U.S., it’s much more complicated than one race or another because our country is so integrated,’” Fogel says.
Francesca Zambello tasked Fogel and his fellow choreographer Julio Monge with leading the “West Side Story” show for local opera companies. Performances might differ slightly in each city Fogel says. For example, Lyric Opera in Kansas City may be different from the Atlanta Opera production depending on the level of cultural tensions in the respective cities.
Monge, appearing in a video for The Somewhere Project that’s set on an inner city basketball court, demonstrates and describes Jerome Robbins’ mindset behind movements for a “West Side Story” scene. The Jets are gathered in a tense circle at night against a similar playground backdrop, snapping their fingers in unison.
Monge comments that audiences might presume gang members were moving with intimidating finger snapping to keep beat with a jazz rhythm, but actually the scene was inspired by a stranger that Robbins observed showing nervous energy at a bus stop. Robbins translated his impression into an edgy, explosive cool for the “West Side Story” scene.
The play’s music and dance is perfectly designed, Fogel says, adding that audiences of the upcoming production are in for a surprise. Before Zambello, he adds, “No opera house in the U.S. had produced ‘West Side Story.’ It’s a great presentation.”
The book “Something Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination” by Misha Berson provides an insider’s look into the making of the 1957 Broadway production. In the book, published in 2011, Berson reveals how the show was nearly called “East Side Story” with Jews and Catholics as rival gangs. She also explains how the creators struggled with signing on investors because of the musical’s not-so-happy ending, which broke from tradition of the most successful Broadway shows.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presents a tribute to Leonard Bernstein in January 2019. The “All Bernstein” production includes songs from “West Side Story,” “On the Town” and more.
The Atlanta Opera presents “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” a fictional story inspired by the life of the legendary saxophonist. The opera takes place as Parker composes music and reflects on his inner demons, addiction battles and the women he was closest to.
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