ENTERTAINMENT

‘West Side Story’ in Manila: What to expect from the Broadway classic

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Set against a blood-red backdrop silhouetting New York's Upper West Side, "Cool" is a popular favorite among the performances in the Broadway musical "West Side Story," which comes to Manila in August. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There are a few things you readily associate with a good Broadway musical, but a violent ending is usually not one of them.

In Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story” — staged for the contemporary audience by director and choreographer Joey McKneely — audiences are warned, before entering the theater, that the performance includes a gunshot sound. Not a spoiler alert, considering that the musical is a “Romeo and Juliet” spinoff, but the warning is the first sign that “West Side Story” may not be the “musical” you thought it would be.

Instead of a feuding family, “West Side Story” pits two rival gangs against each other, set against the brick and concrete of New York. The curtain opens with a lively dance of juvenile hate. In one performance, an apparently strong-willed Puerto Rican woman sings about giving up her roots and wanting to live in “America.” She has a beautiful accent, and she does not want to go back. The musical is a love story, but you almost don’t notice it is.

When it was conceived in 1949, the goal for the “Romeo” project, as “West Side Story” was then called, was to make each component of the budding work a star of its own: the music, the choreography, and the linguistics working together to drive the daring plot forward. The team was led by Robbins, joined by conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and later by stage designer Oliver Smith.

Keely Beirne's (rightmost) dream role is Anita, a feisty Puerto Rican woman who looks forward to a new life in "America." Photo by JL JAVIER

The team worked together to come up with a fresh performance, but in 1958, “West Side Story” won only two Tony Awards, for its choreography and stage set. Critics were divided, only agreeing that it was an unusual work, emphasizing the lack of a happy ending.

As it turns out, “West Side Story” — fortunately or unfortunately — foresaw troubled times. It has now been staged innumerable times and has won acclaim not only in theater but in Hollywood. The story of how the musical worked its way to commercial and cultural success is as interesting as the narrative of the work itself, which is now on its way to Manila this August, where it hopes to find a receptive audience.

Before you watch it, here are a few things you should know about “West Side Story.”

The musical is inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” but at the same time, it depicts a harsh and gritty picture of street gangs in America.

“West Side Story” exists in a class of its own, and does away with the “happy ending” that was characteristic of musicals of its time, says musical director Donald Chan. The musical premiered alongside “The Music Man” — which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1958 — and was criticized for being too dark. Themes such as racial conflict and death, while not unheard of, were not deemed as popular subjects for Broadway entertainment.

“It was ahead of its time,” Chan says. “Nothing was very political or controversial. If there was fight, it was offstage. Now you see the fight going onstage … that was never happening before. [If] someone died, it was offstage.”

Not only was the theme offbeat, but the musical’s sound, originally composed by Bernstein and written by Sondheim, was also groundbreaking for its milieu. “West Side Story” covers a mix of genres, including jazz, ballet, Latin, and classical music, from the soaring ballad of “Tonight” to the orchestral romp of “America” to the measured beats of “Cool.” Chan’s personal favorite is the “Tonight Quintet”: “All the factions are onstage, telling about their story,” he says. “Tonight, the Sharks are gonna have a big fight, and the girls are going, tonight’s going to be a wonderful night, and everybody’s collaborating in the song.”

Keely Beirne stands out as the feisty Anita, her dream role.

While Kevin Hack (Tony) and Jenna Burns (Maria) play a credible pair (with Hack’s voice beautifully carrying the emotional nuances of the conflicted Tony) it’s Keely Beirne’s Anita who steals the show every time she’s on stage. Playing her dream role, Beirne’s Anita bursts into scenes with a distinct, protective fierceness, mostly directed towards the childlike Maria.

In “America,” she makes the case for brain drain sound appealing. “Puerto Rico,” she begins — delightfully trilling the “r” in “Rico” — but continues: “My heart’s devotion, let it sink back into the ocean.” In her ruffled pink dress, Beirne’s Anita carries vestiges of her native land, but also moves as if to shake them off, dancing boisterously like she has no sorrows to face in her new country — perfectly capturing the hope and cynicism that immigrants feel simultaneously for what they encounter and what they leave behind.

Kevin Hack (Tony) and Jenna Burns (Maria) sing "Tonight." Photo by JL JAVIER

The energetic choreography, first conceived by Jerome Robbins, defines the musical.

“West Side Story” might be more accurately described as a dance musical, and its central conflict, while not resolved, is beautifully highlighted through dance. The musical starts off innocently — several boys eyeing each other down the street — until things escalate into full-blown choreographed chaos, highlighted with a tantalizing sound arrangement that keeps you on your feet. A high point of the musical is the Jets and Sharks’ faceoff in a gym dance, where Tony and Maria first meet and where the Jets and the Sharks somehow cheat their way out of a modified version of musical chairs. Here, Beirne shines again, but this time with Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva (Bernardo). Another performance to watch out for is “Cool” — a hot acrobatic number led by Lance Hayes (Riff), who had previously danced with “West Side Story” legends Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno.

The storyline resonates in today’s conflicted world.

Spoiler alert: since “West Side Story” is a modernization of the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet, it ends in tears — and then some. There is explicit violence within the story, anger that leads to fistfights and knife wounds, and a hopeful musical interlude harshly interrupted by memories of the bloody dead. Beneath the Jets and the Sharks’ seemingly irreconcilable gang rivalry is a political undercurrent that all seems too familiar: groups discriminated arbitrarily, unexplainable hatred for those who are different, and a stubborn conviction to do anything for belief and belonging.

In the end, the love story in “West Side Story” is merely a vehicle for the world’s multifaceted conflicts that, unfortunately, are as real outside the theatre as they are spectacularly depicted onstage.