Theatre: Stepping out in a racist state of mind

Director-choreographer Joey McKneely has stayed true to Jerome Robbins’s vision of bigotry and hate in his new staging of West Side Story, finds Kelly Apter

The touring production of West Side Story features young dancers/singers/actors as close to the intended ages of the gang members as the writer envisaged. Picture: Alasdair Muir
The touring production of West Side Story features young dancers/singers/actors as close to the intended ages of the gang members as the writer envisaged. Picture: Alasdair Muir
The touring production of West Side Story features young dancers/singers/actors as close to the intended ages of the gang members as the writer envisaged. Picture: Alasdair Muir

IN THE world of musical theatre, there can be few dance routines more iconic than Jerome Robbins’s in West Side Story. The Jets kicking sideways as they leap into the air, the Puerto Rican women ruching up their skirts as they sing America – Robbins’s instantly recognisable choreography featured in both the original 1957 Broadway production and the 1961 film adaptation, for which he won two Academy Awards.

Stepping into Robbins’s shoes to direct and choreograph a new stage version would, therefore, be a challenge for anyone. But when American Joey McKneely took on the job, he brought something very special to the table. During the early years of his career as a dancer, McKneely worked with Robbins to stage a West Side Story Suite, featuring choreography from the show. His memories from that time proved invaluable when taking on the production himself.

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“I was so young, I remember dancing my heart out every day,” recalls McKneely. “But I also remember watching him in rehearsals. He was in his 70s by then, so his limbs didn’t go as high as they used to and he never jumped, but I didn’t look as his body – I always looked at his face. And his face would become the character.

“So as dancers we all had a very clear understanding of the characters he wanted us to play, and that was really the essence of Jerome Robbins’s choreography, especially with West Side Story. Every single step came from the character – it was emotional, behavioural. After spending six months in a rehearsal room with him, I absorbed all that and understood it.”

With something as time-honoured as Robbins’s choreography in West Side Story, it’s hard to imagine that anybody would mess around with it. But having worked with the man himself, does McKneely feel even more responsible for Robbins’s original vision?

“Oh absolutely, I feel like I’m a torch bearer,” he says. “The integrity of the choreography always came first for him, and I respect that. I don’t feel like I need to improve it. I can jazz it up a bit, or make them jump higher or move faster – I can push some things a little bit, but it’s so perfect as it is.”

Not only did McKneely get the opportunity to work with Robbins’s up close, he also met the show’s original writer, Arthur Laurents, shortly before he died. “What Arthur was able to do for me, was reveal another layer to West Side Story,” says McKneely. “He helped me understand the characters a little deeper, which was tremendously useful to me as a director, and made this production richer.”

West Side Story’s two teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, who wage a turf war in a poor Manhattan neighbourhood, are now as well-known as the Montagues and Capulets they’re based on, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But there’s something visceral about McKneely’s production that brings the ethnic tension between the American-born Jets and Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks to the fore.

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“West Side Story is about racism, and Arthur would say that it shows how love cannot survive in a world of bigotry and hate,” says McKneely. “And because it was Arthur’s original intent to really showcase the racism, it was important for me to bring that to the stage.

“So I really dug down into the characters, to find the level of hate and pain that drives these young adolescents. Because people are taught hate, so the cast and I really went on a journey into the psychoanalysis of where did this hate come from?”

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Determined to cast performers who can hold their own with the choreography, sing the incredible Bernstein/Sondheim score, and carry the emotional intent of the dialogue, McKneely holds gruelling auditions. More so than with any of his earlier productions, the current UK tour of West Side Story has younger, more believable actors taking on the supporting roles.

“I make sure I put people into the roles that are capable of playing them as they were written,” says McKneely. “But the closer the actors are to the actual age of the gang members, the more truthfulness you get from it. Mainly because teenagers and people in their early 20s have a certain energy to them that you just lose once you get past 30.”

When it came to the key roles of Tony, Maria and Anita, however, McKneely was forced to cast slightly older, due to the technical demands of Bernstein’s score, and the tragedy which unfolds in Act Two.

“I would love to cast an 18-year-old Tony and 16-year-old Maria,” he says. “But the vocal requirements for those two roles are so high, people of that age don’t possess the technique or maturity to sing them. And both of those characters, along with Anita, go on a deep emotional journey – so it’s easier for a mid-20s performer to play a young Maria then to ask somebody very young to play complex emotions they may never have lived.”

To that end, McKneely cast rising musical theatre stars 23-year-old Katie Hall as Maria and 24-year-old Louis Maskell as Tony, both of whom have the vocal prowess to cope with the demands of songs like Maria and Tonight. And with the love-at-first-sight romance between Tony and Maria so important, as Maskell says: “If you’ve been in love before, then you know how it feels and how to play it.”

With Hall having spent the past few years touring Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, and Maskell playing alongside Dominic West in Sheffield Crucible’s production of My Fair Lady and Tommy Steele in Scrooge, both actors are used to sharing the stage with seasoned performers. But hanging out with your peers is proving fun, too.

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“A lot of the time, on other shows, there’s a broad range of ages – but with West Side Story, it actually feels like off-stage we’re still living those parts,” says Maskell. “And because we’re all so young, we can relate to it. It’s really exhilarating to be a part of, and that energy and youthfulness transfers on to the stage”.

• West Side Story is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 15-25 January; the Edinburgh Playhouse, 18-29 March; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 17-28 June.