“West Side Story” in the Middle East

Posted on 06 September 2009 by Deborah Friedes Galili

West Side Story

West Side Story.  Courtesy of Ora Lapidot.

Though I typically write about contemporary dance, I branched out to do an article about the musical West Side Story for the Jerusalem Post.  I always enjoy interviewing people involved with the production for these newspaper articles, and for this story, I got a treat: two interviews!

First I spoke with resident director Mascha Pörzgen, who gave me some great background about this revival of the classic Broadway production.  Then I had a stimulating conversation with Scott Sussman, who told me enthusiastically about his path to playing Tony.  We also spoke about the history of West Side Story and marveled at Jerome Robbins’ connection to dance in Israel (Robbins, who directed and choreographed the original West Side Story, was sent by the America Israel Foundation to check out the young country’s dance scene in 1951; upon his recommendation, American choreographer Anna Sokolow came to coach the Inbal Dance Theater).

After talking with both Mascha and Scott, I couldn’t wait to see West Side Story – and since attending the preview last week, I’ve been constantly humming the musical’s memorable tunes.  You can catch the run of West Side Story at the Opera House through the 14th.

This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post.

* * *

West Side Story in the Middle East

West Side Story has always been very special to me because it’s actually the score that I grew up on, and it’s how I learned to sing . . . I’ve been singing “Maria” every day of my life since I was 14 years old,” Scott Sussman reveals.  For the last few years, Sussman has been singing “Maria” onstage while playing Tony in an international tour of West Side Story – and from September 2-14, he’ll be singing “Maria” here in Israel when the production comes to Tel Aviv’s Opera House.

Since its premiere on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story has won audience’s hearts with its modern twist on Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet.  With New York street gangs replacing the Montagues and Capulets, and with ethnic tensions rather than family rivalries, the protagonists’ love story became not just tragic but relevant for contemporary viewers.

West Side Story

West Side Story.  Courtesy of Ora Lapidot.

Yet the magical pull of West Side Story lies not only in the updated narrative but also in the production’s compelling synthesis of music and dance.  Choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, who conceived the musical, teamed up with composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and playwright Arthur Laurents to design a work in which the score and the movement propelled the action.  Bernstein and Sondheim created a series of stirring hits, from “Maria” to “America” to “Tonight.”  Meanwhile, Robbins’ dynamic choreography conveyed the feelings of the show’s characters, whether in the tender, dreamy duets of Maria and Tony or in the explosive group dances of the Jets and the Sharks.

West Side Men

West Side Story.  Courtesy of Ora Lapidot.

The result was a production whose emotional power was magnified.  “[The musical] is so directly going to your emotions because of the score and the music and the singing and the dancing and everything,” explains Mascha Pörzgen, the resident director for the version which will be performed in Israel.  She adds, “You have to take a lot of tissues for the second act!”

West Side Story

West Side Story.  Courtesy of Ora Lapidot.

This current touring production began in 2007 as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of West Side Story, and it captures the essence of the iconic original Broadway version. Robbins’ unforgettable choreography has been reconstructed by Joey McKneely, who worked with the master and learned the show directly from him. The production garnered the seal of approval from both the Jerome Robbins Foundation, which gave McKneely permission to restage the show, and from the Leonard Bernstein Foundation, which licensed Don Chan to conduct West Side Story.

West Side Story

West Side Story.  Courtesy of Ora Lapidot.

Even as this West Side Story hearkens back to an older production, the cast of 39 young, devoted performers lends a refreshing energy to the show.  Sussman, who joined this tour as Tony in December 2007, marvels, “It’s amazing that I could be doing the show for as long as I have and be singing for as long as I have, and yet it’s never the same. It’s the beauty of live theater. It’s all really essentially happening for the first time.”

West Side Story - Tony

West Side Story.  Courtesy of Ora Lapidot.

From France to Spain to Japan, this revival has generated enthusiastic cheers (and, at the end, tears).  Now both its resident director and its star are looking forward to bringing West Side Story to Israel.  For Sussman, who is Jewish, this tour stop is particularly meaningful.  He reflects, “I have never been to Israel, but I have always wanted to go.  Every year at Passover we say l’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim.  It’s very exciting . . . to be able to come and do the show I love in my favorite role – for me it’s very special.”

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Lauren Shachar Says:

    Sensational production. We are just enraptured with strong emotions after seeing the performance today in Tel Aviv. I grew up on these songs, and it was a unique moment to see it all come alive on the stage. A real tribute to Bernstein, Robbins, and Sondheim.

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