Within the expansive realm of art, very few things ever reach the pantheon of timelessness. But when a specific work of art does, it defies the passage of decades and even centuries, as more individuals become exposed to it and thus new fans are made.
Certainly, the concept of forbidden love, and its inherent trials, is something that we viscerally identify with, or could, if we ever found ourselves in such unfortunate circumstances. Narratives that tap into this, beginning with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the late-16th Century, pit two lovers at odds with their own allegiances, as in with the Montagues and Capulets.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s heartbreaking story, the musical “West Side Story,” which debuted on Broadway in 1957, and is now enjoying its 60th anniversary, similarly delineates Tony and Maria’s tragic relationship, as they, too, must reconcile the fact that they are from opposing groups – the Sharks and Jets, respectively. Subsequently, when the Natalie Wood-starring film was released four years later, it set in motion a love affair with an indelible masterpiece that has robustly lived on.
Now, after countless “West Side Story” productions that have galvanized attendees around the world – with its book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins – director Richard Israel has now helmed a courageous rendition of “West Side Story,” imbuing it with more rawness and realism. It will also, interestingly, highlight brand-new choreography by John Todd (in lieu of Robbins’), while very much continuing to pay homage to the essence of perhaps the most acclaimed musical ever.
The La Mirada Theatre-McCoy Rigby production of “West Side Story,” which will be featured four times at the Valley Performing Arts Center (Northridge, CA) between March 10th and 12th, and will later migrate to the La Mirada Theatre for an April 21st through May 14th engagement, is poised to positively surprise a lot of people.
Recently, to discuss “West Side Story” and more, director Richard Israel, who is also a professor of musical theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, graciously provided his time for an LAexcites-exclusive interview:
Do you recall your first-ever impression of “West Side Story”?
I saw the film first on TV when I was young and was very struck by it – the stakes, the [commentary on] human potential, and how moving it was. Now that I’m older, the message about love and tolerance in the face of bigotry and demonization is still very relevant. There are factors in the world where odds are stacked against us and we have to fight hard against these external forces to keep the human connection alive.
You started out as an actor for various films and TV shows in the early 1990s. How did you make the transition to becoming a director?
I eased my way into directing, as I felt I had a good handle on overall vision. I was a good, but not great, actor. But I always saw things with a third eye at a distance, and the ability to control the scope of a show, as the gatekeeper, appealed because of the responsibility of ensuring a consistent vision.
Has being a director matched your expectations?
I had no expectations, but the rewards are way greater – personal and emotional – than I could have ever anticipated.
Directors are often known by their performers and their audiences for having certain qualities. What do you think you’re known for?
I always tell my actors to square up with the person opposite you and listen to them – and then the authenticity and humanity comes of that, as everything falls behind. It’s the pursuit of want and what want you are actively pursuing. Once you nail the want, how it’s impeded, and how it changes, then all energy and results-oriented stuff naturally follows.
How do you hope to put your own directorial stamp on something that has been around for 60 years?
When you’re up against a classic preconception of what it’s supposed to be, you don’t want to mess with it too much, as you want to mostly honor the material by approaching it from a present day-standpoint without necessarily updating it.
In addition, beginning actors might approach Shakespeare with a lofty style, but that wasn’t his intention. And as with “Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story” it’s ultimately about guts and heightened passion, not loftiness. It comes down to finding the proper overlap between us and the characters.
Have any of your performers encountered any challenges during the rehearsal process? Any surprises?
No, not really. It’s the most unbelievably committed, unmitigatedly talented group of people. We knew we had great actors – and they’re fearless – and I knew we were getting heavy-hitter performances. The only thing that surprises me is that they go deep and can make adjustments on a dime. It’s a cast of 32 people, who are on a mission to render this story with every ounce of their being, and I’m agog to see how they put themselves on the line. They’re making instinctive, authentic age-appropriate decisions, given the fact that the “West Side Story” characters are in their late teens.
The guy who plays Riff (Michael Starr) amazes me with his incredible dance skills. He can be all over the place, and then suddenly be in a quiet, intimate, vulnerable scene with Tony (Eddie Egan). It’s all so mystifying to me, and it’s not something I think I could’ve done as an actor. Even our dancers are flinging themselves off of 12-foot-high platforms like it’s nothing. As actors, we’re always making ourselves vulnerable, and these guys are fearless.
I’ve been told that this version of “West Side Story” will implement new choreography by John Todd. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, everything (regarding choreography) is from the mind of John Todd. We’re using ballet where ballet is appropriate for storytelling. Like when the gangs are in the street, we’re trying to get the guys to move with a masculine, territorial-like energy. It’s not a contemporary choreography, but there are moments when the dance style has to be uplifted as opposed to pressed downward (and vice versa). For example, in the aspirational components of the storytelling, the dance style should push upward when the clans are trying to claim territory.
This is important to me because initially we talked about how I wasn’t the right person for this. I don’t do re-creation, and we talked about what could be new. We know the choreography is an iconic part of “West Side Story,” and I have great respect for it, but you have to buy into a lot when you’re seeing 18-year-olds arabesque-ing down the street. We received permission to change the choreography, and it makes sense. We’ve made it in line with a dance vocabulary that is more appropriate.
Lastly, with performance runs at the Valley Performing Arts Center and the La Mirada Theatre, what are your expectations?
I want those who see it to walk out of the auditorium and know that, artistically, they’ve never seen “West Side Story” this way before.
And, on a human level, I would hope that people conduct themselves a little differently after the show, which is fundamentally about love thriving in opposition against bigotry and intolerance. Yes, it’s entertainment, but there’s a lot there – and if we do our jobs right, people will be changed after they’ve seen it.
This production of “West Side Story” also features musical direction by Brent Crayon, and is comprised of a 32-person cast, including Eddie Egan as Tony, Ashley Marie as Maria, Marlene Martinez as Anita, Michael Starr as Riff, Armando Yearwood, Jr. as Bernardo, and much more.
For more information on how to see this exciting new production of “West Side Story” at the Valley Performing Arts Center and the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, please visit