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West Side Story

West Side Story at Paper Mill Playhouse: notes on the craft of wordless storytelling

By Rich McNanna

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scherzo: a lively, humorous piece of music that is played quickly; origin and etymology- Italian, literally “joke” from scherzare

After experiencing Paper Mill Playhouse’s current production of West Side Story, I marveled at the company’s beautifully executed wordless storytelling. I had a chance to speak with some prominent members of the production’s creative team to talk about how they created such effective performances. Please, allow me to build up to that discussion below:

It’s something I look forward to every spring: teaching the play Romeo and Juliet to my middle school language arts classes. Year in and year out, it proves to be a wildly popular piece with my students, and one of the best lessons my colleagues and I teach is the comparison between Shakespeare’s text and the 1961 film version of West Side Story. (We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but the lesson nonetheless continues to inspire young minds on an annual basis.) 
In doing so, one primary text we provide our students is Brooks Atkinson’s 1957 New York Times review of the original Broadway production of West Side Story; in it, he comments,

“(T)he author, composer and ballet designer are creative artists. Pooling imagination and virtuosity, they have written a profoundly moving show that is as ugly as the city jungles and also pathetic, tender and forgiving.” 

west-side-story-pmp1As a follow up, we discuss how this landmark piece of American theater is a playground of contradictions: good and bad; love and hate; light and dark. Being that my eighth grade students are taught chemistry, we talk about how Shakespeare first harnessed these opposites–these elemental human conditions–and Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins compounded these elements into a twentieth century ballet/opera. They did so by juxtaposing words, music, and dance.
I had the sincere pleasure to speak with two notable people involved in Paper Mill’s current production of West Side Story to discuss these contradictions: Director, Mark S. Hoebee and Reproduction Choreographer, Alex Sanchez.
We discussed many aspects of the piece, but what interested this theater-goer was how the opposing entities of words and dance were epitomized in one dazzling number unique to the original stage version:  the “Somewhere Ballet.”
In full disclosure, I am more aware of the film West Side than the stage version, so watching the ballet number in Act II was a profound surprise. As Tony and Maria’s mournful duet progresses upon the death of Bernanrdo, the stage transforms into an abstract canvass of wordless storytelling reminiscent of the dream-like ballets of Oklahoma!, Carousel, and An American In Paris. The number is memorable not only because of its beauty and innocence, but because it takes an already dance-laden play and goes even further–eliminating all words and lyrics for roughly five-whole minutes. west-side-story-pmp2
Mr. Hoebee sums up,

“The ballet is one of the most powerful moments in the show, and in its day was groundbreaking because it married the world of contemporary ballet and musical theater. Just like in Oklahoma!, this incredible dance is able to illuminate story and plot lines without using a single spoken word… Jerome's ballet, through dance, attempts to show an idealized world where the youthful spirit of young people ignores differences and creates an idyllic world–a peaceful place where all people can coexist happily.” 

 In a similar way, Mr. Sanchez confirms,

“The “Somewhere Ballet” comes from (Tony and Maria’s) hope and their yearning for something different. They want to escape their current situation…and so in their embrace when they start singing, ‘I will take you away, take you far, far away out of here,’  that’s basically what you’re seeing… going someplace where they can be safe… they go off into this land where everything is fine, there is no prejudice, there’s no hatred, and you see the Jets and the Sharks comingling together.”


And then both men addressed a very important idea: one of the major keys to fulfilling this number’s intended purpose was to respect its label in the script–scherzo. Lively, quick…playful. The Sharks and Jets must come together and provide a vision of a world without labels…a dream world where Tony and Maria could exist in harmony–a balletic interpretation of Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” speech where there are no labels, no conflict. According to Mr. Sanchez,

“You see them dancing together. You see them playing like children…children who don’t know about prejudice unless they learn it. (T)hese characters that you’ve seen before are kids again…and the way I explain it to the dancers is, ‘You guys are like kids in a park. You’re four or five year old kids in a park…and you see each other and you want to play games with each other.’ And so every section of the ballet is a game.”

west-side-story-pmp3Mr. Hoebee added,

“The key word in this ballet, certainly at the beginning of it, is play, and that goes back to images of children in the sandbox. When you look at very young children playing together, they don't see differences in the color of skin, nationality, religion, or even gender. Very young children are open to all aspects of individuals they meet. Prejudice, hatred, and intolerance are learned. There is a step that is repeated throughout the Scherzo section of the ballet with the dancers run toward each other and then scuff as if they are kicking sand up at each other. It is a purposeful, playful move that Jerome (Robbins) used to remind us of how kids play together.”

 
Speaking to these prominent men of the creative team, it was enlightening of them to pinpoint the exact technique which made this dance number so effective. Jerome Robbins originally created a wordless story through a bit of dance metaphor…maybe even dance impersonation. To create an idyllic scene through an imitation of children is a beautiful piece of stage craft, and it concretely justified what made this scene so noteworthy. And the creative team and performers executed this vision expertly all these years later.
But as we know from, say, the dream ballet in Oklahoma!, sometimes dreams can become nightmares…especially when there’s an entire act left to play. The “Somewhere Ballet,” similarly, returns to the nightmare of reality; Mr. Hoebee remarked,

 west-side-story-pmp6

“Of course, in the nightmare section of the ballet, reality comes back in as the dancers reenact the rumble and the deaths of Riff and Bernardo and then eventually this dream world disappears and we find Tony and Maria back in the reality of her bedroom.”

And what of this reality? Art exists to entertain, but it does inherently reflect elements of the society in which it exists;  in West Side Story,  the “reality,” as Mr. Hoebee notes, is of racial conflict. I asked him if this show has any renewed relevance in the wake of recent high-profile unrest in this country.  Mr. Hoebee responded,

“On the very first day of rehearsal I spoke to the company about why it was important to do the show. Of course, it's a classic with an incredible score, terrific book and exciting, energetic dancing but that is not the only reason to do the show. Unfortunately, the themes that were so prevalent in 1957 are still alive today, and so we hope that through telling the story again, and again we can open the hearts of the audience to have more understanding and sympathy for those they find "different.”

I’m not sure if these sentiments in themselves contributed to the company’s ability to tell stories through movement, but if this cast was able to unify under this common cause–the cause of calling attention to racial conflict and tragedy–then this must have made the job of “playing like innocent children” all the more easy… and the task of “battling” each other so much harder.

 


Richard McNanna

 

Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.