West Side Story
West Side Story at Paper Mill Playhouse: notes on the craft of wordless storytelling
By Rich McNanna
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:
“(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.”
As 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.
“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.”
“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.”
Mr. 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.”
“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.
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.