Eklund Opera explores the music and history of Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’
Sixty years after its premiere, the story about immigrants finding their place in America still resonates.
“West Side Story” reimagines Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 1950s New York. Two star-crossed lovers from different backgrounds fight to keep their relationship alive in the midst of a bitter rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets, a pair of gangs vying for their own pieces of Manhattan.
“This is a story about people—mostly children of immigrants, like most of us—who have claimed a territory as their own. New groups who look different and have different cultures migrate to new cities. And they are treated as the enemy,” says Stage Director and Director of the Eklund Opera Program Leigh Holman.
A timeless and timely experience
When “West Side Story” premiered in the 60s, the historical context was clear: U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico migrated to New York City in exponential numbers after World War II, causing a shift in cultural norms in Manhattan. But the tensions shared onstage are still timely, adds Assistant Director Javier Abreu.
“It really can be applied today to the ways we relate to people. It’s a story about trying to accept the things we don’t understand and seeing the value in things that are different from what we know.”
“It’s such a humanistic approach to [performing] the show,” fellow Assistant Director Erin Hodgson agrees. “It’s really easy in this show to say, it’s [Sharks] versus [Jets] and these are the bad people, but no one is really at fault here. This is just the situation that everybody’s stumbled into, and this is how this group of people is dealing with it.”
“Never before—since the 60s when the film came out—has there been a more important story for us to hear and see,” says Holman.
Defining the music of “West Side Story”
While most people associate “West Side Story” with Broadway (and therefore musical theatre), it’s a work that, in many ways, defies definition.
“It simply cannot be put into a box,” says Holman. “I don’t personally call it an opera—however, it’s performed in major opera houses internationally because Maria and Tony require trained voices with extensive ranges. The ‘Tonight’ quintet is a vocal ensemble piece—no dance required—that calls for wide ranges … It’s traditionally staged as an operatic piece: individual characters expressing different emotions primarily ‘in their own thoughts’ and singing different texts and melodies all at the same time. It’s stereotypically operatic.”
But the show is also filled with classic Broadway style pieces: jazzy dance, funny lyrics, chorus numbers. What’s more, there is a ballet piece written into the show to boot. So which is it? Opera, musical theatre or ballet?
According to Guest Music Director Philip Hesketh, the distinction is not so simple: “When Bernstein writes Broadway, it is truly great Broadway. When he writes opera, it’s opera of the first order, radiant and lush. Like the man, the work crosses boundaries and by crossing them, breaks them down and denies them existence.
“Is it music theatre? Is it opera, operetta or ballet? The only possible answer to these questions is: Yes. It is all of these. Together with Bernstein’s genius, they are all ingredients in this unique and wonderful recipe.”
And that recipe makes for interesting parallels, says Holman: “‘West Side Story’ is a piece that has a lot in common with its creator Bernstein. He was difficult to categorize. Composer? Conductor? Teacher? Celebrity? He was all of those things. West Side? Music theatre, opera, dance.”
It’s its own thing, Holman concludes. And the good news is “West Side Story” is a production that offers a little bit of musical magic for all audiences.
Additional events for audiences
For fans of the story looking to dive deeper into its background, audiences are invited to several free CU Bernstein at 100 events in anticipation of Eklund Opera’s production of “West Side Story.”
On Oct. 21 at 2 p.m., Holman will be joined by film historian and Chair of the Department of Cinema Studies & Moving Image Arts Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz—author of the only scholarly book on the film—for a brief presentation on the challenges of adapting “West Side Story” to the screen. Piano professor and Bernstein specialist Andrew Cooperstock will also join to discuss the movie’s impact, popularity, controversy and longevity with American audiences. Immediately after, at 3 p.m., audiences are invited to attend a free screening of the film. Finally, there is a free discussion and first look at the Eklund Opera production on Oct. 24 at noon.
The Eklund Opera Program production of “West Side Story” runs Oct. 26-28, 2018. Tickets start at $15.