A lot has changed since “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 1957. The rough Manhattan streets where the show is set are all pretty much gentrified now. The gangs have moved on and they’re a far cry from the Keds-rocking kids that dance out their frustrations on the stage. So while this 62-year-old musical might be a tad dated, it remains (thank you, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim) a thrilling experience. And when it opens at Lyric Opera, audiences may find it more timely than they expect.
While it’s easy to see the similarity between our current immigration issues and the white-versus-Puerto Rican animosity that fuels the play, as director Francesca Zambello notes, that us-and-them divide strikes in even deeper ways today. “With the rise of social media, we have all become more tribal in our outlook,” she suggests. We may be virtually connected, but that doesn’t make us one big happy family. “Perhaps we find it easy to engage with people of different cultural backgrounds,” wonders Zambello, “but what about our differences in education, religion, resources?”
For all the darkness that runs through this Romeo and Juliet story, this is a dance-driven musical. Performer-choreographer Julio Monge worked with the show’s original director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins, late in his career. “What was extraordinary … was his eloquence with movement and the range of emotions he was able to convey,” says Monge. “The scene when Tony and Maria meet happens in the middle of a ferocious dance duel between the two gangs. You’re in their heads and their hearts. You experience first love with them. And then it all gets interrupted, and you are reminded that this is a landscape where love cannot live.” Robbins toiled to achieve that storytelling mastery. “I remember seeing him on street corners during lunch breaks many times, moving his hands and pacing, thinking how he was going to stage a particular moment,” recalls Monge. “He was like a mad scientist. He was ahead of the game and really, we were in the presence of a genius at work.”
‘West Side Story’
May 3 – June 2, Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker. For tickets (starting at $36), visit lyricopera.org