Because of the 1961 film adaptation, more people have likely seen West Side Story than ever have seen Romeo and Juliet, to which it plays plot homage. The 1957 Broadway source might very well also be able to make that claim, considering itís a musical mainstay across the country, from road shows to regional theaters to high school productions.
The modern take on star-crossed young lovers, back when NYC street gangs used switchblades rather than drive-by MAC-10s, had a gritty innocence about it. Between the snappy direction of choreographer Jerome Robbins, the compelling music by Leonard Bernstein, and the memorable lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, both the stage and screen versions made for powerful melodrama.
Expanding from song into song and dance extends the Trinity Repertory Company tradition of making theater approachable as well as exciting for Providence audiences. This is the sixth musical the company has staged since its 1996-97 season, with associate artistic director Amanda Dehnert directing most of them. West Side Story is more dance-reliant than most musicals, so most of the performers have been imported from NYC auditions.
Choreographer Sharon Jenkins was a dancer for several years with the first modern dance company in the state, the former Rhode Island Dance Repertory Company. She has been designing dances for Trinity Rep for some 30 years. In 1979 Jenkins directed Side by Side by Sondheim at the theater. She is the wife of Richard Jenkins, a noted character actor (Six Feet Under) and former Trinity artistic director.
Jenkins and Dehnert spoke about West Side Story recently during a rehearsal break.
Q: Amanda, youíve taken pains to do things right here. Is a 16-piece orchestra necessary for what you wanted to happen?
Dehnert: I see West Side Story as a pretty important landmark piece in musical theater, partially because the music is far more than just accompaniment. It actually executes large parts of the story. There are sections that just are music. The way the scoring interacts with the vocal lines, the way it all interacts with dance, the music is essential and isnít just the thing that holds up the human voice. So it being a character, we had to really represent it correctly in order for the story to happen. Which is why it requires a large number of people to play it properly.
Q: Sharon, was the prospect and the challenge of revisiting something so appreciated intimidating at all?
Jenkins: It was. It was intimidating. I think if I had been 10 years younger, I wouldnít have done it ó I would have been a little more afraid. Now Iím past that, you know. I figure I might not have many chances left to do such a wonderful piece. I saw the movie when I was 14 years old ó Iíve waited 43 years to do this.
Iíve done the show before, so I had already done the original choreography, although itís been years and years ó I donít remember any of it, really. Just pieces of it. And it was inspired choreography. So I tried to think of what it felt like to do that choreography and try to come up with moments that, hopefully, these dancers would feel as inspired with. Not that Iím comparing myself to Robbins, of course.
Q: Your way of doing it: is it less balletic? Whatís the movement through line that you were trying to establish?
Jenkins: I think itís very theatrical. I think itís athletic. It might be slightly less balletic.
Dehnert: Itís Sharonís choreography, which is incredibly theatrical, incredibly athletic, comes from a very strong technique base ó but I feel like itís not a technique.
Jenkins: When I choreograph for anything, it might have some modern, it might have some jazz, it might have some of the classic lines that ballet might have. But I donít really put it into a dance idiom.
Q: Did you make a point of referencing the original choreography, because weíve all seen the movie?
Jenkins: No, not at all. I didnít even look at it again, because I didnít want to be influenced by it subconsciously. I really wanted to make it my own. But the intent of a moment is what the moment is, and you just try to make it. We didnít try to change what happens at the dance in the gym, itís just: How do I interpret that through dance? As opposed to: How did he interpret it before?
Q: So this wasnít any more challenging than other opportunities youíve had to design a dance?
(They both laugh.) Jenkins: I didnít mean to say that! It was very challenging. Very challenging. Thereís an enormous amount of choreography. Long, four-minute straight dance sections. And thatís a lot of choreography to get up in a very short amount of time. That was the challenge. If Iíd had six months to work with these dancers on it, then it wouldíve been a lot easier. It was getting it up and hopefully getting it right ó because there isnít a lot of time to change such complicated stuff. But we had great dancers, who could pick it up fast.
Q: Is there a particular number where your choreography especially shines through? Do you have a favorite?
Jenkins: I donít, I really donít. My life as a dancer has been in a variety of modes. I started out as a teenager doing nightclub stuff, so I understand that kind of world. Then I moved into some theatrical dance and theater, and then I went into modern dance. So it wasnít like Iíd been purely a modern dancer or purely a jazz dancer. I had a lot of different lives as a dancer.
Q: Was the Jerome Robbins choreography as much a departure for musicals as it appeared to be in the film adaptation?
Dehnert: I think what makes West Side Story different is that the conception of it was from a dancer and choreographer. As opposed to from a director who brought in a choreographer. That is why thereís so much dance in it, because it is coming from dance. Itís not just: "Oh, weíll throw in a dance here." Dance is a major voice. Heís telling the story of these kids, and he has them move like kids, and yet in an elevated form.
West Side Story is at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington Street, Providence, through May 30. Call (401) 351-4242.
Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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