Making ‘West Side Story’ cool again

Joey McKneely has had an enduring love affair with long-running smash hit musical.

West Side Story 370 (photo credit: Alastair Muir)
West Side Story 370
(photo credit: Alastair Muir)
Joey McKneely has had an enduring love affair with long-running smash hit musical West Side Story. The 47-year-old artist has been involved with the show for over 25 years, in a variety of capacities.
He is currently director of the production which will embark on a 12-date run at the Israel Opera House in Tel Aviv on October 31, through to November 9, and has also been a dancer and choreographer of related material.
It all began for McKneely when he was in cast in several roles in the Broadway production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. Robbins was responsible for the choreography of West Side Story, and the latter production was a sort of compilation of several of Robbins’ popular entertainment vehicles, which also included The King and I and On the Town. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway ran for over 600 performances and won the Tony Award for best direction, and also for best musical.
McKneely says he didn’t have to work too hard to get involved in West Side Story, which was originally devised by Robbins along with composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
“It came for me, I didn’t come for it,” he states. “I always believe that the powers that be in the Bernstein estate and the Robbins estate positioned me to become a part of West Side. That’s how I was originally brought into the [Milan opera house] La Scala production back in 2000.”
McKneely got on board the West Side Story bandwagon, albeit in an offshoot venture, when he did his thing in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. He was not conscious of the original work before that, but when the Broadway show came along, in 1988, it was a formative and challenging experience for the young man.
“I saw the movie on TV as a kid, but it didn’t leave an impression on me, because at that age I wasn’t aware of musicals until the Eighties, when I was coming of age as a dancer,” he recalls. “It was dancing the Jerome Robbins choreography for the first time that really shocked my system and woke me up as a dancer and as a performer.”
The timing was right and ripe for McKneely to get hooked on the work.
“I was 20 or 19 at the time, and I was hormonally and emotionally very close to the age of the characters in the storyline, so that was a natural fit for me,” he says.
There was also a therapeutic component to the venture. “It was a releaser for me. I was able to release my anger, my angst, my insecurities, all of the things I had inside me as a young person. I found an outlet in West Side Story, like all young people need, and that is exactly what the story is saying.”
The Broadway project eventually spawned McKneely’s role the Milanese show, and ensuring that West Side Story kept pace with the times. “It is because of my lineage with Jerome Robbins that I was considered the perfect person to bring West Side Story into a new generation,” notes the director.
While some have referred to the timelessness of the Robbins-Bernstein-Sondheim creation, McKneely said the original format had begun to look its age.
“It had gotten a bit stale over the decades. They wanted to bring a fresh energy into it, and that’s where I came in.”
That said, McKneely is quick to point out that the core of the work was in good health, and that he wasn’t going to try to fix parts that weren’t broke.
“The subject matter and, of course, the glorious score were always intact and, of course, continue to have their enduring appeal. The same original production hadn’t changed since the Fifties – the direction, sets, costumes and lighting were all the same. That made the show seem dated, but the reality, when you stripped away all the periodness of theater from back then, and when you brought it into a period of theater now, in terms of sets, lights and streamlining it, it became more minimalistic in its approach.”
That, says McKneely, helped to get the message of the original storyline across to younger audiences. “It allowed the story, and especially the emotion, to be infused with a stronger vitality, because it wasn’t hampered by this prism of looking into the past. It felt more updated.”
Of course, unfortunately, the basic theme of the West Side Story plot is still very much in the here and now.
“Because Arthur Laurents [the Jewish writer of the book on which the show was based] incorporated the subject matter of racism, in ethnic conflict, into Romeo and Juliet, I believe that is what made it modern. We still deal with this ethnic conflict, be it race, religion, economic or class, we still have this in our modern society,” McKneely observes.
“I believe this is why it still connects to a modern audience, because almost every city we go to around the world has some connection to their own conflicts.”
With the constant migration of people looking for a better life elsewhere, not to mention the heightened connectivity between various parts of the global village, it seems that the central strand of West Side Story is even more relevant today.
“I think it’s even more relevant worldwide now,” concurs McKneely. “I was an American story that was very specific to its period, when the Puerto Ricans came to New York because of Puerto Rica’s new statehood, when it became US territory. I think that’s probably why West Side Story has taken on such a worldwide significance.”
McKneely says his own formative experience as a dancer in the Broadway compilation show informs his directorial role too.
“When I do West Side Story I try to adhere to the youth quality of the cast as much as possible. I don’t try to redo the past. And it is such a beautiful work which gives all age groups that come to the show an intense experience. If you take, for example, a song like “Somewhere” [from the show], it is so beautiful and it has a message of hope. I think we all need that.”
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