The never-ending ‘West Side’ story

The Sharks and the Jets battle it out in the iconic musical coming to Tel Aviv.

West Side Story (photo credit: Courtesy)
West Side Story
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the marks of a great work of art is its timelessness and its ability to appeal to people from all walks of life and of all ages. The musical West Side Story certainly belongs in that category and will surely bring in the crowds during its upcoming 12-date run at the Israel Opera House in Tel Aviv from October 31 to November 9.
The iconic musical premiered in 1957. Based on a book by Arthur Laurents, it tells the story of a tough Upper West Side New York neighborhood and the rivalry between two teenage street gangs. Jerome Robbins conceived and choreographed the show, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein.
All the above are Jewish, and it is probably not by chance that the original storyline of the show was to have focused on the Catholic Jets gang’s anti-Semitic approach toward a rival Jewish bunch called the Emeralds. This was in the late 1940s, and the project went through a long gestation period – and was actually shelved once – before it eventually came to fruition with a contemporary Romeo and Juliet theme interwoven into the script.
The Israeli production of West Side Story features a cast of 35 and will be choreographed and directed by Broadway’s Joey McKneely, with Donald Chan on the conductor’s dais. Chan, who has been with the show for some three decades, says the work’s ability to bring in the crowds for so long is partly due to the universality of the storyline.
“I think it is mainly because it is a timeless story and because people all over the world find themselves in the same situations.
You have all these factions, and they try to get together and they can’t do that. It’s like trying to make peace with the world, but people don’t want to make peace. They want to continue having hate and wars. It’s a tough situation, and people get the story right away. It’s the Romeo and Juliet story all over again.”
Universality is a good way to draw in a wide hinterland of entertainment consumers but, naturally, you have to offer them quality as well. West Side Story has that and more.
“There’s that wonderful music that Leonard Bernstein provided for the score,” notes Chan, “and the wonderful choreography. It’s an iconic piece which I think can never be replicated. It’s one of those one-of-a-kind pieces that has theater and music and dancing as well.”
Chan says that the creators of the show knew from the outset that they were creating something special, although they had no idea how successful it would become.
“Of course, they had doubts.
They didn’t know what was going to come out of it. The original idea of the Catholic gang against the Jewish gang was actually called ‘East Side Story.’ It happens sometimes in theater that you formulate an idea, and it starts modulating into something else.”
Chan conducted a landmark production of West Side Story at La Scala opera house in Milan in 2000 and says he was amazed by the response of the Italian public.
“They were lining up around the block,” he recalls. “We had the original La Scala orchestra and great choreography and a really good cast from the States. It went really well.”
They have been plenty of other memorable renditions of the Kern- Bernstein-Sondheim creation, and Chan has been on stage for more than 1,000 of them to date.
“I never get tired of it,” he declares. “And now I am the ‘old professor’ who knows the show so well, and I know it has to be done in a certain way.”
Chan first conducted West Side Story in 1985 in a low-key production and gradually took over the whole shebang.
“I was asked to do a small production in New York somewhere.” Things obviously went well. “After that, they had their eye on me and gave me a US tour with the show; and when they knew they were going to be doing a production at La Scala, they said they wanted me to head it,” he recounts.
It is an ongoing love story for Chan.
“I have been doing West Side Story ever since,” he says. “I do other shows, but I keep getting pulled back to this. I never tire of it.
It’s one of the shows that has so much going for it. It is such a beautiful piece.”
One of the facts that most indicate West Side Story’s enduring appeal is that it has now spanned several generations of audiences, and the public just keeps on coming back for more, year after year. Naturally, the majority of the audiences these days are not old enough to remember the original production and, says Chan, many of them have not even heard of some of the legendary performers who have graced stages all over the world with the production and other luminaries with whom Chan has worked. The latter include dance greats such Gene Kelly, Ethel Merman and Joel Grey, although not everyone remembers them.
“The other day I mentioned Gene Kelly to someone, and they said ‘Gene Kelly? Who’s that?’ I couldn’t believe they didn’t know Gene Kelly,” says Chan.
In addition to West Side Story, Chan has plenty of other strings to his bow. He plays jazz and classical piano, although he started his musical path in a very different genre.
“As a kid, I was in a rock and roll band, but my classical piano teacher didn’t like that. He said it was doing bad things to my technique and that if I wanted to become a professional classical pianist, I’d better settle down. So I went to [prestigious New York music school] Juilliard.”
Chan has also performed Bernstein’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
“It was a wonderful thrill to do that,” says the pianist-conductorcomposer.
“Also, knowing other pieces by Bernstein I think gives me a broader perspective of West Side Story, too.”
Chan also got to know and work with Bernstein and says he learned a lot from the legendary figure of the classical and other worlds.
“It was very enlightening talking to him about West Side Story and other things, and I think he felt that it was one of his favorite pieces.”
It is not hard to see why.
For tickets and more information: (03) 691-7777 and www.israel-opera.