'West Side Story' in the Middle East

The matchless ability to weave a solemn narrative through music and dance still dazzles after more than 50 years.

west side story 248 (photo credit: )
west side story 248
(photo credit: )
'West Side Story has always been very special to me because it's actually the score that I grew up on, and it's how I learned to sing . . . I've been singing "Maria" every day of my life since I was 14 years old," Scott Sussman reveals. For the last few years, Sussman has been singing "Maria" onstage while playing Tony in an international tour of West Side Story - and from September 2-14, he'll be singing "Maria" here in Israel when the production comes to Tel Aviv's Opera House. Since its premiere on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story has won audience's hearts with its modern twist on Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet. With New York street gangs replacing the Montagues and Capulets, and with ethnic tensions rather than family rivalries, the protagonists' love story became not just tragic but relevant for contemporary viewers. Yet the magical pull of West Side Story lies not only in the updated narrative but also in the production's compelling synthesis of music and dance. Choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, who conceived the musical, teamed up with composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and playwright Arthur Laurents to design a work in which the score and the movement propelled the action. Bernstein and Sondheim created a series of stirring hits, from "Maria" to "America" to "Tonight." Meanwhile, Robbins' dynamic choreography conveyed the feelings of the show's characters, whether in the tender, dreamy duets of Maria and Tony or in the explosive group dances of the Jets and the Sharks. The result was a production whose emotional power was magnified. "[The musical] is so directly going to your emotions because of the score and the music and the singing and the dancing and everything," explains Mascha Pörzgen, the resident director for the version which will be performed in Israel. She adds, "You have to take a lot of tissues for the second act!" This current touring production began in 2007 as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of West Side Story, and it captures the essence of the iconic original Broadway version. Robbins' unforgettable choreography has been reconstructed by Joey McKneely, who worked with the master and learned the show directly from him. The production garnered the seal of approval from both the Jerome Robbins Foundation, which gave McKneely permission to restage the show, and from the Leonard Bernstein Foundation, which licensed Don Chan to conduct West Side Story. Even as this West Side Story hearkens back to an older production, the cast of 39 young, devoted performers lends a refreshing energy to the show. Sussman, who joined this tour as Tony in December 2007, marvels, "It's amazing that I could be doing the show for as long as I have and be singing for as long as I have, and yet it's never the same. It's the beauty of live theater. It's all really essentially happening for the first time." From France to Spain to Japan, this production has generated enthusiastic cheers (and, at the end, tears). Now both its resident director and its star are looking forward to bringing West Side Story to Israel. For Sussman, who is Jewish, this tour stop is particularly meaningful. He reflects, "I have never been to Israel, but I have always wanted to go. Every year at Passover we say l'shana haba'a b'Yerushalayim. It's very exciting . . . to be able to come and do the show I love in my favorite role - for me it's very special." West Side Story plays at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center (the Opera House) from September 2 through September 14. Tickets (175-428 NIS) are available at 03-6927777.