Somewhere in America tonight, West Side Story is being performed, just as it has been nearly every evening since its 1959 Broadway debut. Leonard Bernstein's score and Jerome Robbins' staging are inarguably immortal, but can a Romeo and Juliet set among Eisenhower-era youth still speak to audiences in the age of Trump? According to Orlando Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jim Helsinger and his cast and crew, not only is Tony and Maria's tragedy more relevant here and now than ever before, but the production they are opening this weekend is the most intimate West Side you've ever experienced.
The best-known musical based upon the Bard would seem a natural for Shakes, and Helsinger tells me that West Side has been on their wish list for years.
"We did a survey and West Side Story and Les Miz were the top two musicals that people wanted to see. ... There's no musical that's more resonant with us as a Shakespeare theater than West Side Story, but we couldn't get the rights." The timing of their availability turned out to OST's advantage: "In hindsight, I'm glad we couldn't get the rights until now, because we're much better at doing musicals ... now we're really ready."
Though the words and music are as everyone remembers, Helsinger says that mounting it in the Margeson Theater, where seating surrounds the stage on three sides, makes it a whole new show. "The fact that it's in three-quarters thrust fundamentally changes the show in a way that makes it more intimate," he says. "If you are sitting on the sides and you are watching the dance, you're not watching the dance, you're at the dance."
Two people who know the show's traditional presentation better than anyone are choreographer Anthony Raimondi and actor Drew Foster (who plays Riff in this production), both of whom performed with the national tour that passed through the Bob Carr in 2011, as well as numerous other productions. But when I interview them during an orchestra rehearsal the week before opening, both seem energized by the opportunities afforded by this in-your-face presentation.
"Audiences, especially the side audiences, are going to feel like they are right in it. They are going to feel like they are in the gym, and under the highway for the rumble, because it's all happening around them," Foster enthuses.
Raimondi concurs: "Seeing it in this space, you're in the middle of everything. You're in the middle of the romance, in the middle of the violence," he says, while reassuring me that the unconventional seating arrangement won't render unrecognizable the beloved dance numbers. "I've learned the original Jerome Robbins choreography and that's what I'm setting here," he says. "The biggest thing is keeping with the intention of his choreography."
If it still has the same intensity and integrity, Raimondi says, it's in keeping with Robbins' objective. "You want to keep with his original intention, but still make it fresh and open for a new cast to interpret."
The intimate staging has also inspired scenic designer Jim Hunter, a veteran of two previous Shakes shows and of D.C.'s Folger Theater, who takes me on a tour of the mostly completed set. Realistically weathered brickwork and boards (painted by artist Rebecca Pancoast) authentically evoke an urban decay informed by Helsinger's days living in New York. "I lived in Hell's Kitchen when it was actually Hell's Kitchen; I could never afford to live there now," Helsinger says wryly. "I wanted that sense of the streets of New York, that this story takes place in a gritty environment. I don't want the floor to look like a dance floor; it should look like asphalt."
For the climactic rumble, the set also conceals some high-tech wizardry original Tony-winning designer Oliver Smith could only dream of. For the fight scene under the bridge, an overhead truss cantilevers down on a computer-controlled winch system. Patrons will want to keep their hands and feet tucked in when that happens – or maybe for the whole show, Helsinger jokes. "If you're in the front row, criss-cross applesauce, because if you stick your legs out you're going to get stepped on."
Physical intimacy aside, everyone I speak with says this West Side feels especially immediate and relevant in the wake of the Pulse shooting. "I think it's special that this show is happening in Orlando right now," Foster reflects. "There aren't many musicals about gun violence and racism." Raimondi echoes, "It's interesting to see how the local actors are relating things that happened that night to things that happen in the show – the racism, the discrimination, the violence."
Both Raimondi and Helsinger point to the scene where Anita is taunted as emblematic. As Helsinger puts it, "A story about prejudice against Latinos that ends in gun violence absolutely resonates right now.
"Whenever we take another group – LGBTQ, Latinos, immigrants – and paint them with a broad brush, [it's] a dangerous and terrible thing. Individuals are individuals, and the more you do that, the more you create a self-fulfilling prophecy."
In our interview, Foster quotes playwright Arthur Laurents' single-sentence synopsis of West Side: "Love cannot survive in a world of hate and bigotry." Helsinger's framing is even starker: "This is about what happens when we do not embrace others for their differences, and do not embrace the next immigrant group coming in ... people get killed."