“I have never seen a production of West Side Story. Ever.”
Sarah Rodgers can’t help but laugh as she drops this little truth bomb. Somehow, in all her years in theatre, from the classical training she received at UBC right up to this moment—the middle of her eighth summer with Theatre Under the Stars—she has never seen a staged production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s 1958 classic. Until now, of course.
Rodgers is directing the Tony Award–winning musical as part of TUTS’ 2016 program, in repertory with Beauty and the Beast. The show, which centres on young lovers caught up in the deadly rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets, two gangs of different ethnic backgrounds, has been in rehearsals since May, and now opening night is just days away. Rodgers calls West Side Story “epic”, confessing that it’s one of the hardest shows she’s directed in her life. It’s also a dream come true.
“I’ve always wanted to do West Side Story!” Rodgers exclaims, sitting on the deck of the Stanley restaurant adjacent to Malkin Bowl, where rehearsals are underway. A lover of Romeo and Juliet, upon which West Side Story is based, she’s kept the two scripts side by side since day one. “I don’t want to give away all my secrets, but there’s a little nod to Romeo and Juliet in my West Side Story and that will be fun for the audience to see.”
Rodgers has been trying to make the massive show her own, but a key roadblock early on forced her to get creative within very specific constraints. “I wanted to update it, make it a modern world, set in New York, 2016,” she says. “I even hired [dance artist] Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg because I wanted my choreographer to come in and give me that hip-hop, street feel. We found out from the team in New York that you cannot update it. Under no circumstances will they give permission to update West Side Story. It has to be set in period, 1958. You cannot change the year.”
Being forced to keep it 1958 also serves as a stark reminder that, sadly, the musical and its themes—racism, hate, intolerance—are as relevant now as they were then. “It’s a sad state of affairs that history continues to repeat itself and that we still have a race problem,” Rodgers says. She was committed to honouring the script’s diversity in the casting as much as possible. In West Side Story, the Sharks are Puerto Rican, but Rodgers broadened her search, reaching out to Latino communities, where she found two of the leads, Alen Dominguez and Alexandra Lainfiesta (who play Sharks gang leader Bernardo and Anita, respectively).
What truly justifies Rodgers’s description of the musical as “epic” is its scope: this production features a full cast of 32 members and a 17-piece orchestra. “At our very first read-through, we heard my musical director and the pianist play the score for the first time and my choreographer and I turned and looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh my God, we have got our work cut out for us!’ ” Rodgers says with a laugh. “It has definitely felt overwhelming.”
There’s so much music that the entire first tech night was just staging the prologue.
“The script is thin,” she explains. “It’s rich, but as a script, there’s not a lot. It’s incredibly economically written. It feels like a place that has had great dramaturgy.…There’s so much music! And it isn’t just song, that’s why it’s so difficult. There’s all kinds of music to physical movement happening. It was so crafted to [Jerome] Robbins’s choreography, and I can understand why they said ‘You have to do it to our choreography.’ You can hear all the punctuation and you know that it was set to something that that original actor was doing. In a way, it’s working from the outside in.”
But from that vantage point comes a unique perspective. The first fully staged production of West Side Story that Rodgers will see will be her own, and the roadblocks have only deepened her appreciation for the piece.
“It truly is a masterpiece,” Rodgers says, smiling. “The music, the book, the libretto—it’s pretty darn perfect.”
Theatre Under the Stars’ West Side Story runs to August 20 at Malkin Bowl.