‘West Side Story’: Tackling the greatness of Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins-Laurents

Photo by Tim Fort

Joey Dippel

Weston’s Jets are

By JIM LOWE
The Lowe Down

For his swan song as one of Weston Playhouse’s three co-artistic directors of 30 years, Tim Fort is directing “West Side Story.” The iconic American musical was groundbreaking in its integration of music by Leonard Bernstein, one of America’s greatest composers; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who was to change Broadway himself as a composer-writer; and book by Broadway veteran Arthur Laurents, who captured the gritty reality of 1957 racism — which remains real today.

As important as Bernstein’s music was in creating that world was the evocative choreography of Jerome Robbins. Vermont’s oldest professional theater company will feature the original dances in its production, which runs July 12-Aug. 4 at Weston Playhouse, on the village green.

“It’s an extraordinarily talented cast,” Fort said recently by phone. “Felicity (Stiverson), the choreographer, teaches these dances incredibly quickly, given how complex they are, and they catch on right away.

“But in some ways it’s not too surprising, because we cast this show particularly around people who would be able to do this Jerome Robbins choreography,” he said. “It took a long time to do the casting, but it’s paying off now.”

“West Side Story” premiered on Broadway in 1957, became an Academy Award-winning feature film in 1961 starring Natalie Wood, and has become a revered staple of American theater, inspired by the plot of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The Puerto Rican street gang, the Sharks, is taunted by the all-white Jets. When Tony, a former member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, sister of the Sharks’ leader, the gangs’ rivalry boils over — and the inevitable happens.

“It’s incredibly sad that it’s still vital today, more so than ever,” Fort said. “The underlying story is of tolerance and understanding, that we should understand the other, and that means people of different genders, different ages, and of course different ethnicities and colors. And if we don’t, we have what happens in ‘West Side Story.’”

In his winter job, Fort has taught “West Side Story” for 30 years in his musical theater class at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.

“It’s foundational to me to all modern musical theater,” he said. “It’s right in the middle of the 20th century when people already had developed what is called the Golden Age musical, which was a great step forward with musicals like “Oklahoma!” and all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.”

That opened the door to take the musical even further, and introduced the 27-year-old Sondheim, who had yet to have a Broadway show. Bernstein felt he needed help with lyrics, and Arthur Laurents had heard Sondheim’s unproduced musical “Front Doors in Flatbush.’”

“That had young men speaking in New York ways,” Fort said. “He thought that this young lyricist might help Bernstein get the jargon right and sound right. So he was ripe and ready to become the Sondheim we now know, who changed musical theater in the latter part of the 20th century.

Bernstein, already one of America’s foremost composers, was finishing up his show “Candide,” which was nearly opera in its demands. He had already had success on Broadway with “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town.”

“They all predicted the music in ‘West Side Story,’” Fort said. “But the reason he’s so important and the show doesn’t sound quite like any other show is that Bernstein was not only a great composer, he was a great musical arranger and conductor as well. Most Broadway-musical writers would write the songs and let a Broadway arranger orchestrate the music.

“But all that amazing percussive stuff that’s in ‘West Side Story’ in the orchestrations is pure Bernstein,” Fort said. “That’s why we often hear just concert versions of this show, because the music itself is extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult.”

Equally important was Robbins, a director as well as choreographer, who had already been integrating dance into the storytelling in shows like “On the Town” and “The King and I.”

“That solidified that position of insisting on the storytelling on every level, and the acting and the singing and, of course, the dance,” Fort said, “Which is why a lot of people who do ‘West Side Story’ do not try to come up with (Robbins’) dancing, because his choreography is like Bernstein’s orchestration — so incredibly astute and wonderful and difficult and everything.”

On top of that, veteran producers turned down “West Side Story.”

“Stephen Sondheim called up a young friend of his named Hal Prince to come produce it,” Fort said. “So, now we know Harold Prince is one of the most famous director-producers. So they had a dream team.”

This will be Weston Playhouse’s first “West Side Story” during Fort’s 30 years, though the directors had always wanted to present it.

“The problems of producing this are immense,” Fort said. “You can’t do it with fewer than 27 people, which is what we have, and most casts are much larger than that — but 27 people at Weston is huge. And you need those triple threats (actor-singer-dancer) all the way through, and you need a music director (Larry Pressgrove) who can handle those orchestrations without a full orchestra — but we need to create that sound.”

The biggest problem, however, is the size of the stage, with its proscenium opening of 23 feet — about half the size of a normal Broadway stage.

“But the shows become so much more intimate and upfront, and the storytelling is so much easier,” Fort said. “To see those songs and to see those dances so close is glorious.”

Weston Playhouse

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company presents “West Side Story” July 12-Aug. 4, by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, at the Weston Playhouse, 12 Park St. in Weston. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, plus 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday and Saturday. Tickets are $54-$68; call 802-824-5288, or go online to www.westonplayhouse.org.