BWW Interviews: Director BT McNicholl Takes a Fresh Look at WEST SIDE STORY
"The show still has the energy of those brilliant young collaborators toiling on together and shining that diamond," says BT McNicholl of his latest project, a new production of West Side Story which opens at the Ogunquit Playhouse September 5 and runs through September 28. The Broadway writer-director is thrilled to have the opportunity "to take a fresh look" at the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents-Robbins classic and to bring to it "our own aesthetic."
Michael Schweikardt's newly designed Ogunquit production is choreographed by Jeffry Denman with musical direction by Ken Clifton. McNicholl is thrilled to be working with Denman for the first time: "We have been trying to hook up for a long time, so when Bradford Kenney called me, I jumped at the chance."
McNicholl, who is coming to the masterpiece for the first time, says he "can still feel the material when I am working on it." He admires the precision of Arthur Laurents' book, and feels his task as director is to "mine the story for clarity. Laurents did a magical job of telling a great story in very few words. Nothing is repeated; every word is important, and our job is to make their meaning clear and give the full measure of the narrative." He also stands in awe of Leonard Bernstein's score. "It's pure genius! There's nothing like it before or after except maybe Sondheim's works. I am bowled over by the brilliance of the music, not only the songs, but also the orchestrations. There are so many tiny details in the underscoring that help us get into the minds and hearts of the characters. So as a director, I just have to follow the roadmap."
West Side Story is the first big musical McNicholl has done in a while. "I've been doing mostly (straight) plays recently, which makes my work on musicals even more satisfying. I come at the musical from the point of view of the drama, trying to make things more specific and detailed."
The veteran director of such Broadway productions as Billy Elliot, Cabaret, Passion, and Spamalot, as well as a host of Off Broadway and regional theatre hits, McNicholl recalls that "his first director crush" was on Hal Prince, whom he subsequently met, and "whose body of work will be hard to match." McNicholl also draws his inspiration from the legendary directors with whom he has worked, among them James Lapine, Jerry Zaks, Rob Marshall, David Hare, Stephen Daldry, and Mike Nichols. "I am very grateful to all those men. Each had a different aesthetic, and working with them was my graduate school," says McNicholl, who grew up in Darien, CT, and directed his first show, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown in high school. Bitten early on by the theatre bug, he likens his own youthful artistic experiences to those of Billy Elliot. "My dad was a wonderful guy, but his interest was more in sports. Yet, to his credit, he recognized that his son had artistic dreams and ambitions, and he supported them."
McNicholl not only found his calling in directing for the stage, but also in writing. He has created the book and lyrics for shows such as The IT Girl, and 101 Dalmatians, as well as adapting and translating numerous plays and musicals. In the case of The It Girl, he also directed, a feat he says requires caution. "George S.Kaufman succeeded as both a writer and director, but it is difficult. He almost always had a collaborator or co-writer, which is wise. I am working on a musical version of The Blue Angel now, and Jeffrey Sweet is my co-writer, and I brought in Jerry Zaks to collaborate on The IT Girl."