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BWW Interview: Sophie Salvesani & Nigel Huckle of WEST SIDE STORY at Crown Theatre

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The two stars of WEST SIDE STORY share their thoughts on their careers, this show, and what got them here

BWW Interview: Sophie Salvesani & Nigel Huckle of WEST SIDE STORY at Crown Theatre Sophie Salvesani and Nigel Huckle are no strangers to the roles of Maria and Tony in WEST SIDE STORY, having played the leads in 2019. Now bringing the show to Perth and Brisbane, the two stars share their thoughts on the show, their characters, what's changed since they played these roles in 2019, and how the themes from a show that was created in the 1960s are still relevant today.

How did you stay sharp and pass the time last year, and are you ready to get into a big performance again?

Sophie: I was incredibly lucky to be able to remain with Opera Australia for half of the year. I managed to get home to Brisbane before borders shut, and I used the time to learn two operas, Rigoletto and Le Nozze di Figaro. It's a very unusual thing to have the time to just be able to sit and learn shows of any sort so that was good. When my contract came up I was able to transition into teaching because I'm a primary school teacher too. I was excited to get the call saying we were doing this show again. So many shows just haven't been happening, not only here but all around the world, and that makes this a unique experience and one I really appreciate.

Nigel: After losing my job in theatre that I loved I wanted to take my brain away from the grind of being an actor and performer. I didn't take a break entirely, but it was nice to be able to shift my focus elsewhere. I worked on a Master of International Relations at Melbourne University. That actually gave me an opportunity to fall in love with singing and performing again and know that what I do was because I love it, not just because it's my job. I used the time away to appreciate performing more, and now I'm back into it I have a new enthusiasm and love for performing. We came over to Perth so quickly and the people here have been nothing but welcoming, and it's certainly very special to be able to bring theatre to people at a time like this.

In terms of longevity, very few (if any) musicals rival WEST SIDE STORY- it opened in the 1960s and has been running on and off since. How does it feel to be playing the leads and working with each other again?

Sophie: It's really good to be back. Maria is such a wonderful role and a challenging role, but I'm excited for the challenge! I didn't get to go through the whole process with Nigel last time, so it does feel new in many ways, but in terms of being back on stage and being back on the set it all feels very familiar. Working with Nigel and to be able to go through all the early stages, and to figure out our characters and everything together has been good. You wouldn't think it would really make that much difference because we ended up doing around 20 shows together last time, but I feel so much better about it this time. I feel so much better and calmer before opening this time than I did in the middle of our last run.

Nigel: It's different for me because I was an alternate and only joined in 2019 mid tour. But I was thinking about it the other day, we're playing these roles that were established sixty years ago, that have been played by hundreds if not thousands of performers, and we're a continuation of that. It's something very special to be a part of. Last time I learnt the whole show working alone with an associate director, separate to everyone else. I flew home to Melbourne not expecting anything for a while but actually got called back within 24 hours. Then when I arrived I was told that I had a technical rehearsal that morning and would be in the show that night! I was worried Sophie would have a clear vision of how the show went and how it should go, not only back then but when we started the process this time. Even though it's the same show we're more mature and there's always new things to discover, and we got to discover those things together. It does feel in many ways like a brand-new show because we were able to discover those things and build new things into the show together. To work with Joey [McKneely, Director and choreographer] and everyone else in the creative team in a way I couldn't before has just been amazing. My cues used to give me a bit of anxiety because I'd just go over how much I had to do, whereas now I've been able to ease into it and be comfortable I'm much more comfortable now. Being with everyone in the rehearsal room from start to finish, and to be able to immerse myself in the role and really absorb it and get an idea of everything, it really does make it more comfortable.

Joey McKneely has directed WEST SIDE STORY all around the world in some huge theatres, whilst Brendan Yeates has an impressive CV of big musicals, not to mention huge TV and live shows. Given they know the show and the choreography so well, do you feel you still have that creative freedom in the show, and how do you go with the fact the show is so highly choreographed?

Sophie: The whole show is very choreographed; not just the dance sequences, but how we move across the stage, and how the staging changes, so there are very strict guidelines. But at the same time, I found some moves just didn't work for me and my body, or they didn't look right when I did them, or I just didn't feel right doing it, and they'd always ask me if I had any other ideas for what felt right, and if not they came up with something that worked. Yes the guidelines are there, but I think each performer feels that a big part of themselves goes into the show. I don't have a dancing background myself, and when I did the show in 2019 Joey insisted I join the dancers in their ballet class. They're all such amazing dancers in the show, so it was quite advanced ballet. It drove me to tears on the first day! In saying that, this time around Joey didn't ask me to join the dancers but I did in anyway and I've really enjoyed it, the dancers have just been so encouraging and it's been lovely to be part of that group. I really enjoy the dancing and choreographed aspects, and I hope I do my dances well!

Nigel: There may not be much room for freedom in the choreography, but we're encouraged to take our own approaches to the psychology of the show. We're different people to even when we did the show in 2019, and we get to approach it as two different people. How Sophie and I interact is different to how Angela [Thomson, playing Anita] and Temujin [Tera, playing Bernardo] interact on stage. All our movements may be choreographed, but how our characters listen and respond to each other, and other characters can find those things in their relationships and we can find those in ours, and our creative freedom has very much been encouraged in that way. I personally have a dance background, but then I've done so many shows now where my main thing hasn't been dancing that I don't necessarily label myself as a dancer so much these days. I guess my background made it that bit easier to pick up the movements and dancing instructions, but Tony's character has very little dancing really. But that's fine. I don't mind getting to turn up half an hour later and not having to go to dance classes.

The show touches on many different themes, many that were perhaps more relevant when the show began but others that are very much relevant today. What do you get from the show and what do you hope the audience gets?

Sophie: I think in many ways the show is more relevant now than it was then, and certainly the variety of issues that may not even have been things people thought about back then are very much front and center of mind now. Whilst the violence and gang aspect may not be so relevant- though there was a gang related shooting in Sydney before we left- the show touches on how people are divided by their religious beliefs and even their political beliefs. I get a sense every time I do this show that outside of the theatre there is something happening that is relevant to the themes of the show. I hope people see that there's never a good outcome to violence for anyone. I suppose that's Maria's message in the final scene, so I really hope people leave with that in their mind.

Nigel: I think race is a pivotal part of this show. The rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks is built around differing races and immigration. There's been quite a reckoning in the past 12 months if not the last few years, with so many tragedies illustrating the fact that we need to keep thinking about these issues. The show is also quite grounding, we see that these issues we have now do have similarities with issues from years ago, so maybe we haven't come as far as we might have hoped. The message I get from the show is there's just no need for treating others different, and nothing good at all comes from it. I think every new production of WEST SIDE STORY aims to give that message. The new Broadway revival has an incredibly diverse cast giving that message, and I've certainly thought about how we in this production can give that message and it's something we've talked about a fair bit. The themes throughout the show, and certainly at the end, say that there's just no need for the prejudice and 'othering' of people.

WEST SIDE STORY is at Crown Theatre Perth until July 17, before opening at QPAC, Brisbane, on July 24. Tickets and more information can be found through westsidestory.com.au


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