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BWW Interviews: WEST SIDE STORY Comes to DPAC - The Creative Process with Joey McKneely

One of the most well-known shows of all time, West Side Story, is coming to the Durham Performing Arts Center this June.  In anticipation of its arrival, I spoke with Joey McKneely, the show's choreographer, to gain insight into the unique elements of this production.  He offered a glimpse into the creative minds of the late Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents.  He explains why every generation needs to experience the power of West Side Story, and why this imagining of the production brings to light the relevance of the themes.

BroadwayWorld: I was hoping that you could start by just talking about the evolution of the show, like how this West Side Story is the same and different from back in 1957?

Joey McKneely: Wow. Okay, well, I guess the first part, the evolution with this show is Arthur Laurents, the original librettist of the 1957 version, is taking a new look at the show, in a new light, unencumbered from the other creators.  He was able to, he wanted to look at the musical more like a play.  And so in doing that, is trying to get as much truth out of the story and the characters as possible.  One of those was introducing the element of a native language to the immigrants, the Sharks, and that was part of the introduction of Spanish to the script so that when the Puerto Ricans spoke to each other, they spoke in their native language, which is very authentic and very natural.  That was one aspect of the evolution.  The other aspect was Arthur really wanted to take a look at some of the choreographic elements and some of the presentational parts of the musical that were done in a very different time, 1957, and try to create a more edgy environment and a more violent sort of behavior in the characters.  So, he asked me to take a look at some of the choreography and see where can we move the musical comedy or the musical presentation show time aspect of the choreography and try to integrate it more into the story if possible.

BWW: So how much of the choreography is a preservation of what Jerome Robbins did and how much is new?

JM: I'd say 95% of it is a preservation of the original.  It's just little things here and there.  I may want to say more like 90% because Arthur really wanted to re-do Officer Krupke and the Jets song.  Those were very much vaudeville type of production numbers, and he wanted to remove that.  Part of it was more or less taking away choreography, especially for Office Krupke.  He, along with David Saint, wanted to re-stage it from a director's point of view as opposed to a choreographer's point of view.  So that's very different.  And half of the ballet, the second half of the ballet, half of it's gone from the original.  It used to be two parts, actually almost three parts to the ballet, the dream ballet, the nightmare part of the ballet, and now it seems we've only done the dream part of the ballet.

BWW: You had mentioned the introduction of the Spanish elements, and I know that Lin-Manuel Miranda did those translations, but some of them were changed back.  Was the evolution too quick for audiences or what was the motivation behind that?

JM: From my perspective, I think it was difficult for a non-speaking audience to obtain all the vital information that they needed to obtain through the storytelling, the writing, so I think with that, they pulled back on some instances with lyrics and dialogue just to make sure that an audience who doesn't speak Spanish could still follow along with the storytelling.  I think it's a really nice compromise now, where you get the original intention that they were going for, but you still understand the story.

BWW: To you, what is it about West Side Story that's helped it endure all these decades?

JM: I always believe it's the music first.  I really believe it's Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's score that just really captivates the whole themes of love and first love and youthful energy and how someone comes of age.  I think they captured that remarkably well in terms of the score and the variations of the music.  And secondly, I think it's the choreography. Not to be biased [laughter], but I think it's the choreography.  It's so iconic.  So many people remember the choreography and it's so vital to the energy of West Side Story. You know, the violence of these gangs, to be able to tell it in this riveting style, Jerome Robbins really captured the essence of that.

BWW: What are the challenges of choreographing those types of scenes so that you are true to the music and the choreography but don't give over to a place that looks choreographed and doesn't look like authentic violence?

JM:  Well, I think that was one of Arthur Laurents's major objections was really trying to sandpaper those edges.  And I think always it's about character.  Again, that's what so remarkable about Mr. Robbins' choreography, is that it always comes from character first.  And, the character, if you feel the correct emotions, and have the correct action that you're going for, that your movement will become very specific, and it will not look like a dancer's move, although it is.  But it feels like a character move that only that character in that moment in time would do that.

BWW: Since the national tour plays a lot bigger houses, were there any tweaks made to the show to accommodate larger houses or is it pretty much the same as it was at the Palace?

JM: It's pretty much the same.  I think that gets very dicey, because when you travel with a tour, you play small, medium, and large houses.  So, to try to curtail the show for each venue becomes almost a nightmare, so we just stay true to the show, I believe in always comes across strongly.

BWW: Here in Durham, we have an almost 3,000-seat theater, so the people in back row will still feel it?

JM: Wow. Because West Side is so powerful to begin with, I think it's one of those shows that play to very big houses because the visuals are so arresting and the voices really carry across.  And the emotion, the storytelling is just so dramatic, so I believe it will reach.  I don't know, [laughter] I've never seen it in a 3,000 seat house, so I'm not quite sure.

BWW:  Well, we'll have to find out.  What's your favorite moment in the show?

JM: Oh, wow, I have so many, I really do.  I think because I danced the show in Jerome Robbins' [Broadway], there's so many choreographic moments that are, that I did personally, that are very close to me.  It's always hard – I think the ballet is one of my favorite moments, and of course Cool and America always are top of this.

BWW: Well, America's my favorite, so…

JM: It's hard, you know, like ask a mother to pick her favorite child.  I give so much to each and every dance.  Dance at the gym, oh my God, it's like how do you… I think that's what makes West Side so fantastic, because everyone has favorites.

BWW: How did actually knowing Jerome Robbins and working with him influence your recreating his work?

JM: Primarily, I think his understanding of holding onto the integrity of the choreography.  I worked first with him for a total of six months, so I really watched his process, and we did all of his different styles.  It was really [about] understanding where his choreography comes from, and it comes from character.  It's very specific and there's no gray area.  To hold on to that integrity, and also to push the dancers beyond their capability because that's what West Side does.

BWW: Lastly, why is it important that this generation of theatergoers see this West Side Story?

JM: I truly believe that West Side Story is the benchmark of American musical theater.  It's when it changed, when it became modern.  I believe every generation needs to experience the power of what a musical can do in social terms and the storytelling; it can reveal as a mirror to society.  What's so remarkable about West Side Story is it really hold up a mirror to society and what makes it so timeless is even if it was done in 1957, we still are facing the same sort of problems and issues today, and it's 2012 now.  We will still be facing these same issues in 20 more years, 25 more years.  Maybe one day we won't, but that's human civilization, and I believe we always will.  So, I think that's what's wonderful for the audience to feel the power of what a musical can accomplish.

West Side Story opens at the Durham Performing Arts Center tonight, June 5 and runs through June 10. For tickets and more information, visit

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