BWW Interview: Monday in the Park with George

When word got out that George Chakiris would be coming to San Diego to perform in the Old Globe's world premiere of dance-theatre musical In Your Arms, the arts community was abuzz, especially when it was announced that the Hollywood legend would appear as Guest of Honor at the Free Summer Shakespeare screening of the film of West Side Story at the Globe's outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in Balboa Park on Monday, Aug. 24.

In addition to his Oscar and Golden Globe winning breakout performance as Bernardo in the iconic motion picture, Chakiris has become known for numerous roles in film, television and theater, collaborated with some of the entertainment world's most prominent stars, and recently received the French Minister of Culture's Officier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has become an ambassador for West Side Story, promoting the film's historic and cultural importance worldwide. His WSS performance is in of itself legendary, and for any teenager, past or present (this former teenager included), a chance to sit down with him face to face just before the screening was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

EM: Let's start with West Side Story, of course. Hard to escape that connection.

GC: Well, that was a really lucky time. I'd been working as a chorus dancer in some wonderful musicals in the 50s. Work for dancers in Los Angeles turned to television, but not much. I'd always wanted to go to New York, so I finally did in 1958. A couple of friends that moved there before me were sharing an apartment, and let me stay with them. I slept on their living room couch. They knew everything that was going on in New York. At that time Jerry Robbins was auditioning to replace people in the New York (West Side Story) cast and forming a London company. They told me to go to the Winter Garden Theatre, ask for Ruth Mitchell, who was the stage manager at that time - she became co-producer with Hal Prince. I went to the stage door and - small world - the first person I saw was Howard Jeffrey, who had been a star ballet pupil at the American School of Dance, the very first place I'd studied dancing in Hollywood. It sounds terrible to say "Hollywood," doesn't it?

EM: Actually, no.

GC: [Laughs] Howard was with (American) Ballet Theatre for a while, then was assisting Jerry on West Side. He introduced me to Ruth. She looked at me and said, "I think you should read for Bernardo." She gave me a script, and set up a time for me to audition for Jerry. He was rehearsing Ballet: U.S.A. at the time at the Alvin Theatre. I went during a lunch break - I was the only person there, they'd seen everybody - and I read. Jerry was really nice, made me feel comfortable. Then he said he wanted me to look at the role of Riff, take 20 minutes, go in the wings and look at it. I came back and read for Riff. He wanted me to audition more for that role, so I learned "Cool" and came back maybe a couple of weeks later, and did "Cool." On my birthday in 1958 I got a call from Ruth telling me I had the role of Riff in the London company. The other thing that was so great about that day - I had filed on my California Unemployment, 35 dollars a week [Laughs] in New York, and on that same day I had 7 checks from Unemployment, 35 dollars each. It was a great birthday. But the thing that was wonderful about it, of course, was Jerry Robbins. Who realized any of this at the time? I was just nervous and hoping.

EM: To land a role.

GC: Yes. I remember the first day of rehearsal I thought, "I'm never going to be able to learn this." Jerry sat us all down at the start of rehearsal and said, "We have three weeks to learn this." It was already staged, we just had to learn what was already in place. It was kind of daunting. I of course learned it, but I got to work with Jerry. When I look back - because I'm sort of shy and quiet, I think it took a lot of imagination on his part to cast me first as Riff in the play and then as Bernardo in the film. At least I'd been performing in the theatre, so it wasn't like a nervous audition. But that day when I first got to audition for him was like - I owe him so much. I absolutely loved him. I'd heard stories about him.

EM: About how tough he was?

GC: Yes. But I never had that experience myself with him. Chita (Rivera) says the same thing, she loves him too. The way I think of it - I remember when we were rehearsing for the movie in Los Angeles, we all got there and we'd do a class, a barre, to warm up. Then there'd be a quick break, and then Jerry quietly came into rehearsal. When he came into the room there was electricity in the air. It wasn't anything he did, just everything was amped up. That's the way I like to express it. Jerry. I mean, he's just so amazing. I feel such respect and love and gratitude for him.

EM: He clearly believed in your talent.

GC: I guess he did.

EM: Especially to cast you in both of those difficult roles. How would you compare them as far as difficulty and challenge?

GC: I did the show for a year and a half, so I was playing Riff for that long, and the P.A. speaker is always on in the hallway, so no matter where you're going, you're hearing everything that's happening on stage. Without realizing it, kind of like osmosis, you're learning everything as the show is going on. So you become really familiar with the entire show without even thinking about it. Ken Leroy, the original Bernardo, was wonderful. So I was learning everything. I think I could have played Anita, because I knew all the parts so well. The transition from one to the other was kind of seamless for me, because I was so familiar.

EM: With the music and everything together.

GC: And watching Ken. He was so wonderful, so serious. I remember he'd say just between ourselves, "I think we should rehearse the War Council scene again, just the two of us." That's how dedicated he was. I say that because I really admire Ken. When it came time to work on the movie it was just moving forward. There wasn't a transition at all. I didn't even think I was doing anything different, I just became involved in the character of Bernardo, which I sort of already knew. Also I personally identify with both sides - especially the Sharks, people coming to this country for the first time thinking life is going to be better, and it's not.

EM: Were your parents immigrants?

GC: My parents were from what we call the Old Country, Turkey. But we never were treated badly. We lived in Ohio, we weren't like the Puerto Ricans on the streets of New York. I didn't encounter anything like that prejudice as a kid. In fact I remember my childhood, my life with my parents, as being very safe and sweet. They were fantastic parents and took great care of us. We were really loved.

EM: I grew up in the Midwest also. New York was a big shock to me.

GC: [Laughs]

EM: I wanted to ask you about Leonard Bernstein's scores, for the Broadway show and for the film. Do you have a preference for one to the other?

GC: You know I never thought much about the difference, really. But of course there is. [Laughs] The "America" number is expanded quite a lot in the film - not just the girls, and with the boys it's so wonderful. "Cool" is such an incredible number in the film. It is in the theatre too, but what Jerry did with it in the film - Tucker Smith, who plays Ice, sings "Cool." They were all so wonderful but Tucker did such an amazing job with that. In the theatre version Riff sings "Cool." He gathers everybody around him in a circle. In the movie it starts after the Rumble, which is much better.

EM: They switched the order of a number of them.

GC: The restructuring of the film I think is really good. It makes sense that after Bernardo and Riff are dead they're not singing "Officer Krupke" and feeling funny and great. That should happen before. "Cool" happens after the Rumble in the film. They're on the street, in an alleyway, looking for revenge, looking for Tony, the neighbors are yelling at them and Tucker as Ice gets them in that underground garage and it ends so beautifully too.

EM: So the impact in that order was right on.

GC: Yes. I always think that's Jerry's work. (Director) Bob Wise was fantastic, of course. But as I stop to think right now, the music was never actually that much of a thought in my head but of course there are differences.

EM: Being a musician I naturally think of that. The instrumentation and how Lenny was so unhappy that they took out a bunch of instruments from the Broadway score.

GC: I didn't know that.

EM: Then later when Michael Tilson Thomas did the premiere of the Broadway score with the San Francisco Symphony they restored all that. Now I hate to leave West Side Story but I want to talk about In Your Arms. We're so excited to see you in that. How did you become involved with it?

Jess LeProtto and Samantha Sturm with cast members of In Your Arms

GC: It just came out of the blue. There was an email from the casting director in New York that came through to my agent in London and one that came directly to me and I passed it on to my agent in Los Angeles. There are 10 different pieces written by different authors, wonderful authors - David Henry Hwang, Carrie Fisher and more - and a piece by Terrence McNally called "Sand Dancing", which is really beautiful. I don't know how (director/choreographer) Christopher Gattelli is able to take this story and put it on its feet. But again, it just kind of appeared out of nowhere. It was totally unexpected. For better or worse I'm here. [Laughs]

EM: I think for the better. Tell us about your role. Can you describe the vignette you're doing?

GC: "Sand Dancing" is about "old" dancers who are coming to the beach they've been to many times before. A younger couple comes on stage and the older couple see themselves in the younger couple. You also get to see their life together - they had a good life - but tragedy ensued, something that took place somewhere on this beach. So in coming to this beach they revisit the tragedy.

EM: Each vignette has an emotional emphasis. For yours it might be sadness.

GC: Yes, but it's light at the same time. It covers the brightness as well.

EM: It sounds nostalgic, like they're reliving that period of their lives.

GC: Exactly.

EM: It sounds wonderful.

GC: It's Terrence McNally. That's what convinced me and of course I'd never seen a Christopher Gattelli production, but I've spoken to him a couple of times on the phone. I could just tell by the sound of his voice that he's someone I would like. But I certainly knew his reputation. This whole evening of really wonderful dancers for In Your Arms - I can't wait to see them.

EM: So you haven't started working on any of the choreography yet.

GC: No, I'm going to meet everybody tomorrow and see what happens. [Laughs]

EM: Do you know with whom you're going to be working?

GC: I'm working with Donna McKechnie.

EM: Oh my goodness.

GC: Yes!

EM: Have you worked with her before?

GC: We did a benefit together years ago. Terrence McNally, Christopher and Donna - I mean, in today's world it doesn't get better. Donna is...

EM: You're both icons. If you're comfortable with that word.

GC: Thanks. Blush. [Laughs]

EM: There's something unrelated that I wanted to ask. I read that you once were in Shaw's play Don Juan in Hell.

GC: I was, yes. It was a theatre workshop.

EM: I'm obsessed with that play because of Mozart's Don Giovanni. What was your role?

GC: I was Don Juan. It's interesting you mention that, because I was so daunted by the material. But with time, whenever you go back and look at it, you start to see a little more clearly the beautiful piece it is and you have a much better understanding of it. I loved doing it and we had a wonderful director. He did it in the same style as Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power - in tux and gown. It really works beautifully that way, I think.

EM: It sounds marvelous. What's next after In Your Arms?

GC: I have no idea. You know I haven't done anything in the theatre or anyplace else for 15 years. Somebody said to me, "Oh, don't worry, George, it's like riding a bike." I don't think it is. The reason it's been that long is I was doing M Butterfly - David Henry Hwang - then I did something else after that in London. I have a beautiful little Italian greyhound dog, Sammy. I came back from working in England - I was gone 10 months at a time no matter where I was working - and looked at him and thought 10 months is a long time out of his life. So I said, "I'm not going anywhere, I'm going to stay here and be with Sammy." That's exactly what I did. Then I got involved with taking classes in silversmithing and making jewelry. Without realizing it, with time I had made a collection of pieces. A Japanese distributor saw my things and made a really big purchase. What I'm saying is that I took either a right or a wrong turn with jewelry stuff, but that's what I've been involved in. I've done other things but nothing in the theatre where I had to learn something and certainly, move. I hope I can learn what I have to learn.

EM: I have no doubt, and we're so looking forward to it. thank you so much for spending this time with me.

GC: It was a pleasure.

Photo credits: Art Now and Then; Jess LeProtto and Samantha Sturm with cast members of In Your Arms - Buck Lewis, courtesy of New York Stage and Film & Vassar's Powerhouse Theater; The Old Globe

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From This Author Erica Miner

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