Dramaturgical Archive Materials
Mid-Columbia Musical Theatre’s West Side Story, June 2018
Enjoy a glimpse into our production team’s and cast member’s artistic vision for West Side Story. Collected as dramaturgical resources for our audience members, we hope the below insights engage and enlighten your experience with our production. One may be wondering, what exactly is a “dramaturg”? A dramaturg is an advocate for the production team and audience who helps ensure the production’s text, plot, story, and artistic vision are clearly realized. Dramaturgy then is the process through which a dramaturg functions as such an advocate.
Part of a dramaturg’s responsibilities include asking open questions, generating original dramaturgical materials throughout the entire rehearsal process, and helping give as much of an objective perspective as possible. Include in the following materials are ideas and perspectives from our director, fight and dance choreographer, and dramaturg.
Dramaturg: West Side Story
Themes of West Side Story
When Jerome Robbins directed the original production of West Side Story in 1957, he knew what he was attempting onstage was no less than groundbreaking. In order to achieve the authentic performances of two warring gangs, he purposefully created as much tension and hostility between not just the characters, but the actors portraying the characters. Actors of the rival gangs were not allowed to socialize or even speak to each other off-stage. Robbins started rumors, encouraged off-stage fighting, and severely punished actors that broke his rules of no-fraternization.
We have learned a lot about the actor’s psyche since then!
As I read the script of West Side Story over and over, the first line from the prologue of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet kept coming to mind. “Two households, both alike in dignity…”
Often, we think of the two gangs as being completely dissimilar to each other with little in common, and yes, there are differences; primary language and birthplace are obvious. However, I realized that there are far more meaningful commonalities between the groups. They are both young, poor, disaffected, and on the bottom rung of society. Both groups have created a micro-community within their gangs that meets the unfulfilled needs of the teenagers. They hate the same things. They love the same things. They fight for the same things. They value the same things. In many ways, they are mirror images of each other.
Tony and Maria give us the most articulated content on this theme. When they first touch Maria marvels that their hands, of course, are the same. They then sing together, “One Hand, One Heart”. Later, Maria tells Anita that she and Tony are “one” and that “...everything he is, I am too.”
Our goal in this production was to show that Maria and Tony are not the only characters that are alike. To that end, each gang member was cast with a “mirror” on the opposing gang. Riff and Bernardo are mirrors of each other, Big Deal and Chino, Action and Pepe, Anita and Velma, and on and on. The actors cast in these roles worked together from day one; character developing, learning the dances and combat choreography, and employing the same role and rank in their gang. This has allowed us to create genuine connection and tension onstage all the while enjoying a very safe and liberal rehearsal process.
But in the end, all the similarities are not enough to save the lovers. In the devastating finale, Maria turns the mirror to the audience, warning us as the Prince does in Romeo and Juliet, that with these actions “All are punished.”
I encourage you to find the many “mirrors” in this production; from the publicity material, in the staging, the choreography, the set, the characters, in Shakespearian references, and on.
In a Director’s intensive I took last summer, I learned that a play’s last onstage picture is intended to give the audience a ‘vision of the future’. This task stuck with me and kept me from an uninterrupted night’s sleep for quite some time!
What is the future for our remaining characters? And, as John Hughes was so often asked in regards to The Breakfast Club, what happens on Monday? My struggle was that the finale of the show is so iconic and inflexible in both content and staging that I had to find a way to marry the unrelenting bleakness of the end of the show with my own equally unrelenting optimism.
On one of my sleepless nights, I began to think about one of my favorite paintings, Frank Bramley’s “A Hopeless Dawn”. The subject of the painting is the wife of a missing sailor, lying prostrate in grief in front of a window that looks out to the sea. The night before, a terrible storm raged and as the dawn has approached and her husband’s vessel hasn’t returned, she knows the worst has happened. Her sorrow is represented by an unlit candlestick in the window, symbolizing that her hope is lost. However, as one surveys the rest of the room, there is a second candlestick on the table that is burning a small but determined flame, reminding us that hope exists even in the darkest of times and places.
Yes, hope! But how to communicate this onstage? Thankfully, Arthur Laurent’s script gave me a light.
When first we meet Tony, he is standing on a ladder, working on a non-functioning light for Doc’s drugstore. He is determined to make the sign a gift to Doc, to somehow add a little beauty and grace to his mentor’s establishment. It’s a kindness is an unkind world. Too quickly however, Tony is literally and figuratively dragged off his high ground to join the fray.
Doc’s light is employed several times throughout the show, in the darkest and saddest of times. It’s my little nod to Bramley’s painting, and my own belief that hope stubbornly hangs on, no matter the circumstances. It’s a tiny light amid much darkness, but it’s there and it’s a choice.
My thanks to our wonderful Technical Director, Clint Howell, for bringing my vision of Doc’s light to life.
Director, West Side Story
The movement vocabulary for this production of West Side Story was built out of a desire to unlock the energy and movement potential of the cast. Whether we realize it or not, each individual embodies their own unique culture of movement based on what their daily life requires of the body.
As the choreographer for this piece I was interested in empowering the performers to unleash their unique presence and movement-voice by giving them freedom of expression. Throughout the process of choreographing the show and training the performers, it was my aim to free and build upon the innate intelligence of the body through movement improvisation and a variety of ensemble exercises. This began to unlock inert potential in the performers and release the beautiful movers inside them.
Throughout the show you may see many repetitions of certain movements, gestures and physical vocabulary. This vocabulary serves as a simple container for the performers' unique, expressive, and powerful voices to arise and be heard.
Choreographer, West Side Story
Various Dramaturgical Materials
The below open questions were posed to the cast and crew during our first read-through to encourage thoughtful reflection throughout the rehearsal and performance process:
- Why West Side Story for the current Tri-Cities community?
- What do the text, music, lyrics, and movement (choreography and blocking) tell us about the world of the play and its themes?
- What must the audience absolutely believe about each character in the play?
Source material information:
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: A comedy/drama play-text written sometime between 1591-1595 and first published in 1597. Shakespeare’s version was inspired by two different pre-existing plays (one Italian, one English), and is still one of the most popular stories worldwide. Consider how many parallels there are between Romeo and Juliet’s, and Tony and Maria’s, character circumstances. Racial crises in New York between different ethnic and class groups informed the musical’s core conflict as one between Whites and Puerto Ricans (in lieu of the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s play).
Brief background on the musical’s genesis:
West Side Story’s plot, music, lyrics, and choreography are iconic in reputation, and for good reason. In 1947 Jerome Robbins approached Laurents and Bernstein about collaborating on a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Originally Robbins proposed the plot focus on a conflict between two families, one Irish Catholic and one Jewish, living on the lower east side of Manhattan (thus informing the title East Side Story). The three men stopped working on the piece for about 5 years until 1955 when Laurents and Bernstein reconnected. An increase in reports on gang violence motivated the two men to shift the plot’s ethnic, class, and social conflict to one of a “turf war” between Puerto Ricans and Whites in New York. Laurents and Bernstein then asked Robbins to continue working on the musical, and Sondheim was brought in to write the lyrics so as to afford Bernstein the ability to concentrate primarily on the music.
After the first full cast read-through, a dramaturg often creates a gloss for the actors to help provide clarity on potential questions actors may have about their text. Below is a shortened example of the gloss created for our production.
- Pg. 4: “Puerto Rican tomato”: Big Deal is teasing A-Rab and calling him a Puerto Rican party girl in response to Bernardo piercing A-Rab’s ear.
- (essentially a term of endearment), “poca” is Spanish for “a little”.
- Pg. 38: “But Puerto-Rico-is-in-America-now!”: Bernardo is bouncing off of Anita’s claim that Maria, now that she lives in America, should be left alone to do what she wants. Bernardo’s line is a dig against the American colonialism of Puerto Rico.
- Pg. 39: “Polack”: a racial slur for a Polish person.
- Pg. 41: “War council”: a term to describe the meeting between two different gangs (groups) who have opposing views. The two opposing sides convene during a “war council” to determine an agreed-upon course of action.
- Pg. 42: “America” song: Puerto Rico vs. America.
- Puerto Rico “Rich Door/Port” is an island in the Caribbean Sea/Atlantic Ocean.
- Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States.
- Puerto Rican citizens are American Citizens.
Consider this question: How might West Side Story’s textual and lyrical expression of Puerto Rican life and culture in the time in which our production is set reflect current views on/opinions about Puerto Rico?
The Translation Process: “Somewhere”
Early in the production process team members agreed we’d love to include Spanish-language lyrics if possible. Rather than use a pre-existing translation, musical director Jill Madison and I thought it would be more fun if we worked together with our soloist, Olivia, in generating a new, original translation. Jesse Bravo, who plays Maria’s father, was enthusiastic about helping too, and together the four of us created a bilingual translation of “Somewhere”, with Olivia singing the Spanish language verses. As there is no such thing as an absolute, direct translation, it was important we ask ourselves the following questions:
- What, in our minds, is the core idea expressed in “Somewhere”?
- How does the song inform what the audience might understand about the world of the play, of our production?
- What poetic tone do we want our bilingual translation to express?
- What changes in how we respond to the song when we hear it sung in Spanish? English? Both?
- And perhaps, most importantly, do the syllables of the Spanish-language version work with the music as written?
“Tal Vez” (“Somewhere”)
Spanish lyrics translation: Jesse Bravo, Cyndi Kimmel
Voice and music consultants: Jill Madison, Olivia Elizondo
In our production, the English-language lyrics in the song alternate with the below Spanish-language lyrics:
Hay tiempo para nos.
Quizás tiempo para nos.
Tiempo juntos, tiempo de más, de aprender, y también cuidar.
Perdonar y cuidar a nosotros