5 Guthrie Thoughts on West Side Story

A short talk by the creative team gave a glimpse of the concepts they’re bringing to the classic

The Guthrie Theater’s West Side Story sneak preview for supporters and press on May 15 wasn’t with the cast of 35 since they had all just started rehearsing together. However, it was with some of the main people in the behind the scenes crew: the scenic designer, costume designer, vocal coach, music director, and of course, the director, Joseph Haj. Through their reflections on West Side Story, they let us know that to them, its relevance is in its plurality and in its immigration stories, but they also let us know it is largely about hope. That’s the word that came up the most when they talked about the protagonists, Maria and Tony. Not love or passion, but hope. 

Here are five takeaways to get you even more jazzed for the show, which will be on the Wurtele Thrust Stage June 16 through Aug. 26.

1. The choreography is all new. 

As Harlem-based choreographer Maija Garcia talked, it’s clear she thought a lot about what the play means and how she can use dance, what she considers the universal language, to examine why we as humans insist on creating an “other.” 

“I’m not trying to outdo Jerome Robbins,” Garcia said, “but I am trying to outdo everything I’ve done up to this point.”

2. The cast is diverse. 

As the Guthrie’s researched the time period—they’re keeping it in the ‘50s—they found evidence that gangs were more internally diverse than most media depict them as. And if that weren’t enough, Haj directed us to the first page of the play where it states the Sharks are Puerto Rican, but the Jets are “an anthology of what it means to be American.” 

As the local and national cast introduced themselves before the creative team gave their presentations, different accents and voices rang through the air. 

“There’s a story told every time you open your mouth and speak,” voice coach Robert Ramirez said during his portion of the sneak preview. Instead of going toward a “hyper-stylized” New York dialect, he wants to bring the actors’ own stories to the stage. 

3. This isn’t Grease and its preppy setting. 

Costume designer Jen Caprio was very clear there were no matching jackets and that the gangs weren’t the equivalent of Knicke and the boys and the Pink Ladies, and the set by Christopher Acebo certainly reflects that, too.  

To Haj and the team he put together, New York in the 1950s was oppressive. It was, as Acebo put it, combustible and full of neglected corners. A place where things are “brutal and violent … where love, for a moment, breaks through.” 

Gridlines that represent the city also come across as fences, and the Statue of Liberty, at least in the concept art Acebo showed us, is slightly off from the idealistic welcome it is supposed to be. The track lighting that has been so effective in the Guthrie’s other plays is back but more versatile and more colorful than when we saw it in, say, Watch on the Rhine, and lighting will play a part in softening this city’s harsh edges. 

4. Recent classics like West Side Story may get pushback—remember the Ordway’s well-reviewed version last year that got slammed by the Alliance of Latinx Minneapolis Artists?—but no one can deny they have some merit.

This year would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, and while he is known and loved for his musicals now, back then his affinity for them and jazz caused mutterings around the affluent and tastemakers who lauded him for his classical conducting. West Side Story was one of the first pieces of art that bridged his passions together, according to music director/conductor Mark Hartman, and it became emblematic of a new limitless in musical style and content. He brought dark themes like murder, rape, and violence to the world of musical theater, but as Hartman points out, they were already in the operas Bernstein worked in. If you listen closely to Candide and Titular Psalms, which he worked on at the same time as West Side Story, you can hear how music he wrote bounced around the different scores until finding their respective places.

5. To Haj, West Side Story is more about turf than race. 

It’s about finding home and owning it to the benefit or detriment of others. As Haj talked about the musical, he said it got him thinking about his Palestinian family and about the Israel/Palestine conflict in the Middle East. “It’s the largest, oldest, stupidest turf war in mankind mostly built around an inability to see one another,” he said. 

If directing this play at this theater with this team is as much of a dream as Haj says it is, and if he is able to let his thoughts dance on the tense strings connecting “home” and “belonging,” then West Side Story will surely be a musical to reckon with this summer.