On Tuesday 5th November, East Midlands Theatre’s Phil Lowe went over to Curve Leicester to sit in on that day’s rehearsals for West Side Story. As well as watching three sections of the show take life Phil also interviewed Jamie Muscato (Tony) and Adriana Ivelisse (Maria). Two other bloggers contributed equally to the interviews in the afternoon and they were Tanyel from www.cheekylittlematinee.com and Mark from www.beyondthecurtain.co.uk.
‘The morning rehearsal began with the cast working through the impressive staging and movement of West Side Story’s prologue. Working side by side, the director, Nikolai Foster and choreographer Ellen Kane, asked the cast to examine what it means for the Puerto Ricans to be arriving in a foreign land full of hope and dreams in the 1950s and to express that in their group through body language. The emotional and physical tables were then rapidly turned around to show these same people vulnerable, ostracised and alienated.
Nikolai said that the gang aspects of the show aren’t necessarily young people choosing to be in a gang but joining one because they offer a strong feeling of protection. Essentially it was important for the actors to find what’s real for their characters, who they trust and distrust; to look at their timing and energy and owning their space – their territory. The acknowledgement of and registering of situations had equal importance.
The are four very large wire fences used in this production and a lot of the morning rehearsal was centred on their precise positioning and moving them around on precise counts. I can’t pretend to understand the complexities of beats in the world of the choreographer Ellen Kane but I got the impression that the actors understood her implicitly. With the fences being manipulated around the rehearsal space Nikolai emphasised that any rushed moves would make the stage picture less majestic. The actions needed to be simplified and kept clean. The fence doors certainly had to be in the correct orientation so that they could open in the correct way and allow safe access for the actors running through them in a potentially dangerous scene.
In the ‘fish out of water’ scene the actors were reminded of clarification of shape and that the thought process of finding a way out of an area of entrapment was doable, clear and safe to execute. The staging of this opening scene was a theatrical mix of heightened moments, stillness and naturalistic drama.
After lunch the three actors involved in the scene that comes after the deadly rumble with officer Krupke worked through the dialogue shaping and re-shaping the dynamics. This was followed by more characters from the Jets gang ridiculing the police officer and their own delinquent ways through the Leonard Bernstein song Gee Officer Krupke. It was fascinating to watch Nikolai Foster and Ellen Kane take on and work with some of the lyrical interpretations suggested by the performers. There was clear mutual respect in these decisions.
In the breaks I found time to chat to and catch up with musical director Sarah Travis who I last saw two years ago when I visited a rehearsal for Curve’s production of Scrooge the musical. Actress Carly Mercedes Dyer (Anita in West Side Story) kindly remembered me from my rehearsal visit to Nottingham Playhouse’s production of Sweet Charity directed by Bill Buckhurst. We enthused about the West Side Story production and the fact that Rebbeca Trehearn had recently won Best Performance In A Musical for her role as Charity in Sweet Charity at the UK Theatre Awards.
Also in the cast of West Side Story, playing Anybodys is Beth Hinton-Lever and she stopped by between the next two interviews to regale us with some fascinating insights into her role in the show. She emphasised how real the rumble fight is as well as the gang rape.
It was time to meet and chat with Jamie Muscato who is is currently rehearsing as Tony. Over a series of questions Jamie expressed his thoughts on the rehearsal process, his role and the lives of the Americans and Puerto Ricans in West Side Story.
Jamie Muscato: “I am playing Tony who is the Romeo if you think of the story as being like Romeo and Juliet. I’m one of the founding members of the Jets gang and now he’s trying to get out of the gang lifestyle. He works at Doc’s which is a drug store and is trying to hold down a normal job. He keeps getting sucked back into the lifestyle of his gang friends. For him it’s the norm. People like him, have grown up with little to no support or money and social mobility available to them. And so, to survive you need to surround yourself with a pack. Tony and Riff started the Jets so they began their own pack or gang. It’s not quite the gangs that you think of today who sell drugs. They are a gang who choose this square to be theirs and whatever happens in that is up to them. It’s their territory and by protecting it they protect themselves. It doesn’t really matter to the Jets gang that the Puerto Ricans are foreigners. It’s their encroachment into their space. Regardless of denomination of another gang, all it is – is they are in ‘my spot’ so they need to get out.
The local police in West Side Story would probably be half on the Jets side because they would be racist against the immigrants, the encroaching people, but in gang culture it’s everyone against the police. When the Americans and Puerto Ricans are organising the rumble the police come in and they all shut up.
The story is still so popular today and still resonates because nothing has changed and, as much as we think things have, they haven’t. When I was watching the prologue earlier they have these four huge wire fences and looking at them I couldn’t help but Google these detention centres that are around today and they are still exactly the same as those we are showing from the late 1950s. There’s still the same systemic racism in our culture and there are still groups of people trying to fight other groups of people who really should get along as they are just the same, but we are being told that they are not.
A good theatre production, I think, should just hold up a mirror and help people see themselves reflected back in the characters and situations and maybe affect change. Already in the two and a bit weeks, without costume, without lighting, its already something moving and powerful and something great for an audience to witness.
You ask what are the similarities between myself and Tony and if we met in a bar what would we talk about? Hmm. It would probably be something ridiculous and abstract because Tony is a … (pauses to consider) … a dreamer I guess, but he doesn’t have the opportunities that I have. So his dreams are quite vague along the lines of ‘I don’t know- let’s just see what happens.’ We’d probably talk about something completely opposite to gangs or whatever. Working in a drug store maybe.
In creating this story with Nikolai and Curve it is an amazing opportunity. This kind of love story has been around hundreds or thousands of years. You know – boy meets girl – warring factions on either side. It’s an old story, very relatable and one of the first times that West Side Story has been able to be re-done because we are out of licence now. So we can put a 2019 view on this old story and the source material is so good and all we have to do is add a few thin layers and we have – this is now.
I’m excited for people to see the rumble – the fight. It’s horrible! People always think like West Side Story and dance and what have you but this is real and uncomfortable and what would have been. The fight director Kevin McCurdy is incredible. What a guy! It is great working here at Curve because they have all the resources. For example you can go and talk to the costume designer and say, actually what am I going to be wearing for this because I am doing this (stretches arm out) and it gets altered for you if need be. Another person might go to a carpenter here and ask for a door to be widened and it gets done. No fuss. Everything is in house.
Obviously there is dancing but (laughs) I’m NOT a dancer! I have had the opportunity to sit and watch most of it AND it’s phenomenal! It is soo good. Ellen has come at it from a story point of view so she manages to tell a particular story and she manages to do it with no words and I find it really impressive.
Regarding a what a Christmas production should be; I guess that would be something the whole family can go and see and enjoy and learn from and er… it might be something to talk about over the Christmas dinner table. Hopefully someone would come and watch and think to themselves ‘I wanna do that’ and we might see them in auditions in the future. I won’t have time to go back home myself over Christmas but I think my parents are gonna come and see it so I’ll get to see them then. We have the Curve Young Company in the show too and I’ve been delighted to see how impressively talented they all are and well rounded in their overall performance skills. To answer your question about why someone should pick West Side Story to see at Christmas; I think my answer would be that you might have seen West Side Story but you haven’t seen Curve’s new take on West Side Story. It’s gonna be amazing!”
Next up we all interviewed Adriana Ivelisse who is playing the lead romantic role of Maria. Like Maria herself Adriana is Puerto Rican and this is her first time performing in the U.K and at Curve. She is very excited and sweetly in awe about the chance to have this amazing opportunity.
Adriana Ivelisse:” I’m very excited and very happy. I think this morning I was a little stressed because Ellen is such an amazing choreographer and everything is supposed to be on point (where we are supposed to be at) and I think if I just relaxed I’d be fine. I think ‘I can’t let Ellen down! No!’ I think that the gangs have it a lot harder than I do though. They are insane dancers. I am in awe every time that I see them.
I was talking to my family back home yesterday about if they will come all those thousands of miles to see this show. I do want them to come over. The tickets are so expensive to travel but I think my Mom won’t miss it for anything in the world. I think she’s dragging my Dad over here too. They should be over here by Christmas. It’s all very exciting because I never thought I would be doing a Puerto Rican role over here in England. It’s insane. Especially the vision that Nikolai has for this production. He’s so conscientious and it is well thought out from the migrants and immigrants point of view.
My journey has been inspiring. I had never heard about the Curve and I came here last year when I was studying musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. While we were doing our showcases I met my agent called Ross from Byron’s and told me “You know they are casting for Maria in West Side Story.” I’m like “Wow that would be amazing!” However, you know I felt that I’m not such a great dancer so I don’t know if I am right for the role. He gave me the contact information and I wrote to them and I said that this would mean a lot to me. Just being seen would be enough. Then they called me a second time and told me that I’d got the role! I cried! I thought OMG thank you so much!
My earliest memory of West Side Story is the fact that it was my mother’s favourite musical. I didn’t like Maria growing up. I thought she was a very weak character and I didn’t understand why she fell in love with Tony and that she completely didn’t care about her brother’s death. Then later in life I fell in love for the first time and I understood that it is so illogical and, at least in first love, this other person just becomes everything. And then I thought OK she’s not weak at all. Being able to see her lines and sing what she thinks and feels has given it another perspective to everything she says. I think she is young. I think she is naïve but I also think she is very strong and loving. We have so much more in common than I ever generally thought a few years ago.
What got me into singing and theatre is that since I have been a little girl I have always been very emotional and I didn’t know how to control my feelings. I thought how can people do this and that in certain situations and it is so hard for me? Theatre helped me become better with human interactions and it helped me understand my journey and the human condition through life. I think it just grounds me and it is my favourite thing to do in the world.
My own background and race definitely helps me understand Maria and the stories of the other Puerto Ricans. When we were learning about the history of the show in the first day of rehearsals and talking how immigrants feel and how the show originally started I found it so interesting. It’s the 1950s and 1960s and it gave a map to a population of people who were marginalised. It put them on the stage and the big screen. Even though it was all brown face and it was written by white males it’s kinda like somebody who never had a voice suddenly has a really big one.
My favourite part of West Side Story will always be the dance at the gym. Because they are supposed to be fighting but they are doing it through dance they are trying to control their feelings and showing off instead as to who is the better person and the better gang. The choreography here in this production is insane and amazing. The music is happening and everybody is yelling then suddenly it stops and it is now about how these two people, Maria and Tony, both from opposite sides falling in love and how they feel.
Nikolai and Ellen and Sarah and George and the rest of the creative team have been so patient with me and so kind to me. They have made this transition of mine, from student to professional, a dream. It is very strange because I have never walked into a rehearsal room that is filled with so much love from everywhere you look, from every part of the cast. I can’t believe it. Every time I wake up I am so lucky and I am going to absorb every second of these moments. It’s beautiful. I don’t know how we became a family in two weeks. Like I said, everybody is so kind and helpful and supportive. Its such a big cast and I feel like I have known these people for a lot longer than the time that we have been together. Before all of this I trained as an animator so I know about sitting on a chair for twelve hours drawing the same thing over and over and I could not stand any more. That’s when I went to the theatre department and said give me anything and that’s how I knew I wanted to be an actress.
Right now in the midst of our rehearsal schedule I get Sundays off. I wish that I could say that I visit parks and museums but I just stay in bed all day and I sleep. Actually I re-watch Romeo and Juliet, the 1996 film where Leo Di Caprio is Romeo. It’s so weird because my favourite things to do when I am off is to actually study. I just like to take the script and see what other people have done with it. Actually this for me is like a day off feels; these whole three to four months are like days off because I love it all so much.”
Thank you to Fiona and Helen from Curve’s press and marketing and Nikolai Foster for giving me this opportunity to learn and promote aspects of their West Side Story production in rehearsals.
Photo credits for rehearsal shots: Ellie Kurttz.
West Side Story runs at Curve 23 November 2019 to 3 Jan 2020.