Puerto Rico-born Marcos Santana has long admired the musical West Side Story, yet he finds it unbalanced.
“The Jets definitely have more presence through the entire play than the Sharks,” he says, referring to the American street gang versus those who grew up in his native island.
“I still love this show, but there was always something inside of me saying, ‘This show is just not right, it just doesn’t feel right,’” says Santana, who is directing the new-look production that opens at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre on March 29.
“So when we got this production, I told Alan (Blackstone, his choreographer-collaborator, with whom he teamed on the Maltz’s high-energy Newsies two seasons ago) I wanted to do a version from a different perspective. To tell it from the Sharks’ point of view,” he explains, to celebrate the Puerto Rican culture. “All our Sharks are Latinos, which rarely happens. That was the deal for me from the beginning of casting. And about 50 percent of them are Puerto Rican.”
“We’re playing with the imagery, with different takes on songs that you already know,” says Santana. “I’m finding ways to find different meaning in those words and it’s been a challenge.”
For instance, Santana has always been bothered by the number “America,” in which the Sharks sarcastically put down their roots. “Even if it’s sarcasm, it’s hard to make a joke about your homeland. It’s hard to say, ‘You ugly island, island of tropic diseases.’ So we find a way that it’s a more playful approach to the number,” explains Santana. “That’s been one of the challenging things in doing this show.”
West Side Story, which was created in 1957 by a stellar team that included composer Leonard Bernstein, adaptor Arthur Laurents, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins and a young lyricist making his Broadway debut, Stephen Sondheim, has particular resonance these days, when the political landscape has turned anti-immigrant. But as Santana is quick to point out, Puerto Ricans are born in the United States.
“We are U.S. citizens, but we are thought of as immigrants,” he laments. “How does that happen?” Still, without altering the script at all, Santana suggests “there’s hints of what’s happening now, within the play.”
Blackstone feels it is important to produce West Side Story today “I think because there’s a lot of anger in the world right now. And having empathy for Marcos’s situation, and learning more about what it means to be a Latin person in America, having that empathy makes me want to tell this story. And also for my own anger about being an American and how I feel about the current political climate.
“To be able to work on a piece where you can put those feelings into it is terrific. The choreography feels charged, and that’s a gift, because you have somewhere to put that energy,” he said.
According to Santana, the social issues that were so topical in 1957 are still relevant in 2019. “Because we’re dealing with social anxiety and mental illness and suicidal tendencies. That’s happening now, more than ever. This is a show that opened 60-something years ago and here we are still living the same thing,” he says. “Not much has changed as a society. That makes me sad.”
From a young age, Blackstone watched the Oscar-winning film version of West Side Story (“It’s in my head. I grew up on it.”) and considers Robbins’ choreography for it practically perfect. Nevertheless, he is not daunted by taking his own approach to the material.
“You just do every moment, one step at a time. I try to do my best to keep it honest and keep it connected to what the show is. That’s all I can do,” he says. “It’s up to the audience to decide what they think, but hopefully they’ll be so in the story they won’t think about what came before this.
“There are going to be people that compare what it was to what it is, but the dream is that people are so engaged in the story that they’re not thinking about the choreography. That’s always my goal. ‘Cool’ is a master class in how to make choreography that comes from emotion. People love the choreography because it’s filled with emotion.”
Santana is a choreographer in his own right, which comes in handy on the stirring culture clash of “Dance at the Gym.”
“Because Marcos is such an expert in Latin dances, he’s choreographing the Sharks’ material in the gym scene and I’m choreographing the Jets’ material,” explains Blackstone. “So you have two completely different (dance) languages competing at the same time.”
West Side Story is undeniably a classic of the musical theater, one of the top handful of shows ever written. But why?
“It is a world that you get completely entranced in,” says Blackstone. “You can tell that the original team that put this show together felt very passionately about the story, the music, the choreography, the staging. You can feel the intensity. Each song, each scene has such a clear feeling. I don’t know another piece that from beginning to end sucks you into it. And you have an emotional catharsis because it feels like it’s happening to you.”
“I’m not much of a music expert, but the patterns in the music are so unconventional. Yes, it celebrates love, but the love gets tainted by hatred,” adds Santana. “There are three murders in this show. There’s murder, there’s rape, there’s fights. It should not be fun to watch – it is not a musical comedy – but what the team did correctly was set this tone that not only was a big risk at the time, but something that would resonate for eternity.”
WEST SIDE STORY, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Friday, March 29-Sunday, April 14. $60-$120. 561-575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.