‘West Side Story’: 61 years old and still as relevant as today’s headlines

CU Eklund Opera presents Bernstein’s masterpiece

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PR photo session for West Side Story CU Opera production. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)
Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story opened on Broadway just over 61 years ago — Sept. 26, 1957 — but for Leigh Holman, the story does not get old.

Holman is the director of the Eklund Opera Program at the CU College of Music, which will be presenting Bernstein’s masterpiece Friday through Sunday, Oct. 26–28. The cast of CU students, freshman though graduate students, will be stage-directed by Holman. Guest conductor Philip Hesketh will lead the singers and student orchestra.

The show is a transplanted version of Romeo and Juliet, with New York street gangs replacing the rival families. The conflict is between immigrants and newer immigrants, the Jets and the Sharks, a white gang and a Puerto Rican gang.

West Side Story has a theme that’s important to talk about right now,” Holman says. “It’s a story about people who are immigrants, and nothing could be more relevant. When someone moves into our area, is in the workplace or in school with us, people who don’t look like us, what sort of fear ignites in us and how do we act upon that?

“To me it sounds like a story from 2018.”

The production will be set in the original time of the 1950s, with no updatings or other twists to connect with contemporary audiences. “I don’t have to do anything [to make it relevant],” Holman says. “Just let the story play out.”

Easy to say, but Holman observes that the show is very complex and challenging for all participants, from the actors on stage to the director herself. “I’ve learned how challenging a big show like this is,” she says. “It really requires so much of the performer, and there’s such a huge team of people that work together.”

Most operas, she explains, have a few individual roles and a chorus that can learn their parts separately and come together at the end. In West Side Story, however, every person on stage has a named role — there is no separate chorus, and some of the larger scenes are musically very complex. “That’s tougher than I realized before,” says Holman, who has never directed the show before.

Another monumental challenge is that all of the actors not only have to sing individual parts, they also have to dance. Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the original show was revolutionary in the 1950s and is still considered a turning point for Broadway singer/dancers. “Bernstein and Robbins were pushing the envelope, creating something that didn’t fit any stereotype at the time,” Hesketh says.

“This show stretches [everyone] not only vocally but dance-wise and acting-wise,” Holman says. “We have a few students from the theater and dance department that have dance background, and a few opera singers have dance background, but I would say that’s the biggest challenge.”

Hesketh, who has conducted both opera and ballet in his native England, agrees. “One of the biggest challenges is that you’ve got people on stage who have to do both,” he says. Sometimes “a character is preparing their body from the diaphragm upwards to sing, at the same time as they’re preparing their body to jump, and sometimes they clash.

“What’s fascinating is working with the cast to find mechanisms to do both of these things well. I can’t imagine how I could cope if I wasn’t familiar with preparing both opera and dance,” Hesketh says.

He is particularly complimentary of the students in the cast. Unlike some opera singers — he won’t name names, so don’t ask — “these casts move very beautifully,” he says. “They obviously know precisely what they’re doing when it comes to their bodies, which is marvelous.”

Both Holman and Hesketh have noticed that while many students are familiar with the style and the music of West Side Story, for others it is a new discovery. “An old show for a freshman could be Rent,” which opened on Broadway in 1996, Holman says.

“Some of us grew up listening to this music, or some of the students did the show in high school. But there are other students who are just being introduced to Bernstein.”

For his part, Hesketh has conducted West Side Story before, but admits that it is not part of his native musical heritage. “I did think about the American-ness,” he admits.

“My home is the Edwardian splendor of Elgar and pastoral nationalism of Vaughn-Williams. But having said that, West Side Story itself is a piece. It’s an opera, it’s a ballet, it’s an orchestral piece, and as a conductor those are three things that I do all the time.”

And, as Holman is quick to point out, after 61 years West Side Story belongs to everyone. “We don’t have to hog this music,” she says. “Bernstein has influenced the world!”

On the Bill: West Side Story. 7:30 pm. Friday Oct. 26 and Saturday, Oct. 27, Eklund Opera Theater, 972 Broadway, Boulder; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Tickets: cupresents.org/event/1607/cu-opera/west-side-story