West Side Story: A Tonic for our Times

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By Bridget Morgan, Associate Director of Branding & Communications

Bill Berry is meeting with me in his office to talk about West Side Story and why it is such an important musical to do now. “If you say ‘so why are we doing West Side Story now?’ as your first question, I’m going to be like, ‘really Bridget?’” I hesitate. “…That’s your first question, isn’t it?” he teases.

Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry in rehearsals for West Side Story. – Credit Cassandra Bell

Bill is the Producing Artistic Director of The 5th Avenue Theatre and the director of this exciting new re-staging of West Side Story—one of the most iconic musicals of all time. In the rehearsal hall and in the office alike, he is a good-natured leader, playful and witty. But he is also thoughtful; he listens before he speaks; and he has a magnificent ability to uncover the truth in things.

He dives into my unspoken question. “What I have always thought about West Side Story is that it is a great introduction to the power of musical theater. People have an experience that is very emotional and very transformative. We live—unsurprisingly—in very divided times where hostility and anger boil over more often than not. I think West Side Story speaks to the idea that we need to see each other as human beings first and foremost. Only then can we begin to solve problems. But if we continue to create and embrace divisions that are, in many ways artificial, that we will not be able to function as a community and as a society. So I think that in some ways West Side Story is, in some ways a tonic to our times? Maybe? It is in response to the world that we’re in. And maybe the real tragedy is that it continues to be so relevant. The specifics are different, but… not.”

Danielle Gonzalez (Anita), Rebbekah Vega-Romero (Marie) and director Bill Berry in rehearsal for West Side Story at The 5th Avenue Theatre – Credit Cassandra Bell

It’s true. The rifts that West Side Story addresses may be different today in their specifics, but not in their nature. The artificial divide between “us” and “them” and love’s ability to transcend it is a tale as old as time—or Shakespeare, at least. West Side Story (1961) borrows its structure from Romeo and Juliet (1597) and remains as relevant in 2019 as it was both 57 years ago and 421 years ago.

But it’s not just the story that keep us coming back for more. “The power of West Side Story is that in addition to the timeless story, the artistry is also so magnificent. Jerome Robbins’ choreography, Leonard Bernstein’s score, Arthur Laruents’ book—each of these elements is its own magnificent creation. Together they culminate in something greater. They inspire us through their magnificent reach and scope.”

This will be his second time around with this magnificent piece of art; he staged it for The 5th in 2007 with returning choreographer Bob Richards in an award-winning production called “exhilarating,” “vibrant” and “a marvel of balletic storytelling” by The Seattle Times. No pressure.

“I’m really excited about revisiting it!” he exclaims. “But it’s weird, too! There’s definitely an element of chasing a dream. There has been a process of trying to unwind from attempting to recreate what we did before, and instead starting to the beginning as we always do—with the story, the words and the notes as they are written on the page.

“It will be interesting to have new actors approaching the material and allowing them to breathe life into them that are different. And that’s what I think is great about great theater is that every time you re-do it with new people, they bring something else out.”

Danielle Gonzalez (Anita) and Rebbekah Vega-Romero (Maria) rehearse for The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of West Side Story – Photo Credit Cassandra Bell

The casting for this production strives to authentically reflect the communities defined in the script. “As a cultural institution, we are much more aware about the choices that we make in terms of who gets to play what roles.” He adds, “There are so few roles that exist for any number of specific cultures and communities, to not let that culture have access to those roles is really problematic. There’s a criteria for playing Maria and Anita and Bernardo and Chino that really has to be met with some cultural authenticity.”

Bill feels passionately about the power of West Side Story. “There are very few shows that can consistently elicit a response from the audience of tears and then a release of that sadness into a moment of hope West Side Story does that. It leaves us changed. You may go to see the incredible dancing and a beautiful story told beautifully, but when it ends, you are slightly changed as you walk out the door. It does it magically. And that’s the subversive power of musical theater.”


West Side Story plays May 31 – June 23. Click for tickets and info.

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