‘West Side Story’ still relevant after 50 years

  • By Theresa Goffredo / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, May 24, 2007 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

If you go to see the 50th anniversary production of “West Side Story,” be prepared to see the passion of Bob Richard.

It’s the kind of passion a parent might feel when passing down a treasured memento or a poignant story.

“I as a dancer, I’m trying to pass that information on to the kids today because I want them to know what it feels like and how they are going to relate to this show,” Richard said. “I know they will carry this show with them for the rest of their lives.”

Richard is the choreographer for the 5th Avenue Theatre’s anniversary production of “West Side Story.

This rare production is a special collaboration with Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater and features a full 25-piece orchestra and a cast of 43 actors, singers and dancers who will re-create the original choreography from the 1957 musical, done by Jerome Robbins, who also choreographed “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Gypsy” and “The King and I.”

“I don’t consider myself a choreographer,” Richard said, renouncing his title during a phone interview from Seattle last week. “I didn’t come up with the steps. I wish I was as brilliant. My job is to translate Robbins’ work to the dancers of today.”

Richard may speak modestly, but his “West Side Story” history is impressive. He’s danced in the show more than 1,000 times, been in at least six different productions and did the 40th anniversary tour of the show, the last one Robbins oversaw before his death in 1998.

Not only is Richard passionate about the dancing, he is passionate about what “West Side Story” brings to us today. When Richard spoke about his favorite dance number from the musical, the ballet sequence, he called it the part where the dancers convey the beauty and hope in being colorblind.

“I have a 31/2-year-old boy and when I take him to day care, there’s every race in that room and he goes and plays. Hate is a learned thing. It’s not something inherent and we bring it into our lives, in our selves, we either harbor that and hold it against other people or … and I just don’t get it,” Richard said.

“Being in the theater is a very noble profession. Our jobs as artists is to tell a story so people can feel something when they leave and give them an opportunity to see from a different perspective.”

The themes of “West Side Story” are those of hate, differences and class struggle. It’s very modern, although the roots of the story are Shakespearean.

This is the modern tale of “Romeo and Juliet,” tragic lovers torn apart by feuding families. Today’s version has the young lovers caught in the crossfire of a Manhattan gang war, feuding over turf.

“West Side Story” addressed racial issues, youth violence and immigration – all relevant 50 years after the original production hit Broadway. That original production came together through the work of four legends of the theater: Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the score; Arthur Laurent, who wrote the book; lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Robbins.

“The genius of Robbins is that he took exceptional technical ballet dancers and made them look pedestrian, so that everyone could watch and appreciate this production,” Richard said. “He made it so that any man can see it, because of the fighting, the love story, because of the battles, the passion … everybody can attach themselves to the story because you do fall in love in real life, and there’s always that person in your life that tells you, that’s not the right person for you.”

Richard said Robbins was a genius at telling the story continuously so the audience couldn’t see when the dance ended and the story began.

In re-creating Robbins’ work, Richard dealt with, at times, 41 dancers on stage at once. But that wasn’t the most challenging part. What was?

All of it.

“Every single thing,” said Richard, who is in his late 40s. “There’s not one moment that is easy. If it’s easy, it’s being done wrong. If they can do it the first time and they’re not sweating, then they are not doing it right.”

Richard said the audience will be swept away by the production, or at least swept back to 1957, when “West Side Story” first began shocking audiences.

“It’s an amazing show,” Richard said. “I’m very thankful for it and the opportunity to share what I love with this community.”

Arts writer Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424 or goffredo@heraldnet.com.

Bootsy Holler photo

Choreographer Bob Richard (left) directs Jets Jason Kappus, Mo Brady, Troy Wageman, Michael Jablonski, John Scott, Jeremy Lucas, Lara Seefeldt and Mark Shunkey in “West Side Story.”

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