West Side Story musical to be staged in Minsk for first time
West Side Story was the brainchild of compo-ser Leonard Bernstein and scriptwriter Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Of course, the plot was adapted from Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet tragedy, with the action shifting to the mid-20th century New York. The play has been performed 770 times on Broadway, also winning a prestigious Tony Award. In its run of over 50 years, the musical has featured several global stars: in 1957, the role of Maria was performed by budding actress Elizabeth Taylor and, in 2009, Anita was played by Jennifer Lopez. In 1961, West Side Story was screened by director Robert Wise, winning ten Oscars and making the story of Maria and Tony known worldwide.
Within six months, the show will be ready for its premiere at the Belarusian State Musical Theatre. Already, a team of professionals are working on the production, including producer Alexey Grinenko.
Since childhood, Alexey has had two passions: English language and American musicals. He dreamt of performing on stage — singing in English and dancing, rivalling foreign artistes. Last year, at the age of 32, he gained a place on one of the most prestigious post-graduate courses in the world — studying to be a producer at the City University of New York. Of course, he kept his ties with his native country and his experience now makes him perfect for staging famous West Side Story — creating a new interpretation of the old play. To offer his help, US conductor Philip Simmons visited Belarus early this summer.
Alexey, what inspired you to prepare a Minsk performance?
I’ve been working with the Belarusian State Musical Theatre since 1998. Last August, I moved to New York and now perform in Minsk as an invited artiste. I’d like to promote the best examples of American musicals in the Republic. At Minsk Linguistic University, I even defended a Master’s degree paper on American drama. However, I needed to see this art with my own eyes — to become a professional and receive a scientific degree. To succeed, I began searching for the best theatrical schools in America, eventually entering the University of New York. I was lucky. The best universities are interested not only in fees but in enrolling the most talented, to ensure the progression of the profession. I submitted my application to New York from Minsk, giving me own reasons as to why I’d chosen theatre studies and what my goals in life are. This was the decisive factor, as I gained a free scholarship: the University seeks personalities, not just money.
Did your life story convince the admission board?
Yes. They appreciated my experience and my life-long love for American musical theatre. They were interested in my experience of working with Russian language theatre; those in the West love Russian theatre. From September, I’ll be teaching Stanislavsky method-acting at the City College of New York. I’m now compiling my own programme and, from next semester, will be running a ‘Workshop in Musical Theatre’.
Where do you live?
I rent a flat in Brooklyn, sharing with a young man from Uzbekistan; he studies banking and is to work on Wall Street. I joke that when he gets a flat in Manhattan — a more prestigious district — I’ll rent a room from him, paying the same sum as we now pay in Brooklyn. I go into Manhattan every day, attending the University and theatres. From October, I’ll be studying dance alongside Broadway actors. Every evening, it takes me 40 minutes to travel to Broadway by metro, enjoying local performances…
Why don’t you immigrate to the USA rather than returning to your homeland?
My parents and sister live here. I return for them, for myself and for our Musical Theatre. Honestly, I’ve always been sad by the lack of opportunity to chat in English in Minsk, as I love the language so much, wanting to penetrate its depths. I came up against problems at University, scoring a ‘four’ in my first exam after the first semester. I was told that I’d made three grammar mistakes, although I was convinced that I was correct. I showed my teacher my textbook, asking whether I’d misunderstood something, and she explained that the book was really for third year students. She told me that I’d be able to use such grammar when I reached the third year. So, I was prohibited from knowing too much in my first year. I then understood that grinding through textbooks wasn’t the best way for me to learn English. I decided to improve my vocabulary and phonetics in practice, chatting to foreign friends and recording my own voice. I would then listen to the recording to find my mistakes. This released me from schooling. I don’t wish to offend anyone but Belarusian teachers are not native speakers. I needed true authorities, from whom I could take my cue.
What did you decide to do?
This was 1996. That year, the Arts Academy was enrolling a group of artistes from the Musical Theatre, preparing them for musicals. The course was run by Boris Vtorov and Alla Shagidevich (who works in Germany now). Vocal singing was taught by Honoured Artiste Valentina Petlitskaya and People’s Artiste Natalia Gaida, while People’s Artiste Vladimir Ivanov — from the Opera and Ballet Theatre — taught us dancing. A team of talented people was formed and our course was unique. In America, the comedy drama TV show ‘Glee’ is very popular; it reminds me of our group, which was so unusual. Everyone was different but, looking at other groups, you felt we’d been chosen well.
Did you view yourself as unusual?
Musical or dramatic theatre often needs original personalities who can play roles in such a way that they stick in the audience’s memory. The term ‘musical theatre’ excludes opera (except rock opera — a type of musical). It values the personality of each actor. In operetta, actors tend to be stereotyped into certain roles: heroes, villains or fools. Western musical theatre eliminated this division in the 1950s; like dramatic theatre, it requires flexibility and a wide range of skills.
Does musical theatre unite drama, opera and ballet?
In opera, a character is created primarily through the actor’s voice; this isn’t sufficient in musical theatre, since dancing, singing and acting are needed. Mr. Vtorov realised this clearly, curing us of ‘operetta set patterns’ — as he calls them.
What does that term mean?
It’s when everything is banal and insincere. I don’t refer to parody or emphatic movements (such as when an operatic singer wrings her hands and widely opens her eyes to portray the mood). However, as I noted earlier, modern musicals rely on drama. Konstantin Stanislavsky spent his life trying to erase patterns from drama, replacing them with truth; it’s no easy task — especially in musical theatre. In real life, nobody sings; people talk! It’s a real challenge to stage natural dialogue in a musical. Nevertheless, modern operatic performances are being inspired by what’s been achieved in musical theatre. For example, Metropolitan Opera actors are eager to find a certain truth in their genre. In Belarus, many stagings look as if they’ve come straight from a museum, failing to portray characters believably.
Our theatre tends to position itself as conservative, trying to preserve its ‘traditions’. Is this bad?
I’m not saying that it’s bad. In my view, modern directors and actors should conceptually bring these pieces to life, making them accessible. They shouldn’t view their texts and sheet music as a set of rigid artistic elements about a remote and alien world. Audiences react differently if they see themselves or their neighbours in the characters on stage. Moreover, such characters should not necessarily live in Minsk!
In one good staging of Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’, I recognised myself and my mother. Meanwhile, I felt similarly about ‘Next to Normal’, where the action takes place in an American province. The female protagonist suffers from bipolar disorder (mood swings bringing elation and depression). On hearing her monologues, I felt that I understood her and could empathise, despite her condition placing her reality far from mine. When I attended this performance in New York, I could hardly understand my reaction: just five minutes in, I was moved to tears. I looked behind me and saw that others were crying too. It showed how well the actors had moved people’s hearts. I’ve seen this show several times and can say that it deserves its Pulitzer Prize.
West Side Story is about love. In your opinion, how have its authors managed to create a story which touches our hearts? What new interpretation can there be on this topic, so well recorded by Shakespeare?
Shakespeare drew much of his inspiration from the drama of Ancient Greece — so he wasn’t original either. Theatre is not an original art.
Originality — in the sense promoted by romanticism — is alien to the theatre. To be more correct, its originality lies in its portrayal of time-honoured themes. We might think that nothing more can be added to Shakespeare’s or Aeschylus’ works. However, Sophocles developed the detective genre in his ‘Edip-Tsar’ long before Agatha Christie, while Aeschylus’ Orestes solved Hamlet’s conundrum long before Shakespeare. Why do we then love ‘Hamlet’, rather than viewing it as plagiarism? Shakespeare had a different outlook, presenting the story from a new angle. We could accuse playwrights of thieving stories from each other — for instance, Chekhov perhaps stole his ‘Seagull’ from Ibsen’s ‘Wild Duck’ and the plot of ‘Uncle Vanya’ from Turgenev’s ‘A Month in a Village’. However, Chekhov and Shakespeare gave each plot new meaning.
What is the difference between American and Belarusian theatre?
In America, there is a never-ending passion to reflect modern reality. Even when staging old plays, local directors try to find ways to chime with the concerns of the day. Shakespeare wrote his works for his own time and for his own people, so the texts must be interpreted anew for our present.
Should we then change horses to cars?
No. Texts are full of instances. American theatre is commercial. On staging Shakespeare, it wants to leave audiences speechless. I don’t just mean the works of new playwrights who are inspired by his drama, but actual interpretations of the original text.
Does money drive the direction of art?
Actually, this stimulus could benefit your theatre. Those in America understand that mistakes lead to smaller audiences. A single street could be offering portrayals of works by Shakespeare, Aeschylus and a modern author, each in competition. Accordingly, every detail is well considered.
Should the theatre sacrifice tradition for the sake of revenue and audiences?
It must be based on traditions but what are these really? Sometimes, people hide their laziness behind them. Moreover, they love to skulk behind famous names, authorities or others’ dead forms. We continue to believe that we should imitate the talents of the past, using them as a canon, being prohibited from altering anything. Meanwhile, those in the West feel that nothing is set in stone. They like to analyse the circumstances of a play’s original success, finding out about the staging and actors. It’s often found that a theatre was supported by the monarch, so playwrights wrote with their benefactors in mind. Some plays found popularity not for their own genius but for their cast. Legendary 18th century English actor Harrick David could make any play popular. Some works contemporary to Harrick have been found in which he did not appear. They failed to gain recognition at the time, as people were dazzled by the authority of this single actor but their content makes them masterpieces. Harrick’s authority carried the plays to success. We shouldn’t rely on such a narrow interpretation of success, looking carefully at the context of a play, understanding that classical writers were ordinary people rather than icons.
By Viktar Korbut
It’s not only Broadway where…
[b]West Side Story musical to be staged in Minsk for first time[/b]West Side Story was the brainchild of compo-ser Leonard Bernstein and scriptwriter Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Of course, the plot was adapted from Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet tragedy, with the action shifting to the mid-20th century New York.