"West Side Story" will hit the Musical Arts Center stage starting this weekend. The 2018 production by the IU Opera and Ballet Theater and Jacobs School of Music marks the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, the composer of the musical.
Performances will take place April 6, 7, 8, 13 and 14.
“West Side Story” is a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet.” The musical follows the conflict between two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, and the love story that emerges between two people caught in the rivalry.
When people think of American musicals, they think of “West Side Story,” David Neely, conductor of the show, said.
The 1957 premiere of the original Broadway show is timeless and still relevant to today’s society, Neely said.
“We’re living in a time where we still have people who don’t understand each other,” he said.
Michael Shell, director of the play, said in the 1950s, people thought times would change — a hope that’s reflected in the musical’s story.
Neely said people in the 1950s had an optimism that grew into the Civil Rights and women's rights movements of the 1960s. Neely, who was born in the early 1960s, was surrounded by this optimism back then and now sees it again laced into the play today.
Shell said he hopes the audience will realize the play's conflicts haven't changed by the end of the show — a realization he thinks will encourage viewers to have conversations about social issues that are slow to change today, such as gun violence and racism.
IU’s production of the musical focuses on the socioeconomic situations the characters are in. While the play is not an homage to the Broadway production, Shell said it was important to keep the original spirit alive to give the show its grit and theatricality.
As the director, Shell said he has had to manage time efficiently for the show.
“It’s a very large show,” Shell said. “There’s so many parts to it.”
Neely said musicals are challenging because of the dancing, timing and overlapping spoken word. As a result, he has to be in continuous contact not only with the conductor but with the choreographers and dancers as well.
“There’s constant dialogue about what works best for the pacing and energy of the show,” he said.
Neely said he hopes audience members will not go to see the show and think about how it’s made but rather about how powerful it is. Instead of thinking about who’s doing it, think about what it is about theater that brings people together, he said.
Through the show, Shell has been able to educate students on the craft of acting by instilling an acting technique and allowing them to explore this technique through their characters.
Neely said he hopes audiences will notice the students' talents and efforts.
He said he has loved working with the students on this production because they all know and have grown up with the musical. Their enthusiasm is apparent, he said.
“It’s their first 'West Side Story,'” he said.