With its classic songs and timeless tale of romance, West Side Story is a favourite with musical lovers everywhere. Next week it opens in Hong Kong, so Young Post sent junior reporters Tiffany Yip and Christy Cheung to get the behind the scenes scoop from Kevin Hack and Jenna Burns, two of the stars of the show. Here’s what they discovered ...
A tale of star-crossed lovers
The musical West Side Story is a modern twist on the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet. Set in the Upper West Side of New York, the story focuses on the rivalry of two teenage gangs. The local white kids have a gang called the Jets, and they are battling with the Sharks – a group of Puerto Rican immigrants – for control of the neighbourhood.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Tony, one of the founders of the Jets, and a girl named Maria fall in love after spotting each other across a crowded room. Unfortunately for everyone, Maria’s older brother just happens to be the leader of the Sharks.
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The pair of star-crossed lovers begins meeting furtively, and making plans to run away together. However, before they can leave, the two gangs set up a rumble – a massive brawl – to settle once and for all which gang controls the streets. Knowing the fight can only lead to more trouble, Maria sends Tony to stop it. But just like Romeo and Juliet, everyone involved gets a taste of tragedy.
West Side Story is incredibly powerful because it reminds us that life can still go on even if we have made poor choices. It is essential that we keep hope alive – especially in rough times and disagreements with others. It’s really an inspiration for anyone who is struggling to cope with difficulties in life.
In addition to its brilliant music and fantastic choreography, this musical has a great message, and it is just as relevant now as it was when it first opened in 1957. Society is made up of many different communities, and West Side Story teaches us to celebrate our differences instead of turning to violence and hatred.
Watching this musical, you will not only enjoy a classic masterpiece, you’ll also be made aware of values that are important to us all.
Behind the scenes
Music is a big part of the reason for West Side Story’s lasting success. Composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, songs like I Feel Pretty and America have become famous in their own right. Donald Chan, the musical director of the Hong Kong production, previously worked under Bernstein, and this gave him a deep understanding of the music to pass on to the cast.
“He’s the most amazing individual I’ve met,” says Kevin Hack, who plays Tony in the show. “He’s just so knowledgeable about the piece.”
With all the singing, dancing, costumes and scene changes, there is a huge amount of effort that goes on behind the scenes of West Side Story.
“We did about six weeks of rehearsal,” says Hack. “All the days kind of blended together because of how tired we were and all the work we were putting in.”
When asked about the most challenging part of the show, both Hack and Jenna Burns – who plays Maria – agreed that it’s the dancing. “But we definitely don’t do much dancing compared to the others, so it saves us some capacity to get into the character,” says Burns. “Thankfully,” adds Hack, although for him, getting into character isn’t such a challenge.
“I love playing Tony,” says Hack. “I’m almost 100 per cent myself every day I play the role. For me, this role is just a way for me to be myself on stage.”
It’s a little trickier for Burns, but fortunately, she identifies with Maria quite a bit, and even finds some inspiration in the character.
“One of the things I admire about Maria is her lack of hesitation when falling in love with Tony,” says Burns. “Me, as Jenna, I tend to hold myself back in some ways, and so sometimes I think I could take a lesson from Maria and just dive right into things a bit more.”
Diving right in is something her co-star is very familiar with. Hack started relatively late in show business, but he didn’t let that stop him. “I didn’t start doing any of this until I was 18,” he says. “But I dove in headfirst and I didn’t second guess myself. I was bringing my own package to the business.”
And while Burns took a more traditional route, starting her craft at a very young age, she says it’s never too late to get started. “Everybody has a different path,” she says. “At any point in time, if you have the passion for it and you’re willing to work, you can achieve anything.”
West Side Story opens on Thursday at the APA. Tickets start from HK$330 (HK$450 for adults) at hkticketing.com