West Side Story exists to remind us how things can go wrong when racial tensions escalate
What, ultimately, makes a good musical? Its timelessness. Looking at some of the most successful musicals now, trusted tropes and universal themes are responsible for their popularity: Whether it's unrequited love in Les Miserables, the blurred lines between good and evil in Wicked or the need to belong to a group in Cats, issues that bind people together keep ticket-goers returning to the theatres decades after its debut run.
Take West Side Story, for example. Though we wouldn't go so far as to call it an original (isn't everything a copy of a copy of a copy?), the Broadway musical debuted in 1957 and continues to tour internationally till today. Currently running in Singapore, its universal appeal has been seen in London, Tokyo and Sydney as well. With a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, the Joey McKneely production even features a protégé of Bernstein: Conductor Donald Chan, who leads a live orchestra of 21 musicians.
Strangers to the live staging of West Side Story might recognise the plot from its movie adaptation in 1961, which went on to win an Oscar for best picture (among 9 other wins). A story set in New York's Upper West Side hood of two lovers torn apart by brutal rivalry, it sees Puerto Rican immigrant Maria (Natalie Ballenger) and American Tony (Marc Koeck) come together in the backdrop of rising racial tensions perpetuated by street gangs. The seemingly all-American Jets, threatened by the arrival of the Puerto Rican Sharks fight to dominate the streets in their predominantly male aggression. If your Shakespeare bells are ringing, you're right — West Side Story's inspired by Romeo and Juliet's tumultuous affair, this time with more oomph and bite.
By the first act, you're thrust into '50s America, where the American dream is still very much alive, despite life being alright "if you're white". Being "dark" can deny someone entry, and where men only want one thing from a Puerto Rican girl. Moving steel and aluminium structures set the stage, forming the backbone for scenes to unfold — such as a particular tender one where a balcony fashions the grittier version of the one Shakespeare's Juliet stands at while calling out for Romeo. Featuring Robbins' original choreography, the all-American cast enthralls in leaps and bounds —literally — as each fight and dance sequence straddles the line between grace and aggression. Like the diverse nature of the characters (Tony's a first generation American, as it turns out), genres come together as the saucy stylings of Latin music mingle with classical, ballet and jazz notes fluidly.
Ultimately, Sondheim's words are what keeps West Side Story particularly engaging. Maria, Somewhere, America and I Feel Pretty are standout numbers, whether you're nostalgically looking back or discovering little nuggets of wittiness in his lines. While the leads do show off their chemistry in most scenes, their fast, young love might seem a tad fictitious to realists — bearing in mind, though, that the characters are meant to be in their late teens. Memorable performances include that of Maria's friend, the feisty Anita (Keely Beirne), who's basically a cautious yet wildly engaging moral compass.
It's hard to ignore West Side Story's timeliness in 2017. The lines "Stick to your own kind" and "I am not one of them, you are not one of us" remind of the story's underlying struggles of immigrants in America, putting a mirror up yet again to the country's growing racial tensions today. Closer to home, it teaches us life lessons as every good story should: Don't let hate destroy a community, and that nothing good will ever come out from judging someone based on the colour of their skin.
West Side Story runs till 30 September at Mastercard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands. Book tickets.