"West Side Story" with the New Jersey Youth Theatre

"West Side Story" with the New Jersey Youth Theatre

New Jersey Youth Theatre is inviting you to a rumble – a revival of its national prize-winning production of “West Side Story.” Running through July 28 at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theatre, NJYT’s take on this landmark American musical will be presented August 2 through 11 by the Centenary Stage Company in Centenary College’s Carol and David Lackland Center in Hackettstown.

“West Side Story” looks backward and forward in a way few musicals do. At its core is Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” transported to the gritty neighborhoods of New York City in the 1950s, the turf of competing street  gangs, whites versus Latinos.

A love story is nothing new to Broadway, of course – it’s Broadway’s stock-in-trade – but this show’s frank depiction of sex and violence in the lives of young people, and its unsentimental view of social conflict, shocked many theatergoers in 1957.

One of the show’s funniest songs, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” offers these lines: “Our mothers all are junkies,/ Our fathers all are drunks./ Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!” And the song’s closing lines, “Gee, Officer Krupke,/ Krup you!,” was misunderstood by no one. This kind of thing comes across today as pretty tame. But it was revolutionary at a time when “My Fair Lady” was still a new show and “The Sound of Music” was still two years in the future.

Also revolutionary was the music and choreography of “West Side Story.” Leonard Bernstein’s sultry, sizzling, dark and soaring score remains one of the highest mountain peaks in Broadway’s often low-lying musical geography. The score has so many stunning songs that a clutch of them became instant standards – “Something’s Coming;” “Maria;” “America;” “One Hand, One Heart;” “I Feel Pretty;” “Somewhere.”  These days we cheer if even one showtune breaks out as a popular hit and rises above the level of “Memory” from “Cats.”

Jerome Robbins’ choreography for “West Side Story” changed Broadway forever. The first American-born choreographer to achieve international standing, Robbins created a dance vocabulary that encompassed everything – ballet, abstraction, street style, urban cool, comedy, gymnastics. “Why can't we dance about American subjects?” Robbins famously asked. “Why can't we talk about the way we dance today and how we are now? … I don't want to fall into profundities and artistry and surround everything with whipped cream." There’s no whipped cream in “West Side Story,” although there’s a lot of salsa and some girly-time sugar (“I Feel Pretty”). Otherwise, it’s hot young bodies making hot young moves. In “West Side Story,” the dancing doesn’t so much express character – it is character.

Basically, “West Side Story” was Robbins’ idea. He conceived the project, directed it and choreographed it. He and Bernstein saw eye-to-eye on creative issues. Arthur Laurents’ book was serviceable, and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics – yes, that Stephen Sondheim, then at the beginning of his career – snapped, crackled and popped.

Although Bernstein received all music credit for “West Side Story,” it appears that Sondheim had a hand in the music, too, apparently as Bernstein’s aide. In 2006, when Princeton composer Milton Babbitt was celebrating his 90th birthday, he told this writer that Sondheim, a former student, had turned to him for advice about smoothing over some of the score’s kinks. “You know, I thought ‘Tonight’ was a dreadful song,” Babbitt said, with a laugh. “Dee-dah, dee-dah,/ Dee dah-dah-dah,/ Dee-dah.”

In any case, the bar for “West Side Story” is set very high, at all levels of production, which makes it all the more remarkable that New Jersey Youth Theatre’s production walked away with a 2003 Award for Excellence by Music Theatre International, one of the world’s top-drawer theatrical licensing agencies.

Founded in 1991 by director-actress Cynthia Meryl (artistic director) and her husband, actor-businessman Theodore J. Agress (general manager), NJYT --based in Roselle Park and Westfield-- has mounted close to 40 full productions. Featuring some 1,400 young performers, NJYT partners on a project basis with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Montclair State University’s Kasser Theater, the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan, and other venues.

“Oh my god, yes, ‘West Side Story’ is a bear,” says Meryl, who’s directing, but she’s confident she has her bases covered. The cast features 32 young performers, ranging in age from 15 to 24, from a dozen New Jersey counties. Don’t let the company’s name confuse you. These young people are at the beginning of professional careers or heading there as fast as they can manage.

“We try to give young people a genuine sense of the industry and a true perspective on professional standards,” says Agress, “and we really change lives.” NJYT players have gone on to Broadway, professional touring companies and regional theater.

Handling the music is Gonzalo Valencia, conducting an orchestra of 30. NJYT is using sound absorption units to balance the sound, Meryl says, which is necessary for quality control from venue to venue. “And we have the best choreographer in New Jersey. Write that down.  Sherry Alban,” Meryl says. Long associated with the Princeton Ballet School, a longtime faculty member with the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, Alban is in her 17th season with NJYT. Also, when you do “West Side Story,” somebody has to stage the fights and the knife action. That’s Rod Kinter.

“I find working with young talent is the most wonderful thing,” Meryl says. “These kids haven’t been to New York auditions and rejected 50 times. They bring a glowing energy that makes our productions very special. Their vocal proficiency is the least of my problems. They’re all amazing singers. Some of the actors aren’t exactly dancers. Sherry works with them. Some of the dancers aren’t exactly actors. I work with them. I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to witness the process of development, as they learn.”

It’s hard work. Dedicated work. Many of the cast have full-time jobs, part-time jobs, Meryl says, and they work long hours with NJYT. These aren’t young people who buy into the fantasy of instant stardom, achieved on some reality show. They know better. They know they have to put the time in, go to class, do the training, develop the skills, “get up, dress up, show up.” NJYT offers all that in the context of a professional-level performing company and also as a school, which runs September through May.

It’s tough for young artists. It’s tough for NJYT, too.

“We’re asking people to come to the show. Fill the house, help us keep the company going, help us keep the school going,” Meryl says. “And this is a very special show. At a time when Americans don’t seem to getting along very well, this is a show about learning how to accept people for who they are. It’s a very important message for today.”

For tickets and complete information: The official “West Side Story” web site, offering lots of background on the show:

Barry Manilow on Hits, “Harmony” & Brooklyn

Barry Manilow on Hits, “Harmony” & Brooklyn

Aaron & The Spell Podcast

Aaron & The Spell Podcast