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Theatre Preview: Short North Stage Opens Season with Explosive Columbus Children’s Theatre Collaboration ‘West Side Story’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Preview: Short North Stage Opens Season with Explosive Columbus Children’s Theatre Collaboration ‘West Side Story’Photo via Short North Stage's Facebook Page
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Upon its debut in 1957, West Side Story transplanted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into the youth gangs of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, electrified America, and solidified movements in musical theatre to tackle more complex, realistic subject matter. This collaboration of Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (choreography and direction), still exudes a pull over musical theatre audiences 62 years later, with a new film version from Steven Spielberg underway and a new Broadway revival directed by Ivo Van Hove opening in December.

Closer to home, Short North Stage kicks their 2019-2020 season wide open with a revival of this piece long in their sights. I spoke with Edward Carignan, Short North Stage’s artistic director as well as the director and choreographer of their West Side Story, by phone about its long road to becoming reality and the collaborators who helped bring the largest production in Short North Stage’s history to life.

We talked about Carignan’s personal history with this iconic show.

“I used to love Broadway cast recordings and West Side Story was one of the first I owned,” Carignan says. “I saw the movie pretty young and I loved that. Then I forgot about it for a long time…In my early 20s, I was hired to do it as a dancer and it gave me this new appreciation for how complex that score was. Jerome Robbins’ choreography – performing the original stuff – was a revelation in storytelling. Lyrically, it’s beautiful; one of the tightest books. It’s a longer show, but there’s not an ounce of fat on it. Even working on it now, it’s impressive to me how much gets said in the most minimal language possible. It’s just an amazing show, and every time I come back to it in a new capacity, it gets reborn for me.”

With that history, this is the first time he’s directed or choreographed the show, describing it as visiting an old friend but seeing it in a different way.

“There are very few times I get to do something for the first time [anymore],” he says.

Bringing West Side Story to the Short North Stage is a unique opportunity that took just the right timing.

“I think it’s going to be unavailable for a couple of years because of the film and the new Broadway production; I don’t think [a company] can get the rights for a long time,” he says.

That timing also had to do with ensuring the company could present the classic in the best way possible.

“Rick [Gore] and Peter [Yockel, founders]…we’d been talking about doing the show for so many years,” Carignan says. “We were worried about… it’s huge. We want to cast it culturally appropriately [and] we don’t have a ton of Latinx dancers in Columbus. We knew we’d have to bring in more people from out of town than we normally would. Expense-wise, it was a scary number, and we’d kind of avoided it because of that.”

Around a year ago, Carignan approached Susan Pringle from Columbus Children’s Theatre to discuss collaborating for the obvious cost reasons, but also for a deeper, thematic purpose.

“We wanted to do something appropriately cast – which has been a consistent problem…a lot of regional companies are getting criticism for hiring white actors to play those Latinx roles,” Carignan says. “We knew that would be important to us and we wanted to use the angle that young people are represented in the story. We wanted the audience to remember that these are kids killing each other. And even if [the violence] is not kids, the kids are watching; and that’s how it starts.”

Carignan augmented that core conceit with research into the period and realities of mid-century urban life.

“I was reading about the gangs of New York in 1958, a year after the show came out. [The book talked] about how these gangs were, not really multicultural, but not all-white or all-Puerto Rican,” he says. “And the age range was a lot wider than I thought – the kids were recruited around 13 or 14 and went up to their late 20s. They didn’t really have a choice, it was be recruited or get beat up. Whatever block you lived on, that was your gang.”

Taking off from that, Carignan says, “I wanted to do a production that focused on how susceptible children are to these negative biases their families can have and how racism starts that young. I thought [CCT] would be a perfect collaborator because it allowed us access to young dancers that had probably no exposure to the show to represent some of the younger characters: Baby John, A-rab, some of the Shark Girls, some of the Jet Girls. [The characters are] 14, 15, 16, and the actors are actually that age but can execute choreography. It’s really cool to see them mingling; people who have experience with Broadway shows and national tours with someone on their first Equity, professional production.”

Carignan underscores the scope of the project from every angle. CCT was vital to “[Our] largest cast to date at 35. It’s [also] our largest orchestra. We had a new orchestration done – it’s a 40-piece show and we didn’t just want to cut strings or cut an entire section, because the show would feel empty without everything. We went to Lloyd Butler who did other shows like Kiss of the Spider Woman for us. He reduced it down to 10 pieces – quite a reduction but everything is covered; you hear everything differently.”

West Side Story’s wildly innovative Jerome Robbins choreography lies at the heart of its ongoing appeal. Carignan knows that dancing well and enlisted a collaborator he’s excited by to find his own way of telling the story: nationally acclaimed dancer Trevor Schmidt.

“We had the idea that I was going to direct and choreograph everything, but I thought it would be cool to hire a second choreographer to do the Sharks stuff so it had a more authentic Latin feel and a very different vocabulary from what I created for the Jets,” Carignan says. “Trevor Schmidt came in and did the Mambo, ‘America’ and ‘I Feel Pretty,’ some of the Sharks stuff in the prologue. They’ll really look like two different gangs and two different cultures. I think that’s been one of the coolest things to watch.”

Short North Stage’s new take wasn’t revisionism for its sake or a criticism of the original work.

“We’ve both done this show with Jerome Robbins and love the original choreography. We love it, we love dancing it, but we want to see how else the story can be told,” Carignan says. “That’s kind of our brand at Short North Stage now: I don’t want to just recreate all the time. It’s very similar to what we did with Pippin – it wasn’t Fosse’s Pippin but we’re using the vocabulary. We’re using Robbins’ vocabulary but [the dance numbers are] new, they’re exciting, they’re different. But they have a taste of what you’ve grown attached to with West Side Story.

Carignan speaks to the staying power of the musical.

“Sixty-two years is an impressive time for a musical to stay so relevant. Especially when it didn’t win a Tony – it lost to The Music Man – and was looked at as avant-garde for its time,” he says. “It’s so cool something this adventurous could come to be appreciated in its time and mature over the years, becoming this [widely recognized] ‘greatest American musical.’”

Short North Stage’s take on this arguably greatest of American musicals promises to be a can’t-miss event on the packed Columbus fall calendar.

West Side Story runs October 17-November 17. For tickets and more info, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35153

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