West Side Story: the musical that changes lives video

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Hailed as "Broadway's greatest dance musical", an international touring production of West Side Story opens in Auckland on June 22.

In Dublin, the audience was with them every second, cheering every number. In Hong Kong they met a more reserved crowd - until the lights came up and applause filled the theatre.

Zurich, Dubai, Istanbul, Prague, Frankfurt, Munich - Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva has seen audiences all over the world react to West Side Story. He is yet to see it fall flat.

Quinones-Villanueva speaks over the phone from a hotel in Hong Kong, where the production - which visits Auckland this month - is two weeks into a three-and-a-half week run.

West Side story performer Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva (centre) plays Puerto Rican gang leader Bernardo in West Side Story.
Johan Persson/SUPPLIED

West Side story performer Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva (centre) plays Puerto Rican gang leader Bernardo in West Side Story.

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An actor, dancer and singer, Quinones-Villanueva has been on tour with West Side Story since October. This is not his first time taking the stage as a member of the Shark gang. He performed on Broadway and in a previous world tour.

First performed in 1957, West Side Story is set in a New York City summer where the heat of the weather is matched by racial tensions between two groups of immigrants: the white Jet gang and the Puerto Rican Sharks.

West Side Story opens in Auckland on June 22.
Johan Persson/SUPPLIED

West Side Story opens in Auckland on June 22.

When Maria, sister to the Sharks' leader, falls in love with Tony, a Jet, the gangs clash in a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tragic love story.

Quinones-Villanueva plays Bernardo, Maria's older brother and leader of the Sharks.

The story has personal resonance for Quinones-Villanueva. He was born in Puerto Rico, but before that his parents lived in the Bronx in New York. As he grew up, they told him stories about their time in America, and the racial tensions and clashes that took place in a city that was then divided along ethnic lines.

West Side Story director Joey McKneely says the show changed his life - twice.

West Side Story director Joey McKneely says the show changed his life - twice.

Quinones-Villanueva's father is in fact his inspiration for the proud and protective Bernardo.

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"My father is very family-oriented, very protective of his family. And that is something very clear about Bernardo. His character is a very proud person, very proud of where he comes from," he says.

His mother, meanwhile, reminds him of the strong-willed Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend. As a child his father made it clear he was the head of their household, but his mother would fight back against him.

West Side Story director Joey McKneely teaches his cast Broadway legend Jerome Robbins' original choreography.

West Side Story director Joey McKneely teaches his cast Broadway legend Jerome Robbins' original choreography.

"As I grow older I see my mum, she always would stand her ground, it doesn't matter what he thinks, she will have her own opinion. And that's very Anita, that is the kind of relationship they have. Even when they fight it is a relationship of respect and love," Quinones-Villanueva says.

As a child, Quinones-Villanueva danced in talent shows and at folk groups, but it wasn't until he was chosen for a youth dance company - sponsored by the government of Puerto Rico - that he started taking it seriously.

While on a trip to perform in New York, the company was taken to see the musical Cats. That was when Quinones-Villanueva realised dance could be a career.

He has been  "lucky and blessed enough" to make a go of it, and now performs around the world. Next week he'll visit Auckland for the first time, with West Side Story.

But unfortunately he won't have much time for sightseeing. After arriving, the cast get a day to rest and get over their jetlag before the gala opening on June 22. Over the next two weeks, they'll only have one day off.

"It's sad, I always like to go to these places for two or three weeks, that's when we have time to see it," Quinones-Villanueva says. 

"We're very happy. This is what we love, and this thing is just a blessing, it's an opportunity of a lifetime. We try to make the best of it."

Perhaps less "blessed" is the production's director, Joey McKneely, who won't be making the trip across the Pacific with his cast.

"Oh god, I wish! I so wish," he says when asked if he'll be in New Zealand.

West Side has been a pivotal part of McKneely's career. His first encounter with the musical was as a dancer in Jerome Robbins' Broadway.

The show was a mash up of the great choreographer's biggest hits, and naturally West Side - his best-known work - featured prominently.

McKneely remembers "Jerry" Robbins as an exacting taskmaster.

"The biggest memory I have ... is that the integrity of the choreography always came first. I've worked with choreographers who change the choreography to suit people. With Jerry, it was his choreography - if you couldn't do it, then he got someone who could. He didn't short-change the choreography."

"I went through four months rehearsing a particular number, three of us did it, three guys, and almost every week or twice a week we'd go in a room with him and we'd all dance the same choreography for this one part, and he just couldn't figure out who the right person was.

"And when he finally figured out it wasn't personal, it wasn't like he didn't like us, we had a job, he was just finding the person who could make the choreography come alive the best."

By the late 1980s, when McKneely worked with Robbins, he'd softened up a little from his heyday.

"He was very difficult, I heard - the stories are legendary - in the 1950s and 60s. He was very demanding, and as most masters are, they're trying to be better than they are, they keep trying to push themselves, and with that they're going to push people around them."

McKneely now has the task of keeping Robbins' legacy alive. His version of West Side Story uses the original choreography Robbins devised.

Robbins is not the only original West Side creator McKneely has worked with, however. He partnered with the script writer, Arthur Laurents, for a 2009 Broadway revival.

Laurents wanted to make several changes to the way the play was performed to bring it into the modern era, which put McKneely - charged with keeping Robbins' choreography intact - in a difficult position.

"I was in between two masters. Here I was with Arthur Laurents, the original writer, and he revealed things about the book and the characters and how to approach the acting that I'd never realised. So he enriched my production after that experience.

"But he wanted to change a lot of things that Jerry did to the show, and I knew what Jerry wanted to do with his version, so it was very hard to kind of navigate between these two masters, one's dead and one's alive, I'm honouring one and I'm honouring the other one."

For McKneely, the most important thing is preserving West Side Story's youth and excitement.

"What makes West Side Story so endearing is it truly is timeless," he says. 

"It's timeless not only in its subject matter, in terms of racism, immigrants, first love, and the tragedy which ensues with that, the violence which is so prevalent in our world right now. But what it does, it just captures I think the truth of being young unlike any show ever has."

"I always think West Side changed my life twice, and I owe it my entire career, so every time I come to do it, I bring that feeling - I want to give the dancers what it gave me as a dancer at 20.

"It changed my world, it opened up avenues, it allowed me to express things I couldn't express any other way, but I could express it through the choreography, and every time I did it I felt like I'd conquered a mountain.

"It made me feel like a better person. So I try to inspire my dancers to do that, and the actors too."

West Side Story, June 22-July 2, Civic Theatre, Auckland, tickets at Ticketmaster.

 - Sunday Star Times

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