When West Side Story debuted on Broadway in 1957 it was met with gape-mouthed awe by audiences and critics alike. The modern, gritty, version of Romeo And Juliet, set in an urban immigrant ghetto in New York it was a dramatic departure from conventional musicals of the time. According to Todd Jacobsson, who has been cast in the lead role of Tony in Opera Australia’s upcoming production, “It sort of changed the face of the musical theatre art form…all of a sudden they made a show that was incredibly relevant, it told the story of the day and it actually dealt with real issues. That’s partially why it’s so popular and important to tell now.”
Jacobsson still remembers seeing the show for the first time as a young boy – it changed his life. Now, many years later, he is playing one of the most coveted roles in theatre.
“It is incredibly big shoes to fill,” he says, acknowledging the many performances that have come before, including the Oscar-winning film adaptation. But he adds, “I’m kind of blessed with having the honour try and do it.”
This is an indoor staging of the musical and has a completely different cast and design to the outdoor performance staged earlier this year. In fact, this is the original and definitive version of the show and includes the legendary choreography created by Jerome Robbins for the first Broadway production. Joey McNeely, who is directing this production, learnt the choreography directly from Robbins.
“This was the first show where dance was used to further the story instead of just stopping and entertaining an audience. So it’s a vocabulary that people weren’t used to and I think, even today it’s one of the most powerful pieces of dance ever,” says Jacobsson.
Touching on themes of racism, immigration, adolescent angst, as well as an intense, ill-fated love story, it’s an emotionally packed show. There are plenty of iconic scenes and numbers, but Jacobsson easily names his favourite, “Maria.” It’s a song he has sung in various settings throughout his life and in this show he sings in the spotlight alone on stage.
“To get to do that to an audience of 2000 plus by yourself with an orchestra of 35 in front of you – it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Aug 16-Oct 6.Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney. $49.90-$249.90+b.f. Tickets & Info: www.opera.org.au
By Rita Bratovich