When in doubt, trust your muscles.
That’s how Michael Grayman and Andrew Parkhurst, founders of Spinning Tree Theatre, describe the most important resource for re-creating the most distinctive and rigorous Broadway choreography in history.
When they applied for the rights to stage “West Side Story,” the 1957 classic that transposes “Romeo and Juliet” to the streets of Manhattan against the backdrop of warring Anglo and Puerto Rican youth gangs, they also sought permission to use the original Jerome Robbins choreography.
The rights-holders gave them the go-ahead. So now Grayman and Parkhurst, who are directing and choreographing the show that will open their 2015-16 season, have the authority to re-create the dances as close to the originals as possible.
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And that, it turns out, isn’t so simple.
Music Theater International, which licenses the show, provides a book that serves as a guide to choreographers.
“It’s got some charts and it’s got some of it in words,” Parkhurst said. “But I don’t know if you didn’t know the original, how you begin. It’s in bits and pieces.”
But there are memories lodged in Parkhurst’s and Grayman’s minds and bodies, because each of them has deep experience with the show. And that usually is how original choreography is “re-created”: by former dancers who know the moves intimately.
Almost exactly 20 years ago Grayman, who had just graduated from the Boston Conservatory, was hired for the 40th anniversary Broadway tour of “West Side Story.” He was cast as a swing, which meant he had to understudy multiple roles, including members of both gangs, the Sharks and Jets.
“I had to cover nine Shark roles, and I understudied Baby John, Big Deal and Snowboy,” Grayman said.
The show was directed by Alan Johnson, an original cast member in the 1957 Broadway production who became Robbins’ preferred director/choreographer.
After three days of intensive dance rehearsals, Grayman and the other swings sat down and began figuring out how to piece together their “swing books.” It was basically a copy of the script filled with notations, arrows, characters’ names, details about individual dances and other nitty-gritty information. And he has kept it to this day.
“It’s the easiest way to keep track of all these roles, especially if you have to go on all of a sudden,” Grayman said. “In a way it’s the ‘West Side Story’ bible of choreography and tracks and all that stuff.… It’s been really helpful in the process of putting this together.”
“Thank God you kept it,” Parkhurst said.
Parkhurst’s history with the show goes back to 1995, when he first performed it in the round at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. It was the first of five “West Side” productions Parkhurst was involved with.
After North Shore, he performed in a massive outdoor production in Germany.
“That was interesting because there were 60 cast members from 10 different countries,” Parkhurst recalled. “It’s an open-air theater in Augsburg, Germany, and it’s allegedly the site of former Nazi Youth rallies. We had an orchestra of 60 people. Officer Krupke would ride onstage with a motorcycle. There were fireworks for the ‘Somewhere’ ballet. They had a working fire hydrant on stage. It was this enormous, over-the-top thing.”
The dialogue was in German, but the songs were performed in English. The German actor playing Tony, the Romeo character, was also playing Riff, the leader of the Jets, in a separate production in Munich.
Because (spoiler alert) Riff dies at the end of Act. 1, and because the outdoor show began later than it would in a conventional playhouse, the producers were able to transport the actor by helicopter from Munich to Augsburg, where he smoothly slipped into the role of Tony.
“It was wild,” said Parkhurst, who played one of the Jets.
After that, Parkhurst was cast in the 40th anniversary European tour. Grayman, who had finished his engagement with the American tour, joined the company in Milan, Italy. That’s where they met.
In the 40th anniversary tour, Grayman had opportunities to meet Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, and Robbins, who with Laurents supervised the road company.
“When Jerome Robbins created this piece it was really the first time that cast members had to do all three (act, sing, dance),” Grayman said. “And it was the first time where the dancing was as important as the acting as far as furthering the story. There’s not a false move in it.”
So in addition to the materials provided by the licensing organization, Grayman and Parkhurst are the most important resources when it comes to staging the show.
“It’s my notes from the swing book, it’s his notes from the tour,” Grayman said.
“A lot of it is still in the muscle memory 20 years later,” Parkhurst said.
They’ve also reached out to friends — other directors and choreographers who have re-created the show through the years — for help, particularly when it came to counting the dance rhythms in Leonard Bernstein’s complex, jazz-influenced score.
And they urged their young actors to stay away from the 1961 film, which Robbins co-directed, or anything on YouTube.
“We said, ‘Don’t look at any of it,’” Grayman said.
For the leads, Grayman and Parkhurst cast Megan Herrera, who appeared in the Spinning Tree production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” as Maria and Jacob Aaron Cullum, who performed in Spinning Tree’s “Hello Again,” as Tony.
Also in the cast are Vanessa Severo as Anita, the girlfriend of the leader of the Sharks; Kip Niven as Doc, who owns the neighborhood candy store; Donovan Woods as Bernardo and Daniel Eugene Parman as Riff.
The popular conception of gangs and gangsters is hardly what it was in 1957. By current standards the Sharks and Jets seem remarkably clean-cut. Their capacity for raunchy dialogue doesn’t get much more extreme than “buggin’.”
But Grayman and Parkhurst said the show resonates with the here and now, even if the historical context evokes an earlier era. We still live in a time of racial division and outbursts of urban violence.
“We are presenting the original as it was in 1957 because you don’t have to do more than that,” Grayman said. “Because nothing has changed.”