Tuesday, May 13, 2014


57 years after it first opened on Broadway, this classic musical still packs a powerhouse emotional punch...

I caught the last performance of West Side Story at Istana Budaya on Monday - thanks to facebook, and both my lovely daughters. Of course, I had read about the Original Broadway version of this timelessly enthralling musical opening in Kuala Lumpur on 12 May 2010. But a quick look at the ticket prices - ranging from RM190 to RM590 - was enough to blot this event completely from my mind.

Anyway, I got a brief message Friday from Belle on my facebook wall asking if I had seen West Side Story and which character I had played in the 1976 local production staged by opera aficionado Kam Sun Yoke. I remember driving from Ampang Hilir to some school hall behind the old EPF building in PJ two or three times a week for rehearsals - which dragged on for months. Luckily, back in the mid-1970s, I could drive the distance in 15-20 minutes. The kids would occasionally accompany me to rehearsals. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but Belle said they both were furious with the guy who played Bernardo for killing my character, Riff, whom they saw as their Daddy.

On Sunday I received an email from Belle with an e-ticket attached for the 24 May performance of West Side Story. She had bought me a stall seat, three rows from the orchestra pit. She and her sister Moon were picking up the tab, she explained, as an early Father's Day present.

When I think about it, West Side Story has played a very important part in my early aesthetic development. I was 11 when I first heard a 45rpm EP with four or five numbers from the 1957 original Broadway cast recording.

The sheer vibrancy and originality of the musical score by Leonard Bernstein (right) blew my young mind. Whatever musical taste I may claim to possess today can be traced back to that early encounter with pure inspiration and pizzazz. A year or so later, the movie version of West Side Story opened in a Singapore cinema and my parents were sweet enough to take me to the show (which I must have seen at least seven times when it finally played in my hometown cinema).

Every single aspect of the movie impressed me: the lush opening sequence designed by Saul Bass, Irene Sharaff's refreshing costumes, Daniel L. Fapp's brilliant Panavision 70 cinematography, Boris Leven's outstanding art direction and, of course, the mesmerizing choreography by Jerome Robbins (left) - not to mention the unforgettable, scintillating score by Leonard Bernstein, who immediately became one of my musical heroes. I walked out of the cinema in a daze, not realizing my life would never again be the same.

Natalie Wood's Maria and Richard Beymer's Tony, for anyone whose first introduction to West Side Story was the 1961 movie which won 10 Academy Awards, will forever be held up as the standard by which all other aspiring Marias and Tonys will be assessed. Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris as Riff and Bernardo, leaders of the Jets and the Sharks, also created an indelible impression on me, as did Rita Moreno's definitive Anita.

In 1976, when I read in the press that an amateur theater group was holding auditions for a KL production of West Side Story, I simply had to get involved. It was the first time I had felt a such a powerful impulse to hurl myself into public performance. You can imagine my excitement and joy when I was offered the role of Riff, leader of the Jets.

The producer, Sun Yoke, insisted on playing Maria, though she was at least a dozen years older than Jude Sta Maria, who played Tony. Well, apart from the fact that Sun Yoke was the producer-director, she also happened to be an opera singer with a beautiful voice, which more than made up for her no longer looking like a 16-year-old virgin.

The choreography - mostly borrowed from a video of the film and from memory - was slapped together by Suet Lyn and Suzan Manen, two ballet teachers who also played Riff and Bernardo's girlfriends. Midway through the rehearsals, Chin San Sooi was recruited as co-director.

After what felt like four or five months, the show finally opened at the Experimental Theater, Universiti Malaya, and ran for about 6 days. I have no idea how it all looked from the audience's vantage point - at least nobody booed us. Fortunately, only a handful had seen the West End production in London and the rest were genuinely thrilled to see such an ambitious production staged locally.

One night after a particularly smooth performance, a self-assured American lady barged in backstage where the cast was busy removing makeup and changing into street clothes. She made a beeline for me, beaming brightly as she boomed, "I want you!" Funny, I thought, she doesn't look like Uncle Sam, so I just looked bewildered. "Ha, I've found my Snoopy!" Patricia Lockwood, director of a 1977 production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, said exultantly. And that's how I got sucked into theater for a good 15 years.

In 2007 the 50th anniversary revival of the Broadway production of West Side Story began an international tour covering the US, the UK and Europe. Three years later Yvette Kang of Yvents! persuaded the New York touring company to stage an 11-day run in KL's Istana Budaya - the only Southeast Asian stopover, apparently. Quite a feat, as the 70-member cast, crew and musicians are a logistical nightmare to move around - not to mention the expense. For the KL performances, about half the orchestra was recruited locally and they did a superb job under the magical baton of the musical director (whose name I would like to know, he was simply brilliant).

It's a shame that such a splendid and spectacular theatrical event had to be priced so exclusively owing to its high production costs. I certainly wouldn't have had the chance to catch it were it not for my daughters' generosity. What delighted me was the absolute freshness of this production - and the immense energy and enthusiasm of the young cast. Almost three generations have elapsed since the first staging of West Side Story, but the material is truly as timeless as Shakespeare. Stephen Sondheim (above, right) who wrote the superb lyrics, got the tricky mix between comedy, romance and tragedy just right - and the story is as relevant and heart-wrenching today as it was 50 years ago.

George Chakiris (Bernardo) looks awed as Jerry Robbins demonstrates a stylish arabesque

Jerome Robbins's incredibly demanding choreography makes such a powerful impression it can't be altered without destroying the essence of West Side Story. That Robbins was an obsessive perfectionist is revealed in the fact that he was fired halfway through the making of the film - because he was causing serious budget overruns with his extended dance rehearsals and holding up the shooting schedule.

Above all, Bernstein's groundbreaking score remains a shining star in the musical firmament and will doubtlessly stir the souls of many future generations. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, originally conceived the rival gangs as Catholics and Jews. Making it a turf war between white delinquents (Jets) and Puerto Rican immigrants (Sharks) established the irresistible interplay between the jazzy urban and Latino musical motifs that make Bernstein's score so distinctive and appealing.

With Google and YouTube, a great deal of information is now available online that will provide a fascinating glimpse of the complex and laborious process by which West Side Story evolved, over a span of eight hiccupy years.

I found the official West Side Story homepage a bit bland, apart from a welcome message from Jamie Bernstein Thomas, Lenny's daughter, who says she was only 10 when West Side Story was turned into a hit movie. However, there's a great deal of interesting data to be gleaned from this site dedicated to the movie version.

Here's a selection of video clips from the 1961 movie, plus a few links to videos documenting Leonard Bernstein conducting his own immortal score with a star-studded cast of opera singers...

2007 rehearsal with members of the original Broadway cast

Leonard Bernstein rehearsing "A Boy Like That/I Have A Love"

Recording session for "Quintet," "Jet Song" and "Cool"

Recording "America" in the studio

José Carreras has some problems with "Maria"

All-star recording session for "Gee, Officer Krupke"

Behind the scenes with the cast of West Side Story in Malaysia

I hear quite a few ministers - including Muhyiddin and Ng Yen Yen - were present at the gala premiere. Even the BN crowd will agree, I think, that it's far superior to stage truly magnificent shows like West Side Story - rather than banal, mediocre and malevolent shadow plays like Saiful Bukhari's Back Side Story.

[First posted 26 May 2010]