“Two households, both alike in dignity…” Thus begins Shakespeare’s tale of Romeo and Juliet, in which we see “ancient grudge break to new mutiny.” When Arthur Laurents first conceived a modern, musical version of the play, he imagined a rivalry between Catholic and Jewish communities on the Lower East Side; only later did he and his collaborators move the story uptown, pitting a gang of “native” New Yorkers against those more recently arrived.
Although America is a country of immigrants, we continue to struggle with issues around immigration and migration, which makes West Side Story an important tale for today. (As Sondheim’s lyric neatly put it, “Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico’s in America.”) The creators of West Side Story, although well-intentioned, didn’t get everything right; later critics have pointed out lapses into stereotype. (This is true in so many “period pieces” that we put on the stage today, and as always, I look forward to the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about some of the thorny issues presented by the piece, both with my colleagues and with our audience members.)
Lapses aside, by putting the tragic cost of two warring tribes center stage, the authors made an important statement about the human tendency to organize ourselves into factions. Especially with the rise of social media, we have all become more tribal in our outlook. I think the story of two warring “tribes” challenges all of us to look at how we define and marginalize “the other.” Perhaps we find it easy to engage with people of different cultural backgrounds. But what about differences in education? Religion? Resources? Politics?
Leonard Bernstein scrawled “an out and out plea for racial tolerance” across the first page of his copy of Romeo and Juliet. As we approach this piece in 2019, in the midst of a world immigration and refugee crisis, I hope we can make that plea reverberate in a new way. I also hope we can challenge ourselves to think broadly about ways in which we arbitrarily dismiss the experiences and opinions of those who are not like us.
— Francesca Zambello
Welcome to Lyric! Whether you’re a first-timer or a regular visitor at the Lyric Opera House, we’re thrilled that you’ve joined us for West Side Story, a musical-theater masterpiece.
It was hugely gratifying to all of us at Lyric to witness the reaction of our audiences when it was announced that we would be producing West Side Story this season. From emails, letters, phone calls, and subsequently the conversations we’ve had with patrons throughout the season, we’ve felt tremendous excitement. It’s been clear from the start that this show has created a special connection with people everywhere. In so many cases, that connection has been lifelong; whether seeing the show on stage or on film, it remains unforgettable.
The story the show tells is sadly very relevant and topical today, particularly in cities like ours. In writing West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents made a very powerful statement. How devastatingly they bring out the absolute futility of the prejudice and conflict revealed by the passionate young men and women who populate this modern-day Romeo and Juliet. The hope that “there’s a place for us” is so deeply moving, with Sondheim’s simple, beautiful text complementing Bernstein’s exquisite music.
And there is so much else to enjoy here – the incomparable melodies, the dancing, the romance. We’re excited to bring it all to you with a thrilling young cast full of “triple-threat” performers. Everyone onstage has the talent to make something totally memorable of these wonderful characters. As the idealistic lovers, Tony and Maria, you’ll see and hear two bright stars of musical theater: Corey Cott, a familiar face on Broadway, and Mikaela Bennett, who portrayed Maria last year for the BBC Proms in London. The other principals – Amanda Castro (Anita), Brett Thiele (Riff), and Manuel Stark Santos (Bernardo) – are spectacular dancers who will bring tremendous brilliance and electricity to Jerome Robbins’s dances.
Francesca Zambello has directed some extraordinary productions here, including American works (Porgy and Bess, Show Boat). Francesca’s staging of West Side Story, which has already triumphed at Houston Grand Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Atlanta Opera, is truly astonishing in its dramatic impact. With a formidably gifted production team and the brilliant James Lowe – who led Lyric’s wonderful Oklahoma! – again on the podium, West Side Story will thrill and exhilarate you, when it isn’t breaking your heart.
Anthony Freud General Director, President & CEO The Women’s Board Endowed Chair