Carnegie Hall’s Production of West Side Story

Carnegie Hall

From March 4–6, 2016, three extraordinary performances of “West Side Story” were presented at the Knockdown Center, a restored factory in Queens. Directed by Amanda Dehnert and conducted by Marin Alsop, this production blurred the boundary between students and professionals, with high school–aged apprentice performers joining the cast of the production and a 200-voice youth choir adding a new dimension to Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score.

The Auditions

West Side Story is often regarded as the first show that requires a “triple threat”: a performer who is an experienced singer, actor, and dancer.

“I still have a lot of room to grow, but this has definitely prepared me for the future.” —Emanuel Figueroa, apprentice cast member

The original choreography by Jerome Robbins was reset by Julio Monge in this production. Here, he leads the dancers during auditions.

The score was expanded to include new arrangements for a 200-voice youth choir. Here, they rehearse in the Resnick Education Wing with Musical Supervisor Leslie Stifelman.

Citywide auditions were held for participation in the choir, which included singers from 26 different high schools in all five boroughs of New York City.

The Rehearsals

Morgan Hernandez and Skylar Astin, who performed the roles of Maria and Tony, respectively, take a break from rehearsal. At only 18 years old, this marked Hernandez’s New York City debut.

Emilio Ramos, Alex Ringler, and Olatuyo Bosede rehearse the “Jet Song” with members of the student choir, under the direction of Musical Supervisor Leslie Stifelman.

On February 21, the cast, choir, and orchestra joined forces for the first time. More than 300 performers came together to rehearse the score under the direction of Marin Alsop.

Marin Alsop, a protégée of Leonard Bernstein, discusses the music of West Side Story.

“It’s fascinating to see these kids rise to the occasion. I know this is going to change their lives.” —Julio Monge, re-creator of Jerome Robbins’s choreography

The orchestra included 40 musicians—larger than any Broadway production of West Side Story.

Skylar Astin (Tony) and Morgan Hernandez (Maria) rehearse the balcony scene. Given the warehouse location, an industrial stepladder made for a suitable balcony.

Director Amanda Dehnert speaks with the cast after rehearsal.

The Performances

In the months leading up to the show, the 50,000-square-foot Knockdown Center was transformed from an empty warehouse into a fully functioning theater.

The expansive space—part–block party, part–city street—represented the open, community nature of the project, with no separation between the audience, cast, and orchestra.

Two clotheslines were strung across the stage pre-show—one with red shoes and the other with purple. As the production started, it became apparent that these colors identified the two gangs in the piece: red for Jets and purple for Sharks.

Before the performance, audience members could visit A Place for Us, an interactive exhibit showcasing work inspired by The Somewhere Project from community members across the city.

World roots band Brown Rice Family provided pre-show entertainment.

The band performed songs created by students and community members as part of The Somewhere Project.

With a colorblind approach to casting, the audience was able to identify the Sharks and the Jets through their clothing rather than by the color of the members’ hair or skin.

Jerome Robbins’s choreography is one of the most iconic parts of West Side Story. It draws on a mixing pot of influences: mambo, Lindy hop, American swing, stage fighting, and ballet.

Choreographer Julio Monge explains the dance of West Side Story.

In addition to Jerome Robbin’s choreography, Sean Cheesman created additional choreography for the production, bringing influences from popular dance of the last few decades into the mix, performed here by high school–aged apprentice Emanuel Figueroa (Big Deal) and Olutayo Bosede (Gee-Tar).

“What’s been so great mixing the professional actors/dancers/singers with these young students is seeing how the ‘old pros’ are mentoring the young kids.” —Sean Cheesman, choreographer

Musical Director and Conductor Marin Alsop conducted the orchestra and choir.

“It’s a show about young people and about youth, and [the choir] adds a level of authenticity and innocence and real beauty to this story.” —Marin Alsop, musical director and conductor

Members of the choir also joined Skylar Astin (Tony) and Morgan Hernandez (Maria) onstage for “One Hand, One Heart.”

“Somewhere,” sung by an offstage voice in the original production of West Side Story, was instead performed by the choir in this production. At the end of the song, the choir moved from its risers and onto the stage, surrounding the audience with the song’s hopeful message.

The high school–aged apprentices performed alongside the professionals. Here, Anijah Lezama (Estella), age 16, dances with Damon J. Gillespie (Chino) during “America.”

The apprentice cast members had the stage to themselves during Jerome Robbins’s “Somewhere” ballet.

Following the performance, Musical Director and Conductor Marin Alsop joined Donald Jones Jr. (Bernardo), Bianca Marroquín (Anita), Skylar Astin (Tony), Morgan Hernandez (Maria), and Manny Stark (Riff) onstage for the curtain call.

“The sound of so many voices added a layer of emotional plushness to the songs that was goosepimple–inducing, and utterly irresistible. So, really, was the entire production, which may have been conceived in part as a public-spirited educational project, but ultimately became a simple yet transporting production of a great musical.” —The New York Times
“If theater is a reflection of our society, The Somewhere Project’s take on the classic musical ‘West Side Story’ this past weekend provides hope that there can be peace if only we ask what it means universally to be human, instead of reinforcing the labels that make us different.” —The Huffington Post
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