A Fruitful Relationship 

Nashville Symphony and the Rep unite to tell timeless tale of love

Nashville Symphony and the Rep unite to tell timeless tale of love

By Marcel Smith

West Side Story

Presented Sept. 4-16 by the Nashville Symphony and Tennessee Repertory Theatre in TPAC’s Jackson Hall

For tickets, contact Ticketmaster at 255-9600 or www.ticketmaster.com

As part of an ongoing Naxos recording project, the Nashville Symphony contracted to record Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Then they discovered that the Bernstein estate didn’t want just a concert version that might dilute the gritty vitality of the music. So Symphony executive director Alan Valentine asked David Grapes, his counterpart at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, if Grapes’ company would collaborate on a full-scale production that Naxos would record live.

“It was Alan Valentine’s idea,” says Grapes. “The Rep was going to do a musical, but not West Side Story. Alan thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the Rep got involved and we could do a whole production?’ And I thought, ‘What a great opportunity for us.’ ”

The Rep seized the moment—in large measure because generous sponsors made it possible not just to do a full-scale production of West Side Story, but to do a fine one. The cast will include some local talent—Mike Eldred sings the male lead—but Grapes held auditions in New York to find most of the two dozen accomplished young dancersthe show demands. And he brought in Lynne Kurdziel-Formato from Upstage New York as choreographer, along with Brian Tidwell from Las Vegas as music director. Kenneth Schermerhorn will conduct the Nashville Symphony. Rehearsals promise a delightful event.

Rehearsals also show that live performance has its own kind of compelling immediacy—maybe not better than, but certainly different from a cinematic version. In live performance, West Side Story shows its kinship with a tradition reaching through the Middle Ages to ancient Greece of presenting a well-known story in a newly imagined way. Some have argued that what great drama always does is present the same old stories in new incarnations. Just as Ezra Pound said with regard to literature, real art is news that stays news. For West Side Story, so far, so good.

When the play opened on Broadway in 1957, it was a smash, running for more than 700 performances. The film adaptation that appeared some four years later is the version most people know. It now sits, in videocassette or DVD format, in family archives alongside Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the model the musical expressly emulates. Half a dozen of its songs have become standard offerings in countless popular performances. This musical has become as classic as the book Huckleberry Finn, and for many of the same reasons.

At its core is an archetypal human situation as old as Cain and Abel, as enduring as hostility between Israelis and Palestinians, as contemporary as drug wars. But the archetype is a Möbius strip: The aggressive eruption that moved Cain to kill his brother is one side of the strip; the irresistible amorous attraction triggered by a chance glance is the other side; and because of the half-turn in the strip, each side flows forever into the other.

In West Side Story, as in Romeo and Juliet, the love that moves two young people to violate their tribal taboos does not last very long before it ends in tragedy. How long it might have lasted in a saner world is moot. But Shakespeare and Bernstein both knew that love is a sometime thing—what is eternal passion on Monday may be indifference by Wednesday and aversion by Sunday morning. Even so, as most people know, such love is intensely real for as long as it lasts, and that ironic wisdom colors both these tragedies.

That archetypal core is one reason the tale can be so well known and not become hackneyed. Moreover, the story’s seminal simplicity and subtle sophistication are present in the music too. Kenneth Schermerhorn spoke lately about how marvelously this marriage of percussive, propulsive energy and haunting lyricism grows out of a handful of simple melodic seeds. It’s a kind of musical procedure associated more with Alban Berg than with Broadway. And even the loveliest lyrical moments—in “Maria,” or in “Somewhere”—are intensified and ironized by what happens in the orchestra, much as Shakespeare’s subtly complex versification ironizes Mercutio’s dying bravado.

This is music Schermerhorn almost got to conduct for the musical’s premiere. Bernstein’s assistant at that time, Schermerhorn was not yet 30, and Bernstein himself was only 39. Schermerhorn had been leading a samba band, and Bernstein wanted that authentic youthful energy in his musical. But Bernstein was outvoted, and the baton went into more seasoned hands. Since then, Schermerhorn has played a lot of the music in concert appearances, but has never conducted an entire performance. He looks forward to his deferred debut.

Musical theater, Schermerhorn says, has an advantage over an orchestra performing alone: Good music is always filled with drama, but music-theater audiences can see the drama as well as hear it, and don’t have to do all the imagining for themselves. David Grapes says he doesn’t know of a West Side Story done with a full symphony orchestra. If that is so, this production will be another kind of first, in which the theatrical onstage spectacle incarnates a rich, invisible drama welling up out of the orchestra pit.

“Not many people know it,” says Grapes, “but Kenneth Schermerhorn is actually a strong theater person. I think he’s seen every show I’ve done here, and that’s very unusual for a symphony conductor. And for us, I mean, we might do a West Side Story, but never with 54 musicians, and never with a conductor who had actually worked on the score with Bernstein.”

In West Side Story, both spectacle and sound meld urgent, dissonant energy with tender lyricism. The Rep’s prize-winning scenic designer Gary Hoff has produced an iconic set: It suggests the vastness of New York that, in this part of the city, has a rectilinear steel-and-concrete oppressiveness, as if it were a prison yard. And in this prison appear two dozen vital and energetic young men and women with the hard bodies of street kids playing no-holds-barred hoops on asphalt playgrounds. Snarling at one another, they personify the explosive intensity of frustration, and rivalries as ancient as Isaac and Ishmael.

Lynne Kurdziel-Formato has turned these antagonisms into aggressive, syncopated bodily movement. She said, before rehearsals began, that she did not intend simply to imitate Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. “A lot of what he did is just written into the script,” she says. “You always have that. But also you always try to work with the dancers you have. They always bring something to the mix.”

Wherever their moves come from, her corps of talented dancer/actors bring a strenuous athleticism that objectifies the feral vitality of caged young human beings. No cinematic version, however wonderful in other respects, can capture the immediacy of this force.

Within this lethal context, the love that binds together Maria the Latina and Tony the polaco bursts into a blossom that is almost immediately trampled. Doomed from the start, as most first loves are, this one is all the more moving because what dooms it is so stupidly arbitrary. Mike Eldred as Tony and Betsi Morrison as Maria both look right for their roles. He is a robust, good-looking guy with a virile tenor voice. She is a slender young woman of pan-European loveliness. Her voice is as fine as his, and from the first rehearsal, these two projected a compulsive amorous attraction: Better this love, whatever the cost, than any conceivable alternative.

Ezra Pound also famously proclaimed that authentic art turns the banal into the pristine. West Side Story is not a Romeo and Juliet rerun; West Side Story metabolizes that 500-year-old drama into a new form that may itself endure that long. What the Nashville Symphony and the Rep are building together locally in live performance will be a short run that looks to be a fine one. But this realization of Bernstein’s music, thanks to Naxos’ worldwide distribution system, will make its way into ears as far away as Hamburg and Hong Kong. That sounds good to me.

Ezra Pound also famously proclaimed that authentic art turns the banal into the pristine. West Side Story is not a Romeo and Juliet rerun; West Side Story metabolizes that 500-year-old drama into a new form that may itself endure that long. What the Nashville Symphony and the Rep are building together locally in live performance will be a short run that looks to be a fine one. But this realization of Bernstein’s music, thanks to Naxos’ worldwide distribution system, will make its way into ears as far away as Hamburg and Hong Kong. That sounds good to me.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Recent Comments

Sign Up! For the Scene's email newsletters





* required

Latest in Stories

  • Scattered Glass

    This American Life host Ira Glass reflects on audio storytelling, Russert vs. Matthews and the evils of meat porn
    • May 29, 2008
  • Wordwork

    Aaron Douglas’ art examines the role of language and labor in African American history
    • Jan 31, 2008
  • Public Art

    So you got caught having sex in a private dining room at the Belle Meade Country Club during the Hunt Ball. Too bad those horse people weren’t more tolerant of a little good-natured mounting.
    • Jun 7, 2007
  • More »

All contents © 1995-2014 City Press LLC, 210 12th Ave. S., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. (615) 244-7989.
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of City Press LLC,
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.
Powered by Foundation