West Side Story Opens Tonight
Carnegie Hall’s production of West Side Story opens tonight at the Knockdown Center in Queens. As the culminating event of The Somewhere Project, Carnegie Hall’s citywide exploration of West Side Story, the production is a brand new take on this timeless musical. The following is a program note about the project and the production in the words of Music Director and Conductor Marin Alsop, Director Amanda Dehnert, and Director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall Sarah Johnson.
About The Somewhere Project
The Somewhere Project has brought more than 10,000 New Yorkers together to explore the question: “What does ‘Somewhere’ mean to you and how can you help make that vision a reality?”
The timeless message of West Side Story is as relevant in our world today as when the story was first performed on Broadway in 1957, and as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was in the late 16th century. When people cannot see beyond their fears, the results can often be tragic. How often is our judgment clouded by misunderstandings, irrational preconceptions, and destructive rhetoric? Is any argument ever worth the lives of our young people? These are some of the questions that we need to ask ourselves today, as Shakespeare, Bernstein, Laurents, Robbins, and Sondheim did in their day.
Fifteen high school–aged apprentice performers join the cast of the production, immersing themselves in every dance step of this incredible work. Two hundred high school singers from all five boroughs also join the production, adding a new dimension to Bernstein’s iconic score. A total of 32 high schools are represented in the production. All too often in arts education, we keep the professionals from the students and the social work off the stage. That boundary does not exist in this project—the students are working right alongside the professionals.
Sarah Elizabeth Charles performs “I Know Who I'm Supposed to Be” with songwriter Hannah Coleman at a Somewhere Project Neighborhood Concert at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Photography: Richard Termine
The Somewhere Project extends far beyond the walls of the Knockdown Center. Through partnerships with city and state agencies, Carnegie Hall offers songwriting workshops designed to have a powerful impact on participants’ daily lives. Public school students and community members—including court-involved youth, young mothers in foster care, and adults in the correctional system—have been given the opportunity to express themselves through their own original music inspired by West Side Story. Much of this music has been performed in free Neighborhood Concerts in each borough of New York City over the past few weeks.
Twelve partner organizations, working across all artistic disciplines, have also joined the project, exploring its themes in their own programming. The conversation also continues online through an eight-part interactive companion course, created in partnership with online music school Soundfly.
Our West Side Story
The purpose of this project is to push past the boundaries we all set. It’s a human foible to think that we can only do just so much, and more than that is a dream. It is also a human gift to dream, to strive, to reach beyond those boundaries. But when we reach and are slapped back, or our dreams are not full of possibility, only danger, we draw hard and fast lines around ourselves, our place, our identity, our family. West Side Story is the tale of these artificial boundaries.
The characters in West Side Story depend on the lines they have laid down. The idea of the “other” is expressed in many ways: Sharks versus Jets, old versus young, cops versus citizens, authority versus freedom, old family versus new love, skin versus skin. The tragedy is that the characters do not see until the end that they create boundaries each time they choose to be afraid of those different from themselves—people who have the same wants, fears, and drive.
With Music Director and Conductor Marin Alsop at the podium, Skylar Astin and Morgan Hernandez rehearse with the orchestra for the first time. Photography: Chris Lee
It goes without saying that the Knockdown Center is not a traditional theater. The open performance does not separate the audience, performers, and orchestra. The open space—part–block party, part–city street—represents the open, community nature of the project.
The audience will not be able to identify the Sharks and Jets by the color of their hair or skin. The authors did not write only about the Puerto Rican experience—they wrote about the immigrant experience in New York and America: so many different races and ethnicities all living side by side in the urban wilderness we call “home.”
Jerome Robbins’s choreography—reset in this production by Julio Monge—is one of the most iconic parts of West Side Story. It draws on a mixing pot of influences—the mambo, lindy, American swing, stage fighting, and ballet. Sean Cheesman provides additional choreography for our production, bringing influences from popular dance of the last few decades into the mix.
Finally, the music. Bernstein’s score—simultaneously complex and poignantly simple—was our original inspiration for The Somewhere Project. Another barrier broken in this production is one between the orchestra pit and the stage. We’ve expanded the orchestra from Bernstein’s original score to 40 players—larger than any Broadway production of West Side Story. We hope you’ll agree that the music is truly one of the stars in the show.
Music Director and Conductor
Photography: Adriane White
Weill Music Institute, Director