Photos By Franz Mahr, Words By Brandon Wetherbee
How do you re-tell a story everyone knows? Director Matthew Gardiner decided to spread out.
Signature Theatre’s West Side Story features a cast of 30, an orchestra of 17 and seating for 270. What sets Matthew Gardiner’s production apart is the scale. This is a full Broadway style show in an intimate setting. He told us, “We’re not skimping by any means. How do you fit all of that, by any other standards, in a small theater space? We thought of how to present this in a voyeuristic presentation of West Side Story, how do we make the audience feel immersed in this world?”
Broadway level musicals are not cheap to produce. Gardiner and the Signature understand reality. “It is, fiscally, completely irresponsible. We’re not doing this to make money. We believe this is the greatest musical ever written and we have to do this.”
We spoke to the director during the first weekend of shows. According to Gardiner, West Side Story, “Is the most perfect musical ever written. It’s something that I’ve always loved and something that resonates strongly today in terms in what it has to say about the disenfranchised members of our community, what it says about immigration, what it says about authority. Without reconceiving it or setting it in 2015, it really speaks for what’s going on today.” The show was planned well before the 2016 presidential landscape was set.
Gardiner told us Jerome Robbins’ original choreography is just as important as Leonard Bernstein’s music or Stephen Songheim lyrics to the telling of this story. But he knew it would have to be re-imagined. What Parker Esse has done to this edition is, “Something special and three dimensional. It really feels like it’s jumping at you.”
If you look at the seating chart for this production, you’ll notice that you won’t be watching actors from a recessed seat, performing on a stage with a healthy distance. This is more like watching a sport, up close and personal with performers rather than athletes.
West Side Story is one of the few musicals being produced by high schools that’s also considered a classic. The first production Gardiner saw was by a high school. But he’s also seen the beloved film. “Being offered to do West Side Story at Signature was exciting but more than that, it was terrifying. I’ve done musicals people think of as masterpieces, Cabaret, Sunday in the Park with George, and at a certain point you have to release the need to tell it differently. The only thing I can trust is the text and the belief that my eyes are different than anyone else’s and I’m telling the story and gathering the designers and actors I trust to make it our own.”
“It can be daunting when you think of something as highly as West Side Story. You just want to feel like you’re living up to the material, but I’d rather direct this than anything that isn’t perfectly written.” Gardiner has another month to find out if he’s lived up to the material.