West Side Story to be performed in the UK with new steps - for four nights only

Nicola Christie sits in on some lively rehearsals at The Sage.

There are a lot of firsts here. It's the first time, in the UK, that we will see West Side Story with new steps. It's the first time that The Sage, in Gateshead, will present a fully staged repertory musical. And, for many of the actors in this new production of West Side Story, it's their first gig. So the choreographer and director Will Tuckett has good reason to be excited. "Look at this company. We whittled them down from about 800 who applied to audition. I now have a cast of 31 fantastically talented young actors who are going to own this show like it's theirs. These guys are going to make you start listening to West Side Story again, really listen, because I think we've stopped."

Leonard Bernstein wrote West Side Story in 1957. Despite everybody predicting a flop for a musical that ends with its hero and heroine dead on the stage, the show went on to be huge and spawned a movie adaptation that garnered 10 Academy Awards and a soundtrack that is the best-selling in movie history. Next month the Royal Albert Hall will present the movie with live orchestrated score, to mark its 50th.

"It shifted the way that we viewed musicals," says Tuckett, "but the breakthrough wasn't just the music, it was the choreography, telling the story through dance. When I look at West Side Story now, it feels slightly of its time – not the music, I don't think it has aged at all, but the choreography. I think it could be looked at anew. People dance differently now. They move differently, there's a whole different thing going on."

Getting permission to rewrite the steps of a show that is more known for its dance routines than anything else has taken years. Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald Tribune at the time that the audience was "blasted apart by the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons".

Katherine Zeserson, director of the world-renowned learning department at The Sage, finally managed to persuade the Jerome Robbins estate on four conditions; that the show would be cast from young and emerging professionals, the production would appear only once (no repeat runs), at a single venue (The Sage) and for four performances. Critically, it must not contain any of the original choreography.

"It was a properly cautious control of rights," explains Zeserson. "I had a potentially ludicrous proposal – to unpick something that is formed, which is what removing the choreography from West Side Story could be perceived as. But when I explained to them that this was about taking this great piece of work and learning what had become of it in the 21st century, and allowing young people to have a voice in how it is made, they saw the profound nature of what we wanted to do."

Will Tuckett, a former Royal Ballet star and choreographer/director of numerous new works in the UK and abroad, was approached to come on board, as was music director John Wilson, Britain's finest exponent of full and glorious musical orchestrations. Handily, he is also the director of the Northern Sinfonia, which is based at The Sage.

"Yes I could hardly be happier," Wilson says. "I'm using the original score and I've put together a very specialist line-up – adding seven or eight specialist dance-band players to the full orchestra. We are treating West Side Story as an opera, but it has extraordinary jazz influences and idioms in it. We're playing a version you would very rarely hear in a performance of the musical today."

The cast has been recruited from all over the country and most are barely out of stage school; they're now living in digs in Newcastle for two months while they put together the show, a kind of Bernstein-ian Big Brother set-up.

"That's the dream – giving young people this experience," says Tuckett. Wilson agrees: "It's far more exciting than working with the La Scala chorus. The energy from this young group of people, many of whom have not sung with a live orchestra before, will be raw."

Choreography is being made on the spot, Tuckett feeling something in a moment, triggered by the music, and riffing on his ideas. He comes up with remarkably simple steps (these are not classically trained ballet dancers) blocks of movement that, with the turn of a head or the shift of a heel, become dramatic and powerful. Tuckett has cast great performers – actors who can sing and dance, but actors first and foremost. He is also stripping out all of the associations we typically have with West Side Story ("you won't see a New York fire escape in it," he says, though the snapping fingers are still there – "they're in the score") and replacing it with something much starker, sparser, cleaner.

"I don't want it to be attached to a location. It needs to be seen through a slightly different prism. Why is one wanting to do it again? Because, essentially, so much of it is timeless. And as soon as you put it into a setting it becomes of a time. And I don't want to do that with it. We're going for an almost comic-book look that we're creating with projections, driven by Saul Bass's artwork of the movie poster. It will have a noir-esque feel."

There are also a number of other departures from the film, including the use of women. "I've got these brilliant, ballsy, modern women and I want to use them," explains Tuckett. His opening scene, in contrast to the men-only movie prologue of Sharks and Jets swooping into frame, is driven by women, prowling, taking command of the stage. His Tony and Maria also dance in this production. "In the film, Maria and Tony are the kids you wouldn't want to hang out with, they're kind of wet – I want them to be people you empathise with."

"Because the original was so exceptional, Robbins liberated a ballet aesthetic," says Tuckett. "He untethered it and allowed it to come into a musical-theatre scenario – allowing musical theatre a weight that it didn't previously have. That should never be underestimated. It's allowed people like me, a classical ballet-maker, to come into a room and do this."

'West Side Story', The Sage, Gateshead, 4-7 July (thesagegateshead.org; 0191 443 4661)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform