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.

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The Independent Culture

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)