East Meets West

Musical West Side Story tells the classic tale of star-crossed lovers separated by a long-standing feud. Set in New York in the 1950s, it follows the story of Maria (Kirsten Rossi) and Tony (Josh Young). The Puerto Rican Maria belongs to the street gang The Sharks, the sworn enemies of the American-born Polish-descended The Jets (Tony’s crew). In a plot highly reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, Maria and Tony swear their undying love to each other even as the feud among their friends escalates violently. I-S chatted to director and choreographer Joey McKneely.
What makes a good musical?
First a good story, then memorable music. From there it’s all up to the director and choreographer. They can make or break a show.
Why is it that particular Broadway musicals are so universally loved? What makes them stand out?
I believe it is because they act as a form of escape for an audience. Plus the performance is live. Something magical happens when everyone in the theater is feeling the same thing at the same time. A musical tries to do this with music, visuals, and words all at once. When it works, there is nothing else like it.
Why do you think West Side Story has had so much resilience after so many years?
Basically it is the love story. The first love, this is something all of us once lived. And the depth of that love story told against the conflict of hate is something that has gone on since man discovered he was not alone.
What’s your favorite bit in the musical and why?
It has to be the ballet. It just has such beauty and hope. It is love on stage.
Which scene is the hardest to choreograph? Why?
I think the opening is the most difficult to get right. It starts the show. No word. All dance. And the entire conflict it lays out, with each character being shown for the first time.
If you had to choose, would you be a Jet or a Shark? Why?
If I was a boy, a Jet; if I was a girl, a Shark. Each has the best choreography in the show.
Do you think the end is realistic? Could these two gangs really reconcile after all the bad blood that has passed between them?
Well, no. But one can hope that maybe one day the world will. That’s why it’s a musical!
Do you think the underlying message of the story has more relevance today than it did in the past, especially given the state of global current affairs?
Pick an era, there will always be conflict. It is human nature.
If you could choose any musical to choreograph and direct next, which would it be and why?
Actually, I don’t choose the musicals, they choose me.