Talking West Side Story with Director/Choreographer Joey McKneely and Musical Supervisor Donald Chan

In the last few weeks, Melbourne’s State Theatre has been transformed into NYC’s Upper West Side.

Joey McKneely | Photo by Alastair Muir

The Opera Australia/GWB production of West Side Story has commenced the first leg of its tour, and will be moving through New Zealand and Europe in the coming months before arriving in Sydney. The piece is a spectacle, and has been thrilling audiences since its opening night.

There are so many people involved in such a feat, but two of the key players are Director Joey McKneely and Musical Supervisor Donald Chan.

Joey was first introduced to West Side Story by the famed Jerome Robbins himself, whilst dancing in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. He was then selected to direct and reproduce the iconic choreography for the show at La Scala in Milan, marking his directorial debut. Since then, Joey’s productions of West Side Story have been produced and loved across the globe.

Besides his acclaimed Broadway Revival of West Side Story, Joey’s other choreographic credits include  Smokey Joe’s Cafe, The Life, Twelfth Night (Lincoln Centre), The Wild Party and The Boy From Oz starring Hugh Jackman. Merging both of his areas of expertise, Joey has directed and choreographed numerous US national tours including Thoroughly Modern Millie, Annie Get Your Gun, Crazy for You and Smokey Joe’s Cafe. 

Donald Chan | Photo by Keith Saunders

Donald has worked as a composer, conductor and music director with some of the most famous names in American music. Over his career, he has had the privilege of working alongside theatrical icons such as Gene Kelly, Ethel Merman, Chita Rivera and Joel Grey, as well as esteemed companies such as the American Conservatory Theatre, Seattle Opera and St. Louis Municipal Opera. He has written music for various ensembles, plays, and contributed to the score of the award-winning PBS documentary March of the Living.

Having musically directed over 100 musicals and operettas, some other credits include Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Phantom of the Opera. West Side Story has been a major part of Donald’s life, having served as musical director for more than 3000 performances, including special productions in 2000 and 2003 at La Scala.

It was an honour and a pleasure to talk to them about their history with the show, their excitement about this national run, and what makes West Side Story such a staple in musical theatre canon.

I believe you’ve both worked on the show before!

Don: Since 2000!

Joey: Longer than most marriages! [laughs]

Have there been any changes over those 19 years?

Joey: It’s been tweaked here and there. The costumes and lighting have improved along the way. It’s basically the same production, but what makes each go around so unique is the cast. It’s such a bare bones, minimalistic stylisation of the show that it’s really about the power of the emotion that these young people bring to the stage. That’s what makes it so riveting each and every time. I mean, the score is still fresh as ever.

Don: It’s really ahead of its time

Joey: Pianists still have trouble with it!

Joey McKneely in rehearsals | Photo by Keith Saunders

Joey, you mentioned that it’s quite a minimalistic stylisation of the show – can you expand on that a bit more?

Joey: What’s great about the set is that it really gives you the environment of the street. We have the iconic fire escapes built on the steel frames. really, all the action happens on the street, more of less. you get a sense of New York City. What’s nice is it’s great for lighting and allows for the maximum amount of dance space possible. We also do some projections so you get some city scapes too. It’s really just about letting the performers shine on the open stage. The show isn’t really about all the set pieces and changes, it’s about setting up the environment and letting the raw emotion of the story speak for itself. I think that’s where the power comes from, we don’t have to decorate it much, we just have to give it integrity.

How did you find the audition process?

Joey: I think of all the countries, Australia is the closets to Americans in terms of their energy, gusto and way of life. Casting is always difficult in any place we do it, because we’re looking for such refinement of technique. But what’s amazing this time (and different from when we were here 10 years ago) is that there’s such a large pool that didn’t exist last time. There are many more ethnic people to pull from, and they’re getting younger. It’s been quite a nice discovery to find this cast. It’s been extraordinary seeing this new generation really develop and grow into these roles.

Don: It’s exciting, we have one of the youngest casts ever. And the show has everything in it. Ballet, classical, jazz, singing arias…

Joey: We have opera singers in Tony and Maria, and then strictly ballet dancers in the [‘Somewhere’] ballet, and in-between it’s how you feature each of the performers. The way the show is constructed shows off each person at their best talent.

The West Side Story cast in rehearsal | Photo by Keith Saunders

Don, how have you found conducting such an intricate and complicated score?

Don: The musicians are really quite good here. We’ve really had a good time introducing them to the new music and introducing them to West Side Story. They’ve adjusted to it very nicely. I always have a lot of fun conducting – it’s intense a lot of times too, because you really have to make sure the dancers are on their cue. I have to really match everything in the music to their jumps and runs. It’s a lot of watching each other.

Joey: Sometimes the singers will speed up, and Don is really watching their breath so they’re all completely in sync.

Do you have a favourite moment of the show?

Joey: I love watching Don conduct! it’s a highlight for me.

Don: It’s the whole aspect of the show. You can’t just take one piece, because the whole piece is grounded into one big solution.

Joey: And I think that’s what makes West Side Story stand above all the other musicals. Its integration of dance into the storytelling, the music interwoven in the book in such a way that no other musical has been able to do. And [the show] keeps surprising an audience. You think you’ll know West Side Story but audiences are still surprised by the integrity of the emotions and the storyline because it’s still relevant today. We’re still dealing with racism and immigration.

What would you tell people who are thinking about buying a ticket?

Don: It would be a great experience for them.

Joey: Jump off the fence and come and see it, because it will move you like no other piece of theatre ever will. You get everything, the dancing and singing. But we take you on an emotional journey that you don’t find in musicals these days.

 

GWB Entertainment, Opera Australia and BB Group’s West Side Story is currently running in Melbourne until April 28th.
For tickets or more information on the national tour, please visit www.westsidestory.com.au or www.opera.org.au

 

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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