Motif Interviews the Couple Behind West Side Story at TBTS

westsidestoryBill Hanney’s Theater by the Sea continues its summer 2016 season this week with their second offering, West Side Story, the classic American musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set amidst the backdrop of interracial gang warfare and urban strife. Those only familiar with the multi-award winning film are often surprised at the subtle differences in the stage version, particularly how dark it can be. Hanney and TBTS artistic director Kevin Hill tapped the husband-wife team of Diane Laurenson and Bob Richard to bring what, for them, is a personal labor of love to the Matunuck stage. Their combined history with the show goes back decades and Motif had the opportunity to ask them a few questions as opening night approached. We discussed how West Side is continually topical, how the show brought them together as a couple and their passion for storytelling, above all else.

Laurenson, a seasoned performer, studied under famed choreographer/legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon (she is sanctioned by the Verdon/Fosse Estate to teach Mr. Fosse’s original works) and has appeared on Broadway in Sweet Charity and Gypsy among many others. Her touring credentials are even more impressive, with stints in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ and, of course West Side Story. As a choreographer, she has worked on the TV movie version of Gypsy with Bette Midler and worked with Gwen Verdon to recreate Sweet Charity for California Music Theatre. She also had a stint on the other side of the stage as a union stagehand in New York, making her a unique blend of performer/choreographer/technician. With her husband, Bob Richard, she is co-founder of The American Musical Theatre Dance Co., NY, and their original musical, Shanghai Bund, is currently running in Shanghai, China.

Bob Richard’s pedigree is no less impressive. He has directed/choreographed several versions of West Side, including the 60th Anniversary edition for Sacramento Music Circus, the 50th Anniversary National Tour of Hello Dolly (starring Sally Struthers) and the Callaway Award-nominated Inventing Mary Martin, The Revue of a Lifetime! His award-winning work spans the globe and crosses over to television and beyond. With Laurenson, they are a formidable duo, and it would be easy to get intimidated by their history and talent if not for their self-effacing charm and passion. This is a couple whose words spill out of them in torrents, finishing each other’s sentences in an overlapping manner that seems endearingly operatic in effect. That is a result of their close relationship, but also their passion for the arts and the gift of storytelling.

Motif: How did you two meet?

Bob Richard: I can tell you the exact date! It was during the 40th anniversary tour of West Side on July 31, 1995.

Diane Laurenson: Bob was playing a Jet for two years on the road in 66 cities and Japan and Canada and we never left each other afterward.

Motif: You’ve staged West Side in so many places. How did you come to direct WSS here at Theater by the Sea?

BR: Well, we actually directed the same show in Sacramento at Music Circus in the summer of 2015 and then we were told that (the Massachusetts theater also owned and operated by Bill Hanney) North Shore was planning to do the show in the fall of the next year (WSS will open at North Shore in November 2016). Some reviews were seen and they called us in for an interview and as soon as we walked in, it was set for North Shore. So, we did both.

 

The natural next step was to extend the success and the partnership to Matunuck and try to recreate the magic yet again, which begs the question: Are they afraid that multiple stagings of the same show might get stale or cookie-cutter in approach?

 

BR: There is no way you can take a cookie cutter and bring in 26 different people and put them in a mold. Every time is different. Even the social circumstances change; the time is different even from last year’s climate. The impact of what the world is going through is different. Even just to turn back the page to the previous shooting (in Orlando). The tragedy of gun deaths … there is no way to do what we do and not have these kids tell this story, influenced by Romeo and Juliet, and not be as poignant and earthshattering today as it was in 1957 when it first came out. We’re still living through the same things.

DL: Our job is to make an impact on the audience through theater and say that, yes, there is a better place, but it has to start today.

BR: So, it’s always different. We’re seeing Buddy Holly tonight to get a feel for the size of this stage and what to do with this space, so it will always be different because of those technical reasons, but also because we have to be reflective of what’s happening today.

Motif: So, Diane, we have to ask: of all your fascinating Broadway credits and working with Fosse, what stood out for me was your IATSE (Stagehands Union) membership. Could you tell us about that?

DL: (Laughs) Well, I spent several years as a performer and working for Mr. Fosse and when he passed, I needed to take a break from dancing, but wanted to stay involved. So, a colleague mentioned an opportunity to do some stagehand work and I studied and eventually joined the union. And, as the story goes, I was running spot for Les Mis and Miss Saigon for many years when I was approached to play “Anybody’s” in West Side (my favorite role!) and I went and that was where I met my husband!

Motif: Can you tell me a little about what it was like to work with Fosse?

DL: I am very honored and privileged to have worked with Mr. Fosse and Gwen Verdon for eight years. They were not only so very talented, but they were loyal as directors and choreographers and surrounded by the most amazing performers – the cream of the crop of Broadway and I got to meet and work with them and study with them. It was not just one of the highlights of my career, but of my life. Both taught me about sharing the love inside and passion and stories and the love of theater and the meaning behind what you’re doing.

 

It is at this point in the interview that their passion bubbles over and their sentences furiously overlap. They finish each other’s sentences and tag team each answer to the point where they become one person.

 

DL/BR: There’s nothing we love more than to be in a room and create and share the legacy of this piece and the history of it and (take a new cast) and create it with their bodies.

Motif: Could you tell us about your favorite productions both together and apart?

DL/BR: There are many that are brilliant, from Fiddler to Music Man…those shows that have lasted forever, and are there for a reason… to live in the geniuses that created those shows and it is an honor and a duty to be able to share that. We love West Side, it’s very close to our hearts, lives and souls. We have ties back to the original, people who worked on and created it, from the original “Anybody’s” to working with Jerome Robbins and Laurents (original WSS writer) and to hear their words and their stories and be second generation on this. WSS is an almost perfect musical – define almost! – when you bring together the genius of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics (of Sondheim) and the story … even down to lighting and set design. Did you know that the original set design was planned to be larger than reality in that it was not built to scale so that it diminished the kids and made them look more like teenagers? The creative genius behind almost every department is like this beautiful piece of tapestry … it’s quite profound.

It had such an impact when I first saw it, and as we have gone through the years and recreating it at different times over the last 20 years or so … it’s interesting to see the first generation who saw it bring their kids and grandkids and every generation comes away from it with some sense of impact. It’s fascinating how it doesn’t lose that power. At one point, we were brought into a room with actual gang members from the towns and were able to talk with them about the show and what it’s about…to even reach one of those kids … that was pretty life-changing.

Plus, we danced it a hundred times each and recreated it many times…just the ability to be storytellers here puts WSS on the top of our list. To be in a room and create is a joy, whether it is Suessical or Les Mis … Just to be in the room and be storytellers.

Motif: Is there anything else you would like to add?

DL/BR: We’re just grateful to Bill and Kevin and everyone at TBTS and for allowing us to bring this show to Rhode Island.

West Side Story, including local favorites Jean-Pierre Ferragamo (Officer Krupke) and Tom Gleadow (Doc), plays June 22 – July 16, 2016. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays (check the website for exact dates and show times as they vary week to week).  Tickets are available by phone 401-782-8587, online at theatrebythesea.com, or in person at 364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield.

 

 

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