Two-time Tony Award-nominated choreographer, Joey McKneely (Smokey Joe’s Café, The Life, Twelfth Night, The Wild Party and The Boy From Oz) has received world-wide acclaim for his vibrant re-staging of West Side Story. He spoke to Australian Stage's Heather Bloom ahead of the Melbourne season.
West Side Story is one of the most beloved musicals the world over – is it daunting taking on such a well known show?
It was in 2000 when I did it for the first time at La Scala Opera in Italy, which was the genesis of this production. I just trusted my knowledge of the choreography which I learn directly from Jerome Robbins and put every bit of passion I had into the show.
You’ve worked with the original director and choreographer of West Side Story in the past, Jerome Robbins – how much of his influence do you take into your work?
Every bit of it. I learned the power of character motivation in choreography from him. He was the master. The steps were always motivated by emotion, plot or character. It was because of my experience with him on Jerome Robbins Broadway which inspired me to become a choreographer in the first place. Plus his expanse of drama to comedy is something I am very comfortable with, so I always look back at my time with him as the turning point in my life.
What can audiences expect from your interpretation?
Truth, realism and explosive emotions. I try to strip the story down to it’s very raw emotions and let this cast ignite the stage. I have the youngest cast ever doing this tour. It’s incredible how much energy comes off that stage when they get at it.
You’ve directed and choreographed West Side Story for audiences from Paris to Japan – what do you think it is that makes the musical so timeless?
First it’s the music. It’s just part of everyone’s DNA by now. But mostly it’s the story of first love. The way the original authors created this story set against the backdrop of racism is what truly made it modern. The themes of the story are still very relevant today. It speaks to every culture. The human nature is consumed with conflict. This show shows how such conflict can destroy love. So for me, it is the power of love that truly makes this musical so timeless.
There are a lot of fresh faces and new talent cast in this production – what was the casting process like?
Casting is always tough. The requirements of each character, technically, are quite heavy. First of all, can the person do the basic level required, sing the right notes in the right way, dance the steps with the level of training required. Then find that in a youthful package. Add in ethnic requirements, and then your pool shrinks quite a bit from there. And then I am always looking for that special quality that makes a person stand out. Casting is the toughest part of the job.
How has it been working with the Australian cast?
I love them! Always hard workers. Great attitude. That Aussie “can do” spirit. It has been a joy everyday to teach them this show and watch them blossom before my eyes. They are magnificent.
Is West Side Story your favourite musical? If not, what is?
Yes, of course! My whole professional life has been this show. Nothing stands close.
West Side Story, directed and choreographed by Joey McKneely, plays Melbourne (6–28 April 2019), Sydney (16 Aug–6 Oct 2019), Canberra (10–27 Oct 2019) and Adelaide (28 Nov–15 Dec 2019). Visit www.westsidestory.com.au
Photo – Keith Saunders