Saturday, January 03, 2009

Interview with Cody Green of 'West Side Story'

Although the show has been in previews since December 15, the official press opening of the new revival of West Side Story is Wednesday, January 7. A review will follow shortly after that. In the meantime, here is an article I prepared for The Metro Herald, based upon an interview I conducted with actor/dancer Cody Green, who plays Riff in the production at the National Theatre, which is scheduled to transfer to Broadway on March 19.

‘West Side Story’ Rides on History at National Theatre
An Interview with Dancer Cody Green
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

The current revival of West Side Story at the National Theatre in Washington is getting unusual, and well-deserved, attention.

For example, when, in recent years, can you remember a report about a musical play – new or revival – being featured on the front page of the Washington Post? (West Side Story was featured there on January 3.) While front-page Style section stories about the theatre are both common and expected, to see such coverage on the front of the A-section is virtually unprecedented.

That this production is directed by its nonagenarian librettist, Arthur Laurents, is certainly one reason. That the musical has been revised so that the Puerto Rican characters’ dialogue and lyrics are now in Spanish, rather than in English, is another. (That the translation is by Tony Award®-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda, and approved by lyricist Stephen Sondheim, is a third.)

There is a history to this revival that is peculiar to Washington. The original 1957 production of West Side Story had its pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre. During that run, the show was revised, strengthened, and toned in preparation for its Big Stem debut.

Still flawed when it hit New York (flaws admitted to by Sondheim and Laurents, the two survivors of the quartet of creators that also included Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins), West Side Story went on to become a classic of the American musical stage, but the show has been revived just twice before on Broadway – for less than a month in 1964 at City Center, and for ten months in 1980 at the Minskoff. This current production aims to open on March 19 at the Palace Theatre in New York.

The Metro Herald had an opportunity to speak with one of the principal cast members of the current revival, Cody Green, who plays Riff, the leader of the Jets. (West Side Story, based loosely on William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, pits two rival gangs against each other in a changing, working-class Manhattan neighborhood. The American gang – the Jets – is roughly equivalent to Shakespeare’s Montague family, while the Puerto Rican gang – the Sharks – is roughly equivalent to the Capulets. Riff, then, is a rendering of Mercutio, while his best friend, Tony, is the musical’s Romeo.)

Green grew up outside Vancouver, British Columbia, and his first dance teacher was his mother. “I started dancing when I was 3 years old,” he told us, and the youth dance company led by his mother performed internationally at such venues as the world’s fairs in Vancouver (1986), New Zealand (1988), and Seville, Spain (1992). He also traveled with the troupe to the former Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain fell and to Beijing, China.

That first Russian visit remains vivid in Green’s memory.

“I was really lucky,” he said. “I was 10 years old living with a family in Novosibirsk, learning little bits of Russian. We were there for about a week and the tour was a month long.” It included stops in Finnish Lapland and in Prague.

“It was a big tour,” Green added. “There must have been 20 people, and I was the youngest. My mom was the director, while my dad handled technical stuff. Most of the company was between 15 and 18 years old. We appeared at embassies and, being 10 years old, that was such a cool experience.”

Green visited the post-Soviet Russia years later, and he noticed the contrasts. “When I think about it now,” he said, “I know how lucky I was to see Russia in that state, and to see the differences between then and now. It was funny because it was so poor and there was nothing in a grocery store. When we went back, all this stuff was there but nobody could afford it.”

That first visit had its own set of contrasts, he noted: “We went from living in camps to staying at the vice president’s hotel and performing with the Kirov. That was an incredible experience. I was in the company but I wasn’t in everything [the company performed]. That was one of my first experiences in the company.”

In 1995, Green traveled with his mother’s dance company to the United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing.

“That was more of an eye-opening experience because I was older” he explained. “It was intense. They blocked us off and they didn’t want us interacting with anyone else in the city. There were police cars on every block lining up where we were staying and where the conference was. When we went into the city they followed us around.”

After his apprenticeship with his mother’s dance company, Green went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York. “I left Juilliard to do the tour of Mamma Mia,” he said, and he opened that show (featuring the music of ABBA) in D.C.

Since that time, he has been on the road and appeared in London’s West End and on Broadway.

“I left Mamma Mia to do Movin' Out,” the Billy Joel-Twyla Tharp dance musical. “Movin’ Out lasted a while. I originated the tour and joined Broadway and danced the lead role of Eddie in the London production in 2006. I did the matinees on Broadway, three performances in a week. We were in London for four months.” The production was “filler” while the theatre was waiting for the West End premiere of Wicked to open in the same venue.

After the London experience, Green continued to play the lead in Movin’ Out on tour, and then returned to New York to play Kenickie in the revival of Grease that is slated to close later this month.

When the stagehands’ strike hit the New York theatre, Green turned to television. His manager told him about a reality show on Bravo called Step It Up and Dance, produced by the same team that created Project Runway and Top Chef. As Green describes it, “They took a group of dancers and they narrowed it down with eliminations every week. I won the show and $100,000.”

Right after that 10-episode series ended, Green auditioned for West Side Story and almost immediately went into rehearsals.

“It’s incredible working under Arthur Laurents,” he says. “There hasn’t been a revival in almost 30 years. It’s the first one Arthur Laurents has been involved with since the original.” (It should be added Laurents was not involved with the Oscar®-winning movie version, either, and he holds a poor opinion of it.)

The audition included both librettist Laurents and lyricist Sondheim. As one can imagine, the experience was exhilarating for Green and the rest of the potential cast members.

Sondheim, he said, has been part of the pre-production process, since so much of the Shark music is in Spanish, which has required consultation and approval from the original lyricist. Miranda, the translator, explained to the Washington Post that “What Sondheim ‘said to me was, you know, “I don't speak Spanish. All I can tell you is that, as an English-speaking person familiar with the music, my ear will expect it to rhyme at these places”.’”

“It’s huge that we’re able to connect to the original production,” said Green. “This production is so different from any other West Side Story that people have seen. It feels brand new. If it feels brand new for Arthur, it’s really special.”

A year ago, Arthur Laurents directed a revival of Gypsy, which he created with Sondheim and composer Jule Styne in 1959. That revival, starring Patti Lupone, went on to win three Tony Awards® out of seven nominations, as well as three Drama Desk awards. Expectations are high for this revival of West Side Story, and dancers like Cody Green have a lot riding on the production.

Rehearsal photo of West Side Story by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the National Theatre

Update: My review of the new production of West Side Story can be found here.

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