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Keeping 'West Side Story' Cool

Alan Johnson, once with the original company, now directs revivals of its classic dances.

June 08, 1997|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Forty years ago, an insinuating jazz theme punctuated by finger-snapping accents introduced to a Broadway audience one of the watershed creations in American dance-theater, "West Side Story," an instant classic and still arguably the ultimate dance musical.

But it's no cinch to revive a character-driven, ballet-based show in the late '90s, an era when most Broadway dancers aren't exactly accustomed to either serious acting or Jerome Robbins' adapted classicism.

Ask director-choreographer Alan Johnson, who has restaged about 25 productions over the last 30 years, including the one that played Costa Mesa, San Diego, Palm Desert and Pasadena in 1995 and '96 and that returns to the Southland with a week of performances at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood beginning Tuesday.

At 60, Johnson holds three Emmy Awards for television specials and has even earned cult immortality of sorts for creating the deliberately abominable "Springtime for Hitler" parody number in Mel Brooks' 1967 film "The Producers."

But preserving "West Side Story" is a continuing "obsession," he says, partly because of his fear that "some Consuelo [a minor character] from a dinner theater production will be re-creating it in the future and passing it down badly."

Johnson joined the original company of "West Side Story" in 1958 as a replacement dancer, playing a Shark and understudying a Jet. He eventually moved up to the role of Arab and then became dance captain. That job, he recalls, meant "knowing everyone's steps, everyone's patterns, and I did it for a long time, so it's sort of ingrained."

Since then, he's reproduced the original choreography through "muscle memory," he says, without the aid of written notation or videotape. Music Theatre International, which licenses productions of the show, recommends him, he says. "Originally there were five people sanctioned to re-create Jerry's work. But now, most of the others are gone."

Johnson sees his job as that of ballet master mounting a classic revival: "My responsibility is to do exactly what Jerry Robbins put on the stage of the Winter Garden [Theatre] back in 1957," he says. "People always ask me, 'Aren't you tempted to jazz it up?' and I answer, 'No.'

"Jerry's art is communicating something, and his technique is the simplest, the most essential, definitive movement for each moment in the show. It took him a long time to find the right thing; he got a dispensation from Actors Equity to rehearse eight weeks [instead of the usual four]. Because it was so good, it's lasted. It's become a classic. If it's not broken, don't fix it."

Grover Dale played the Jet named Snowboy in the original cast and remembers that Robbins "made all the dancers do homework; he demanded that there be more than just technique. You had to bring into the rehearsal situation what all of the Jets meant to you, who the rest of your family was, why you relied more on the guys in the gang than on your family. In 'Cool,' every dancer had a different way of expressing himself, of exploding or jumping out of his skin. For me that was something special: seeing all those differences, those uniquenesses of character."

Dale co-directed the 25-minute "West Side Story" suite in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" and is editor and publisher of Dance and Fitness magazine. He is not involved with Johnson's production but finds it "a wonderful job." And he agrees with Johnson that the hardest thing for young dancers to master is the expressive dimension of the show.

"Jerry always said, 'I don't want to see the step. I want to see the intention behind the step,' " Johnson recalls. "I think telling a story though dance--depicting character and emotion--is not exactly what is practiced today."

"Every movement you do pushes the story forward," says 24-year-old dancer Joshua Bergasse, who plays Baby John in Johnson's production and is dance captain. He describes the "Cool" number as "the hardest thing I've ever done or seen. The whole time you're dancing it, you're trying to convey rage--and the suppression of that rage--and every muscle is so tense you're practically shaking. And then you have to conquer the technical difficulty of the choreography: You're low to the ground, so your legs are burning, you're doing jumps and off-center turns. It's a journey, and at the end you feel so good, it's beautiful. It's the thing I look forward to the most every night."

Johnson believes that the movement style of the show is especially difficult to reproduce now because the influence of MTV has led the newest generation of Broadway dancers to attend classes in hip-hop more often than ballet. "They can do some incredible [pop dance] things," he says, "but just ask them to try a double pirouette."

Since Robbins insisted that the current production feature "the youngest cast we could find," working with the hip-hop generation was inevitable. And the problem is scarcely behind him: Johnson's next project is a British touring production of "West Side Story," already cast.

If "West Side Story" lost its cool plenty of times in its 40-year history--in a miscast film featuring stars who couldn't sing, or a misconceived record album featuring opera stars who plunged over the top into self-parody--it has frequently marked a major breakthrough in the lives of its dancers.

"We didn't get it until after the fact," Grover Dale remembers. "Everybody who was involved in the original production, it just stretched us further than we realized. We didn't understand that our perception of what we were doing would be changed forever. There was no way of going back to the old ways of doing things or the old ways of thinking about dance. You don't leave an experience with Jerome Robbins and go back to the old ways."


"WEST SIDE STORY," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Dates: Tuesday to Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends next Sunday. Prices: $22 to $48. Phone: (213) 365-3500.

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