On Stage: Behind the West Side Story

It’s hard to believe that “West Side Story” is over 50 years old. Although I didn’t get to New York to see the original cast on Broadway (nor the revival in 1980), I latched onto the film, which garnered ten Oscars in 1961.

It was a time when there wasn’t much dance in Pittsburgh, so local fans like me turned mostly to the movies. In the years since, I’ve watched the camera zoom in on that city playground and cried after “Te adoro, Anton,” over a dozen times, in addition to seeing assorted local stage productions.

In my mind, there isn’t a musical that combines music, theater and dance any better. But dance has changed so much with new techniques (Higher! Bigger! Faster!) and the emergence of hip hop, I wondered how a younger generation perceived Jerome Robbins’ own brand of “Cool” moves and street-wise tactics.

Enter Beth Crandall.

At just 20-something (I didn’t ask further), she’s the dance captain of the current national tour that rumbles into the Benedum Center this week, in addition to playing a Jets’ girl, Zaza, and understudying Riff’s girlfriend, Graciella, and Anybodys.

Born in Pittsburgh’s Pleasant Hills, she and her family moved to Frederick, Maryland. There she realized early on that she had talent when she was selected to play Baby June in “Gypsy.”

With the support of her parents, that turned into a “seamless flow of musicals,” culminating in the dance program at New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. During breaks there, she did summer stock in productions like ‘Wonderful Town” and — hello! — “West Side Story” as — hello again! — Anybodys.

Now she’s totally immersed in Robbins’ movements, working to keep the morale of the company up, training dancers who come in on the six-month turnovers and rehearsing understudies, multiple swings and full company brush-ups, just to “check back in about blocking and spacing.”

Beth doesn’t mind. “The choreography is so iconic,” she says. “It’s important that it be clean and honest and we maintain its integrity.”

She would love to time travel back to 1957 and see the original production because “now dance is more about the lines and leg extensions.” Not that she would want to dance under Jerome Robbins himself. “Working with him could be frustrating,” she ventures tactfully.

Certainly there are stories, the stuff of legend, on how the formidable taskmaster would rigorously work the dancers with numerous variations of a dance that they were expected to remember at the drop of a hat. How he would play the Sharks against the Jets to squeeze more of the gang mentality out of them. How, as he slowly backed into the orchestra pit while giving notes during a rehearsal of “Million Dollar Baby,” no one tried to warn him.

But Beth feels that she has the next best thing in choreographer Joey McKneely who apparently eats, sleeps and drinks “West Side Story” when he’s not being nominated for his own choreography. He worked with the acclaimed choreographer in the Tony Award-winning “Jerome Robbins Broadway,” which included a suite of dances from the ’50’s musical and was a Jet, among other roles.

“I never met anyone who knows as much about this musical,” Beth says. “The choreography lives in him. We always dance full-out — with feeling.” That can be difficult because the dances are deceptively hard (she notes that particularly in “Cool”). In fact, she says that Jerome Robbins built it into the fabric of the dances, to deliberately have the performers struggle a little.

After all, they are supposed to be teenagers…and angst is a part of that.

So she continues to find joy in the “sailing step” and easily transfers from a push up bra to Anybodys’ androgynous slump when needed. It may go on for awhile, because the tour is already booked through 2012.

But Beth welcomes the pressure to know every step in the show because “every step has a story and every character has a different meaning behind each step.” And a “West Side Story” comes along only once in a lifetime.

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