About the author:
As a Broadway dancer in the late 1980s, Joey McKneely’s credits ranged from Starlight Express to the infamous Carrie. He made a seamless transition into choreography, picking up Tony nominations for his first two shows, Smokey Joe’s Cafe and The Life. But as McKneely shares in this essay, his six months of preparation to dance in the 1989 retrospective show Jerome Robbins’ Broadway may have had the most profound effect on his career. Under the tutelage of the famously meticulous Robbins, McKneely developed deep affection and respect for the choreography of West Side Story, and he went on to direct re-creations of the show in Milan, Paris and a 2008 UK tour that began in London. Now he has taken on the ultimate WSS challenge: to reproduce—and, yes, to tweak—Robbins’ beloved choreography for the current Broadway revival, directed by the show’s 90-year-old librettist, Arthur Laurents. Read on for McKneely’s fascinating story.
My history with West Side Story goes back to 1988, when I was cast in multiple roles—including a Jet—in the Broadway production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. We rehearsed with Mr. Robbins for six months. Just the dances, mind you, but even those dances told the story of conflict and love. The emotions I felt doing the choreography of West Side Story was something I had never experienced on the stage before. The pure challenge of just getting through it pushed my limits.
It was during these months of rehearsal that I remember watching Mr Robbins: how his choreography always fit the situation and character. How simplicity of movement can convey more then words. How he chose which dancer to do each feature. How he performed each and every role; you just had to look at his face to understand exactly what he wanted from you. This was the first step.
The next challenge came in 2000, when I was asked to direct and reproduce the choreography for a production of West Side Story at La Scala Opera House. All of a sudden, it wasn't just the dance steps. I had to understand the entire script. This was my introduction to Arthur Laurents’ text. Wow. There was now all of Mr. Laurents’ rich character history and emotional plot to inform the choreography. Diving into each scene made me understand where the dances came from, and vice versa. Since then, I have directed productions of West Side Story at theaters around the world.
Having heard the whisperings of a planned Broadway revival for some time, I finally got the call to meet with Mr. Laurents about coming on board as his choreographer. This is when the fun began. He told me we must re-examine everything about the show. There were aspects of the choreography that needed to be adjusted to bring it in line with this new concept of his. Grittier. More realistic. Now, how do you change choreography when it is not yours? What parts do you manipulate without losing the original intent or structure? Very challenging!
I had all the resources to pull from: my experience from Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the movie version, the WSS Choreographic Manual, the 1980 revival video, even the New York City Ballet version of the dance suite. Along with my associate, Lori Werner, I started as we have for all the tours...setting what we know. Then, as per Arthur’s suggestion or prodding, I was able to use my insight as a choreographer to adjust a step here or there to help take the show away from its entrenched past and bring it into the 21st century with more edge and energy.
An example is the opening of the show. There is a step called the "sailing step," a very ballet looking jump with arms out in second position. If the intent is to make these Jets look intimidating right at the top of the show, then a pretty ballet step defeats the purpose. Simply making the hands into fist gives a hard look to the step, but still communicates the fact that the Jets are in charge of this street and will protect it and fight for it.
Even “Gee, Officer Krupke” was a major shift, but since the original staging didn't feel right to Arthur, he wanted to approach it differently. Using the original structure, Arthur was able to re-stage portions of it from a director's perspective instead of from a choreographer's perspective.
On and on, we evaluated each dance, number and scene in order to create a fresh new West Side Story and not a rehash of the past. Most people would never notice the changes, for we have worked hard to make them organic to each moment. Those who know the show more intimately might see the differences; however, the choreographic elements are always Robbins.
It has been an incredible assignment—not only passing on West Side Story to a new generation of dancers and audiences, but working with Arthur Laurents. I feel very fortunate to have been given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.