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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 23, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 51
A Jet all the way: An interview with West Side Story's Ross Lekites
Arts & Entertainment
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A Jet all the way: An interview with West Side Story's Ross Lekites

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

West Side Story
January 10-15
Paramount Theatre


The groundbreaking musical West Side Story burst onto the Great White Way over 50 years ago, and Broadway has never been the same since. The maestro impresario Leonard Bernstein broke from his traditional classical work to write the music for a Broadway musical - a highly debated decision at the time. Arthur Laurents wrote his third Broadway libretto with West Side Story, and the controversial Jerome Robbins not only choreographed the musical, but also is credited as director. A new name made his Broadway debut writing these lyrics - a man named Stephen Sondheim.

Taking a new look at Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the updated classic was moved to the West Side of New York with the battling between rival 'gang families,' white juvenile delinquents and newly arrived Puerto Ricans. To celebrate the musical's 55th year, West Side Story returns to Seattle's Paramount Theatre, and Seattle Gay News is there to interview Ross Lekites, the man playing the lead character, Tony.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your first theatrical influences?

Ross Lekites: My first theatrical influences were local actors in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up. A man by the name of Corwin Hodge was in a production of Children of Eden at a local theater when I was in high school. I had never in my life heard someone sing so beautifully and with such musicality. I wanted to sound just like him.

Andrews-Katz: What was your audition for West Side Story like?

Lekites: My audition for West Side was different than any other audition process I had been through. In October of 2010, I auditioned to be the Tony standby, but did not get the job and went on to do a few other shows with West Side always on my mind. Then in July of this year, I auditioned again for the standby and got the job. I joined them in Chicago and then took over the role in October of this year.

Andrews-Katz: How does adding in the bilingual lyrics add to the production?

Lekites: I love the fact that they have added Spanish dialogue into the show. It gives the Sharks [gang] a richer, truer character and it empowers them. Overall, it makes the show more realistic.

Andrews-Katz: Such talent and genius went into the making of West Side Story. Which of the four major talents - Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, or Jerome Robbins - do you think adds the factor in making this musical a classic?

Lekites: I don't think a show gets to 'classic' status without all aspects of the show coming together to form one uniformed piece. I think the four who created this amazing show knew what they were doing and how to do it together. And there is something for every audience member to fall in love with, whether it be beautiful lyrics, dancing, or orchestration. & All of it is done so well, there is no way for it not to turn out a classic.

Andrews-Katz: West Side Story was something completely fresh on Broadway. How do you think it helped influence future Broadway musicals?

Lekites: They broke the mold with this show when it came to bringing a racy topic onto the stage. Once one wall is knocked down, it is easier to bring the rest down. I think this show opened a lot of doors for other shows because it showed that the public was ready for a 'racier' topic and that it would be accepted.

Andrews-Katz: Is there a villain in West Side Story?

Lekites: The only villain in West Side Story is the thing that keeps Tony and Maria apart (and that villain is still around today, sadly): racism. I once heard an audience member call the Sharks the bad guys after a show, I just think it's sad that he didn't get it, and maybe never will.

Andrews-Katz: What happens to Maria after the musical?

Lekites: I don't like to think of what happens to Maria at the end of the show, it makes me sad to think of someone going through their entire life without their soulmate. Whatever she does, I know it would be positive!

Andrews-Katz: If West Side Story were written today, what two ethnic groups would be at the center of the musical?

Lekites: I'm not sure what two ethnic groups would fill the role of the Jets and the Sharks today. That is a really hard question. The fact that there is still a great divide between ethnic groups and racism between them saddens me.

Andrews-Katz: What musical roles would you like to play in the future?

Lekites: I would love to be Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys. That show is so fun and energetic. I would also like to play Gabe in Next to Normal.

West Side Story opened on Broadway September 26, 1957, and originally ran for 732 performances. Starring a relatively new cast - including Chita Rivera, Marilyn Cooper, and Martin Charnin (who would go on to write the musical Annie) - the musical broke boundaries for Broadway. Originally nominated for six Tony Awards, it won for Best Choreography and Best Scenic Design. The 1961 film recast many of the original Broadway Jets (in different Jet roles) and included Natalie Wood (with Marni Nixon's singing voice), Russ Tamblyn, and Rita Moreno among many other talents. It would go on to nominated for 11 Academy Awards and win 10; the only musical film to win that many awards, including Best Picture.

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