Lyric Opera Brings A Fresh New Energy to Their Chicago Production of West Side Story
Written by Vocalo Radio on May 24, 2019
With a cast of nearly 100 artists and musicians, the Lyric’s production of West Side Story brings new energy and scale to the iconic musical that transports Shakespeare’s story of Romeo and Juliet to the back streets of New York City.
Over a hundred thousand people have already seen the West Side Story since it opened earlier in the month at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and there’s still time to catch the immensely popular show between now and June 2nd.
Jill Hopkins sat down with two of the amazing cast members – Amanda Castro (Anita) and Manuel Stark Santos (Bernardo) to talk changing roles, what it means to have Puerto Rican actors cast to play the Sharks and the racial dynamics of the play.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s neither of your first rodeo with West Side Story. What is it like to step into this production, and to change characters from production to production?
Amanda: I’ve been doing West Side story for about a year now. It changes with every cast and every theater you’re in, depending on what kind of space it is. Playing the role of Anita is first and foremost such an honor for me. She has such a roller coaster of a track, emotionally, it takes a lot of meditation and prayer. A lot of calling mom just to say “I love you mom”! I think it’s all a practice like anything else. Every day it’s about finding a new way to keep her just as alive as Amanda Castro is. It’s dense! It’s a lot!
Manuel: This is actually my seventh production of West Side Story, believe it or not. One of the biggest I’ve done was the revival on Broadway about ten years ago. That was the longest run of a production of West Side that I’ve done before, about two years and two months. Bernardo has a lot of love for three particular things: his gang, Anita, and his sister Maria. Even though he has so much love for these people, he doesn’t know how to express it. So it comes out through aggression and his arc is much more about protecting the people he loves. And it comes to a very quick end. There’s a lot of intensity in a short amount of time. It’s very draining but I enjoy it so much.
Historically casting directors haven’t always been “down with the struggle” and have often not cast people of color to play roles like those of the Sharks in West Side Story…How does it feel to be in a cast of actual brown people playing actual brown people.
Amanda: God, literally God. It feels like being home! Being a Puerto Rican woman it is so nice to see my sisters in the room. Especially with this story, with my family’s own journey into America., with how hard the women in my family worked. To go on stage for [the song] America and know I’m actually talking to someone who knows the struggle and has a parallel experience to me… I’ve walked out of the theater seeing a bunch of young Latinas crying saying “you look like me”. I never had that. So I think it’s a beyond feeling. I sometimes hate that it’s so new to me at this point in my life.
Manuel: It’s hard for me to even top what Amanda said. It’s incredible to be a part of a group of people that do understand that. Particularly coming from Julio Monge, who is Puerto Rican, I’ve done this show with choreographers who are not of Latin descent and it still works – but it was so nice to have somebody who can actually relate to both sides. Who can teach the Jets what they need to know but then can really give a full history and a full backstory to the Sharks that’s usually not given in a production of West Side Story. That itself was mind blowing. It gave so much more life to the Sharks than I ever knew about personally. That was incredible to me. It’s so wonderful to be part of a group that has lived that and experienced that.
Both of these characters are so powerful. Bernardo leads a whole gang of men, and Anita leads Bernardo. Is that a fair assessment of the dynamic between your two characters?
Amanda: I think we lead each other on different avenues for different things. I think Anita loves and respects Bernardo so hard… He’s holding down the fort. But at the same… do something crazy and I’m gonna find you.
Manuel: She is the queen of the castle. That I think Bernardo knows. He’s the leader of his gang, his gang looks up to him, but Anita will stay veto anything that he has to say whenever she pleases. And I think he understands that dynamic between the two of them.
One of my favorite little things about West Side Story is the shattering of the broken home stereotype in a family of color. Is that important to you to get across in this production?
Amanda: Everyday. I feel like that’s something people don’t even realize is happening on stage in the show. The Jets have this whole number talking about how broken they are. Talking about systematic issues! They’re going down the list of things we’re dealing with today. We’ve gone out together and people have been like I can’t talk to Manuel cause he’s a shark. We’re still seen as the bad guys after they’ve just seen the show and witnessed the Jets committing these crimes, doing these things. They’re loving up on the Jets and they can’t talk to us in person, as our selves! It’s an everyday struggle to show that we do have this family and community as these people on stage.
Manuel: You made a good point that I want to talk about. A lot of people, whether they’ve seen the show or not, assume that the Sharks are the bad guys. And it is just not true. Neither the Jets nor the sharks are the bad guys. Everyone is misunderstood in their own way. If anyone is going to be a bad guy it’s police, the police brutality that exists in the show. Lieutenant Shrank is the bad guy… if someone is gonna be a bad guy he’s the one. So it’s challenging cause we have an entire scene talking about our struggle compared to someone that is considered to be “American” and that’s not always something that people get from the show. The Jets have a very interesting arc they start out looking like the main group, the show follows the Jets. But they do something terrible to Anita at the end of the show and to me that’s enlightening… Even with that people still have a very unfortunate perception of who the Sharks are.
My friend Elizabeth Gomez pointed out that she’s obsessed with Maria and Anita’s story lines as the bearers of this trauma that the men in their lives have created for them. Maria suffers for her choice to be independent, and Anita is assaulted for trying to broker a kind of peace.
Do you feel that as a Puerto Rican woman? That you have to shoulder this heaviness in life?
Amanda: Some days more than others. Half of it is generational trauma that’s passed down. You’re raised with the list, any woman who is brown has come up with the list like: be humble, don’t speak too loud, don’t raise your voice when you’re angry, if you have a man in your life listen to him before talking. Growing up witnessing different dynamics and relationships I think everybody has that. For Anita, every show I channel one of my aunts. I’ve witnessed all of the things. I have a great aunt, who is gone now, and her husband used to beat her every day. You know what I mean? In this show it’s definitely a push and pull. It is 2019 and I do have power but there’s also very realistic things in this show that I’m trying to break. I totally live in the realism of Anita and Bernardo’s relationship. I know why Bernardo is so aggressive, it’s because nobody hugged him and told him it’s ok to cry. It’s that super machismo, toxic masculinity.Especially doing this show and having amazing actors showing me different sides of all these characters it’s changed me as a woman and how I wanna work in the world. Just facing these things head on 8 times a week.
Manuel: It’s real!
Is the racial aspect and subtext to the play something that you think about Manuel?
Manuel: It’s really crazy how relevant everything in this show is to this day. And this show was created in the late 1950s. There’s a lot of emotion in the show, obviously, but when I’m acting with Brett Theo (who plays Riff) or Lieutenant Shrank, the moments that they throw certain racial attack at me, that the show requires, it still really cuts deep. I can still feel it and react to it accordingly. But every show I have to leave the stage and I have to release it. Even though it does feel like an attack, because it is to a degree, but it is our job and part of the show, story and message that we’re sending out. It is very effective, because if it is affecting me I hope the audience is feeling what I’m feeling when it’s happening.
The show runs through June 2nd. For more info about the production and tickets, visit: www.lyricopera.org
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019