Pro Talent Watch | Joey McKneely
Keeping Jerome Robbins’ Art Alive in New Aussie Version of Classic West Side Story Production
Interview and Article by Heather Clements
The cultural-enigma that is West Side Story is being launched as a new/revived production of this classic musical this year in Melbourne (limited season later in Sydney as well), featuring direction and choreography by Joey McKneely – an artist that has been linked to this show since he first hit Broadway as a kid in the 90s. McKneely brings experience, understanding and true love to the evergreen show that is West Side Story.
Not only is West Side Story pretty much the iconic example of the classic Broadway musical form, it is also carrying true its theme by casting/employing some of the youngest, freshest, most talented and diverse young performers to its latest Australian cast – Just like the actual story! 😮
Q: Give me a brief summary about your career background and your relationship with the West Side Story production and the legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins?
Well, I started as a Broadway dancer, and I auditioned for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway production of West Side Story when I was about 21 … it was my fourth show. And I had no idea who Jerome Robbins was! I was just looking for my next job.
And I think that was great because I had no fear of him … I was so naïve, that I just went in and danced my little butt off for him. And he put me into the Jerome Robbins‘ Broadway production of West Side Story and gave me all the dance features!
I was one of the Jets that you followed from aggression to the ballet-style … So, I got to learn all of the choreography first hand from Him. And that was really my first introduction to West Side Story, directly from Jerome Robbins! [Wow!]
It was the late 80s, we spent six months in the rehearsal studio, which was really a lesson on just watching him and all of his choreography from his whole career. So, I really had an in-depth knowledge not only about West Side Story, but about his process. And I try to bring that to every West Side production that I do. [Jerome Robbins passed away in 1998.]
I had become a Broadway choreographer by then, then Jerome’s estate called me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing the choreography for a production that was being done in Italy. And that was at the Scala Opera House in Milan, so I ended up directing that production. I guess that’s when my long-term association with this production kind of kicked off. And here I am today!!
Q: So the last production in Australia was in 2009… Why do you think it’s time for a revival now? And I guess, how do you keep reinventing it?
Well, since I was last in Australia I have experienced working with Arthur Laurents, who was the original writer of West Side Story. We worked together on the Broadway revival in 2009. And so, I really got to dig deeper into the book and that helped my growth with understanding West Side Story and to present it in a deeper level than I’ve ever presented it before.
Why are doing West Side again? I think for one thing it’s because we have just had a special anniversary of the Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins partnership. And also, there’s a new interest in the whole West Side Story story … especially as there is going to be a new Hollywood movie version of in the making right now!
I think it’s important for each generation to experience West Side Story because it is a masterpiece. And this isn’t really a rehash of the original 1957 version.
My version is really about bringing it into in the new millennium, giving it a fresher energy and a more emotional dynamic than was done before. And I think each time I do it with a new company, it’s really about the unique cast that really brings it to life in a new way.
Q: I was so excited to see such a young casting announcement for this new production … like kids who have gotten their first break! And I guess and you were involved in the casting here in Australia?
Absolutely! I was there in Sydney and Melbourne. And I’m the one that kept picking the younger ones (laughter). Because they’re living and breathing kids now. I mean, we’ve got an extremely young cast from Australia this time.
The kid who plays Baby John is only 16 I think! I feel that my torch to bear is to hold up West Side Story and really bring it to the younger generation. I want to give these dancers their first break.
Q: Tell me, with the rehearsals that you did, between 2009 and 2018, when you did the casting, what has changed in your opinion of the Australian dancers and the dance scene?
Oh my God, I was flabbergasted! I was so impressed this time around, because of the level of training … and I kept saying this to the casting director and the producers … I was just head over heels about what I had experienced last time. Within these 10 years, the training that these kids are getting is much better. Also, I think because the explosion of dance on television in the past 10 years with shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars and all this stuff … The kids are gravitating to dancing as a legitimate career, ’cause they’re going, “Wait a minute, this could be an opportunity here.”
So, I was just head over heels that I was able to get not only great dancers, but great dancers that are trained well at such a young age.
Q: I was interested to see your perspective on that 10-year difference. And what do you look for?
If I may say about the Sharks this time around … the authenticity was impressive. I had many more dancers to pick from … Last time I was scraping the ground just to find anyone who would look ethnic, diverse you know. But now, we were actually able to have a wide range of choices of performers this time… I was very happy about that.
Q: What do you look for in terms of casting that core dance group?
I’m always looking for good ballet technique, of course. I have a baseline, because Jerome Robbins was coming out of the New York City Ballet at that time and it’s important to carry that through. So, I really wanted to elevate the dance and really make it look as clean as possible. But I look for that ‘spark’ in a dancer… that fire … that need to prove themselves, that hunger, that desire.
And sometimes I have to pull it out of them a little harder, you know? Especially the anger, and the aggression that these West Side Story gangs need to experience.
Q: So when do you come out to Australia and start rehearsals?
We start rehearsals the first week of March. So, I’ll be coming out for that and then we hit the ground running. I will be here all the way through to the opening. Initially, my job’s pretty much done once opening night’s done. And then, I’ll come back for the Sydney opening, ’cause I want to check in with the cast before the Opera House.
Q: What are you looking forward to about working with this new cast?
I’m really excited about the youth of the actors … I’m getting everyone kind of green! These kids haven’t even lead roles or any roles underneath their belt. They’re going to walk in and turn it on. I’m looking forward to taking them on that emotional journey that is so vulnerable and sensitive in West Side. And I’m really looking forward to making actors out of these dancers. I think that’s what I get most excited about.
Q: What are your thoughts about the revival of musical films, like The Greatest Showman, La La Land, and as you mentioned West Side Story coming up?
I love that, I think if we’re tapping Hollywood that is fantastic! … they’re embracing the musicals. It comes across very ‘Hollywood’, but at least they’re doing it. And I think any exposure to musicals that bring that out, the song and dance, and I think is a good thing. Even on TV they’re doing these live musicals …I think it’s great.
Q: It’s definitely a lovely revival. With this new production, what can the Australian audiences expect?
Well, I think with this production of West Side Story you can expect one, incredible music score… ’cause the music is glorious and we have a wonderful orchestra… And the voices are going to be fantastic. But audiences are going to get emotion from this production. They’re going to come and feel it.
They’re really going to get involved with how devastating these characters’ journey are. And I think they’re going to realise how fresh and relevant West Side Story still is. You might say, “My God, this was thing was done in ’57!”, but it’s about the subject matter. If the subject matter is happening right now, in our own countries, in our own neighbourhoods, then we are dealing with fighting the fear of immigrants right now as well.
And of course it’s about love! … the destruction of something as simple as love is remarkable in this story.
Q: I know it’s the original Jerome Robbins choreography. But is it exactly the same, or do you tweak it a little bit?
I tweak it a little bit. I think not necessarily sometimes purposely, sometimes accidentally.
When I learned it, I went back and saw some tapes of what we had done way back on the 80s, which again, was 30 years after the original. So, I think there’s a natural evolution that things get adjusted a little bit for the dancer and also, for the athleticism of the training. You know, I tend to make my dancers jump higher, kick higher, because they can now.
And also now we have stretch jeans, which we didn’t have back then! That helps a lot. They didn’t have dance sneakers either. We have dance sneakers that are like dance shoes now. Back then they just had sneakers, of course their feet weren’t pointed, it’s hard to get a shoe to point like that back then. Little things like that. But I think to keep it thrilling you’ve got to infuse it with a new energy. And if the little things get shaved, or sharpened on their ends, I don’t think it takes away from the integrity of the choreography one bit.
The thing about the choreography of Jerome Robbins for West Side Story is, it’s integral to the plot, it’s part of the storytelling. It is not just steps, it’s not just 5-6-7-8 … It’s part of character, reveals character, reveals emotion, and storytelling plot dynamics.
WEST SIDE STORY will play a strictly limited season at the Arts Centre Melbourne in April 2019, and Sydney Opera House from August 2019. It is produced by Opera Australia, GWB Entertainment and BB Group.
More at www.westsidestory.com.au
WEST SIDE STORY
Melbourne Arts Centre
6-28 April 2019
Sydney Opera House
16 August – 6 October 2019
Canberra Theatre Centre
10 – 27 October 2019
Bookings: westsidestory.com.au or opera.org.au