Header Image: Opera Australia – WEST SIDE STORY – Photograph by Jeff Busby
Granted, West Side Story was due to have been performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) a year ago; due to COVID-19, the show’s producer opted to put a hold to their 2020 Australian season and shift their plans to 2021.
Currently performing in Perth, Queenslanders will get to see the production on the Lyric Theatre stage starting Saturday, 24 July 2021, until Sunday 22 August 2021. For information on how to book for the show’s Perth or Brisbane season, visit the official West Side Story Australia website for direct and official booking links.
Before the season commences, I hopped onto Zoom call and interviewed Isaac Hayward, the show’s Musical Director. I invite you to read the transcript of our conversation below.
First of all for those who may not be familiar with your previous work, can you share a little bit about your history in performing art space? Some of your highlights in your career? And some of your key responsibilities as the show’s musical director.
Yeah. Big question. Well, I’ve been doing this for a little while. I started out as a music director working with Jon English on tour when I was 17. And then I moved into commercial music theatre on Mary Poppins as a touring keyboard player. And then I moved on to being an assistant and I started music directing shows. I think the first major show I did was Ladies in Black at QTC. And then The Rabbits at Opera Australia, Muriel’s Wedding with STC & Global Creatures, The Secret River at The National Theater of London and on its Australian tour. What else? King Kong on Broadway, but as an assistant conductor. And few other things. Probably something really important that I’m forgetting. And then here I am doing West Side Story.
The conductor’s got a big responsibility obviously because the music is so well known. And it’s set up a bit differently to many musicals, in that it comes from a bygone era where the orchestra was really big. I think the original production. It’s also orchestrated for, considering that amplification wasn’t as good back then as it is now, like they didn’t have bug mics, so it actually means that the orchestration is a lot more dynamic. And what it means is that those… In the original orchestration, those 28 players can strip right back down to just four players and you have this huge dynamic range to play with. So it’s a bit of a different job to music directing something like Muriel’s Wedding, which is very much pop-based. And it’s a stand-up conduct show as well, so that’s also a different set of skills to a lot of musicals out there at the moment. It’s great. I’m really enjoying it.
You recently held your Perth opening night for West Side Story. How did the first performances go and are you excited about bringing the show to Brisbane audiences later this month?
Well, it’s an interesting one, Sam, because you probably heard that we got locked down in Perth. We were supposed to open last Friday with four previews leading up to it, and another dress rehearsal. But because last week got cancelled entirely, our first public performance was last night. It honestly didn’t really feel like an opening night because we didn’t really have any wind up into it. We did our second dress rehearsal yesterday afternoon. So instead of three dress rehearsals, we were left with two, and then a public performance, which is obviously not ideal. And usually you would want that to be your first preview or the invited dress. But because we had done a bit of work in the previous week and people had a bit of rest and a bit of time to look over their scripts, and we did a bit of music rehearsal over Zoom, it ended up being a pretty tidy show last night.
I have to say it wasn’t quite the usual opening night experience. And it’s not like we had a lot of press in necessarily, it was just people getting moved from other performances to get whoever they could in, wherever. It was great to be doing it finally after waiting so long and being so ready to do it in front of an audience last week, but it wasn’t your typical opening night experience. I wasn’t really thinking of it as an opening night. I think I’ll save all of that feeling to Brisbane. That said, I’m really excited about getting to Brisbane and having a proper opening night.
I actually love working at QPAC. I think it’s such a great venue, great surroundings. And the Brisbane audiences also are just amazing, like from my time there doing The Rabbits and The Secret River and Muriel’s Wedding and Grace. Everything that I’ve done there, it’s just been incredible. And things always tend to sell really well there, I think. West Side is selling really well there, which is great. So I can’t wait. Happy to be there when I get there.
We should have been here a year ago talking about the show, but alas, COVID hit all of us pretty badly. How did you keep yourself busy during this time?
Well, I’m a bit of a spanner in the works this time because I’m actually replacing someone that can’t do it this year because they are not available. In a way I’m lucky to be doing West Side Story. I’m new to West Side and that’s because of COVID. I was in New York last year. I had just come off a really successful run of work actually. My career was really starting to pick up there, which is very exciting. I had a great year planned. I had a bunch of job offers. I was about to start sub conducting in New York. And then everything got cancelled of course and we didn’t think it would last long.
But I did great actually. I was really happy with how I ended up spending my time. I managed to get into a regular schedule, which I have never been able to do before because I’m always doing different projects at different times and fitting in work in where I can. I practiced a lot of cello. I started learning the clarinet. I have it right here actually. I was doing some mixing and some music production for projects. I started doing some arranging with Alex Lacamoire. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. I was going for runs and everything. I actually did okay. And I had enough creative projects, producing and mixing, to keep me interested. I had plenty of practice to do. It was perfect for me actually. I think now somehow I am the perfect personality type for extended lockdown. I was very lucky for that.
Still, let’s hope we don’t have to experience another extended lockdown any time soon.
I’m okay with just one major lockdown in my life.
In a market where there is a lot of attention on brand new productions, such as Disney’s Frozen or Hamilton, what do you think is the value of presenting and patrons attending more iconic classical musicals such as West Side Story?
That’s great question. Well, look, we should talk about why it’s a classic, I think. It’s a little hard to define, but that team in 1957 putting the show together is on an unprecedented level, especially where they went with the rest of their careers. Obviously Leonard Bernstein, he was already a household name at that point. He was about to take the music directorship at the New York Philharmonic. I think he got offered it on the first preview. Stephen Sondheim, obviously ended up becoming one of Broadway’s favourite composers. Arthur Laurents, very good. And Jerome Robbins, he came with all the esteem of being a artistic director of New York City Ballet. Plus, how Prince was the producer. So it’s a really incredible team that has not often been replicated. It is very rare to find high art and low art people combining in that way to make something that’s commercial and something that endures.
I think part of the appeal for West Side is that it does cross those boundaries. Like, we have someone that was a serious ballet choreographer meeting with a serious classical composer, and a brand new lyricist with boundless talent, and a soon to become legendary producer director, and you come up with a product that has… It won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1961. It’s been playing around the world pretty much continuously since 1957, and now it’s being made into another film and has another revival on Broadway. It’s a true giant in terms of classic theatre works, I would say. I think there’s so much appeal in seeing the piece alone for those reasons, that it’s not that different to going and seeing Le Boheme, or Traviata, or Romeo and Juliet, or Macbeth. I really think it’s a piece that’s going to endure for many, many years. I guess there’s appeal in that sense.
But it is also a different theatre experience. It doesn’t feel like a slow show. It doesn’t resemble something like Show Boat, which is three hours 10 minutes or whatever, and has at least lengthy dialogue scenes. It still feels very contemporary, and I think that’s because it was written post-1945 when musicals started to change after Oklahoma. It still feels very contemporary and still it’s very recognizable as a musical and holds our attention in the same way that a modern musical does. But because it was written at a time, like I was saying, with less amplification and bigger orchestral forces, it’s so much more dynamic than the modern musical and it really rewards you for listening and, I think that is a trait that we don’t see as often in contemporary musicals.
Also the way it uses dance, I think, was a very influential but also rarely replicated. The dance is very balletic as a lot of people probably know but it tells the story incredibly well and it integrates with the music so fantastically that… I think modern musicals tend to shy away from that a little bit. They don’t tend to let dance stand for itself quite as much these days. And I think in the case of West Side Story, it’s a really great example of synergy between dance and story departments. So there’s a lot of reasons, I think, to see West Side still today. I don’t know if that convinced you.
Oh, yes. Well, I’ve already got a ticket.
I’m sure you do. It is a really interesting question. Why would you see a piece that’s 65 years or 68 years or whatever it is, so old, when you could go and see Frozen or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I think a lot of it is the high art low art thing. It’s very rare that you get high art and low art. You know what I mean, right
High art and low art mixing together to make something that doesn’t treat their audience like an idiot but also doesn’t go over their head, it’s just pitch perfectly for people to go like, this is an amazing work about no matter whether I go see the opera or whether I go see jazz or pop gigs.
I know there have been clearly some challenges around COVID and having all your preview performances canceled for your Perth season, but what have been some of the highlights working on this production?
Well, look, this is probably not the answer you’re looking for, but outrunning COVID in Sydney felt pretty good. We were in our studio rehearsals in our last week, and the growing cases in Sydney looked pretty bad so the producers decided to evacuate us all to Perth before we couldn’t go at all. And we got to Perth safely. And then in the next few days, their cases totally blew up, and they slammed the border shut, so that felt pretty good. I think probably the most rewarding part of it is actually learning the choreography. Not for me to do it but learning how the choreography fits with the music, and how elegantly it interfaces with the music and how careful they have been. And I also feel like a rewarding part is delving into the score and seeing Bernstein’s influences a bit more closely and also just uncovering maybe some of the secrets within the score. Like things when you look at it closely, you can go, “Okay, Bernstein definitely wrote these lyrics rather than Sondheim.”
Even like Officer Krupke, which you’re probably familiar with, ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, was written for Candide. But Bernstein was writing Candide at pretty much the same time as West Side Story. He actually recycled that from Candide and asked Stephen Sondheim to lyric it in its fully formed state. And it was just last night that I went, “This song is actually so similar to What’s The Use from Candide in so many ways.” The feel is quite different but the design of the song and the way it modulates is so similar to What’s The Use from Candide. And so I found it really rewarding getting inside the score and understanding exactly how it works and uncovering a few secrets about its construction.
There are other spots where there are cuts made in the original production, and no one’s ever really heard the full version. And then there are other parts where you go, “Oh, I see what’s happened here. You’ve cut these bars, and that’s why this time signature is here.” You can lean a little bit of inside process, which I find really exciting. But of course, conducting the orchestra in the first dress was a big one. It was a long time ago now. We only got to run the show once before we got locked down, but that was absolute fun. It was really good fun seeing all the elements come together. We also added costumes in that rehearsal for the first time so that was super exciting for me.
So it appears that this is a 65-year-old musical you can still pick apart elements and still discover new elements to it. Where other musicals might not have those intricate details, or alternatively have already been picked apart.
That’s right. Another interesting thing about West Side that people are probably aware of is that, until this new Broadway production, every professional production of West Side Story had to use Jerome Robbins’ choreography. So it’s this interesting process by which this choreography gets interpreted over and over and over again. It’s the same basic steps but exactly how it works and exactly how high the leg is, or where that step occurs or on what beat, or how quickly the lift is or whatever. That gets changed through translation. And so it’s kind of this alive interpretation of the same choreography over and over again. In the same way that we might interpret the score a bit differently because of tempo or just because we want to do things differently.
I also find that really fascinating about West Side, how you can watch different versions of the same choreography that fit the music slightly differently and take what you want from all these different interpretations. It’s very much like ballet, but it’s very much the way that classical music works. Listening to different interpretations and coming up with something that you think is best and that’s the music and story.
What is your favourite moment and favourite song from the show?
My favourite moment is the scherzo in the ballet. I’ll just explain what it is. What happens is that there’s this dream ballet, which used to happen in pretty much all musicals since 1960. There’s a dream ballet where Tony and Maria imagine a world where they can be together. And Baby John, who’s the youngest Jet, comes on stage, and there’s… He kind of like sees something flying over his head, depends on who interprets the choreography, but he sees something flying over his head, and then someone from the Jets comes in and sees the same thing, and then baby John starts dancing. And there’s something funny about how the floor works. There’s something underfoot that’s soft and interesting. He’s kind of playing with the ground and kicking it and seeing what it does. And then eventually, more people come on and start doing the same thing. That’s my favourite moment in the show because I think the choreography is so beautiful, and it works so perfectly with the music and tells the story beautifully.
Favourite song would be the Quintet near the end of act one. The Quintet is where all these separate parts from earlier in the act… Well, actually, that’s not true. Let me rephrase that. The Quintet is where you get to hear almost all of the leads sing at the same time. It’s the only time it really happens. It happens briefly in the ballet, but you basically get to hear counterpoint against all of the different leads and the gangs. It’s super fun. It’s super fun to conduct. It’s an amazing… I was going to say amazing end to act one; that’s not quite the end of act one.
And my final question is, what advice would you have for those looking to enter the industry, either as a performer, as a musician, or as a creative?
I think you have to be really, really hungry for it. And you have to be humble as well and be prepared to take criticism and work on things that you may not think are problems.
You have to be a good person, actually. You have to do your best to be a well-rounded, good person who really cares about what you do.
Thank you very much to Mr Hayward, West Side Story’s Australian producers (Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment) and the show’s Brisbane publicist Cinnamon Watson for their time and resources in arranging this opportunity.