Director George Faison saw something timeless in West Side Story. He loved the way the musical asked the audience to look at America, the way it gave everyday events a sense of artistry and the way it dealt with social issues. It was a musical that Faison wanted to pass down to a new generation of theatergoers.
"It is a blueprint, and they captured so well those times and these times," Faison said. "There are so many things that divide us in this society that there are still lessons this great musical can teach."
His touring production, which is at the Lyric Opera House through Saturday, tells the story of Maria and Tony, who belong to rival factions in a New York City neighborhood in the 1950s. Although their chance meeting evolves into a budding romance, it also creates tension between the two gangs.
Faison, the first African-American to win a Tony for choreography (in 1975 for The Wiz), thought that the show's message, that love can overcome gang violence and prejudice, was still relevant. However, he did not want to put the characters in a modern setting or revise the script to draw parallels between past and present.
"I am not interested in hip-hopping it up. You would really have to change it from the first word in order to do that." Faison said. "We're not trying to turn the story into that. What I am trying to do is re-create that drama."
To achieve this goal, Faison is using many of the production details from the original Broadway musical. He explained that the show's creators were "titans of the American musical" and that following their lead was an easy decision.
Leonard Bernstein's music matches the story's Romeo and Juliet trajectory, trading the softer melodies of first love with the brassy crash of escalating violence. The choreography was so influential to the dance world, Faison was compelled to stage West Side Story again.
Jerome Robbins, the choreographer for the original Broadway production, "did, in fact, revolutionize how we interpret what happens on the street. He elevated what is happening in our ordinary, regular lives to art," Faison said.
Faison recalled his amazement at Robbins' ability to transform a knife fight into a ballet or turn a neighborhood dance into something stylized and seamless.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Faison's interest in performing was piqued at an early age. One day, during his family's Sunday night ritual of watching The Ed Sullivan Show, Faison turned to his mother and told her that he was going to be a dancer like those on the television when he grew up.
Throughout high school and college, he performed with such groups as the Jones-Haywood Capitol Ballet and the Howard University Players. Soon enough, he moved to New York, where he joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and "saw the world."
His career as a choreographer developed over the years. It was dance pieces set to the music of Otis Redding and Billie Holiday that would later land him the job of choreographer for The Wiz. His ability to turn L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into an urban dance spectacle ultimately led to Broadway's highest honor.
He hopes that this production of West Side Story will inspire a new wave of singers, dancers and musicians.
"I am very proud to be a part of that legacy, of bestowing that legacy - to have been influenced by [West Side Story] and now to maybe influence another generation of people."
West Side Story is at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35-$62.50. For tickets, call 410-547-SEAT or check ticketmaster.com.