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HomeCommunityLei Arenzana Stages West Side Story for Its 60th Anniversary

Lei Arenzana Stages West Side Story for Its 60th Anniversary


LR-WestSideStory60 years ago, a group of four New York-based theatrical artists collaborated on one of the most beloved stage and screen properties of the 20th century: West Side Story. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, the show pitted rival gangs on Manhattan Island, New York City’s low-income west side against one another, the legendary Jets (based on the true life Irish gang, the Westies), and the Sharks (reflecting the postwar influx of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York), and plunged a timeless love story rife with memorable songs into the midst. The 1961 film which followed won a bushel of Oscars and became an American institution, as has the theatrical show through numerous revivals, reimaginings, and all levels of stage productions.

With the entire production conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, in 1957, West Side Story featured music by Leonard Bernstein, song lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents (the screenplay for the film was written by Ernest Lehman).

 Leilani Amour Arenzana
Leilani Amour Arenzana

Now, for its 60th anniversary, artistic director Leilani Amour Arenzana is staging a reverential production of West Side Story in the Elizabeth A. Hangs Theater at the Santa Clara Convention Center, in the south part of California’s Bay Area. Born in the Philippines of Hawaiian and Spanish lineage, San Mateo-based Arenzana received her Masters of Fine Arts, with an emphasis in directing, at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. In the Bay Area, she directs commercials, short films and musicals. Her 90-minute feature film will screen in San Jose in August.

For Arenzana, West Side Story is the culmination of all her previous artistic experiences. “This is my ninth or tenth musical for this company,” Arenzana said of the NorCal Academy of Performing Arts. “It’s a non-profit organization. Whatever proceeds we make, we send to our students, who are very talented for performing: singers, pianists, violinists. That’s what my company does.”

From  Leilani Amour Arenzana's staging of West Side Story
From Leilani Amour Arenzana’s staging of West Side Story

Running at the Elizabeth Hangs on Friday July 21 at 7pm, a Saturday July 22 matinee at 2pm and a night show at 6pm, and Sunday July 23 at 3pm, West Side Story features an A and B cast for various shows. “That’s how we divide the four shows in two,” Arenzana explained. “Cast A performs on Friday night and the Saturday matinee. Cast B performs Saturday night and at the Sunday matinee. If we sell out, we might add one more show.”

In the past, NorCal Academy would stage six shows for the public and two shows where they invite schools around San Jose and bus students to the performances. Cast members range from 50-years-old to 10-years-old, with 30 total performers in the two casts. Aside from productions as with this version of West Side Story, Arenzana is also contracted to create high school productions throughout San Jose.

From Leilani Amour Arenzana's staging of West Side Story
From Leilani Amour Arenzana’s staging of West Side Story

Starting in spring 2017, Arenzana rigorously rehearsed West Side Story with her performers. “We have been rehearsing for a month-and-a-half,” she said. “Our technical rehearsals are in July. We started auditioning a month-and-a-half before rehearsals with multiple choreographers. We have an orchestra conducted by Henry Ramos with 20-25 orchestra members. We also have a musical director, vocal coaches and assistants for the dancing. We practiced Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, initially. Then, I added more days–Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. When you see these performers working so hard and their eyes twinkling—they are singing, dancing, acting—that’s my reward. It’s really nice.”

As she is the artistic director of the entire company, Arenzana has had to hire and coordinate all staff, volunteers, and oversee every aspect of the production. The producer, who also owns NorCal Academy, arranges scholarships for the students. For West Side Story, Arenzana also serves as production designer. “I can save money by me doing the design – sets, props,” she said. “We have a costume designer who is doing the beautiful dresses and costumes for everyone.”

From Leilani Amour Arenzana's staging of West Side Story
From Leilani Amour Arenzana’s staging of West Side Story

To study West Side Story during the inception of the 60th anniversary, Arenzana went back to the DVD of the 1961 film. “It’s classic–it never fades,” she said. “It will be here forever. When we first read through the book, the kids were surprised. Some of the kids were crying. Later on, they discovered the ending, and they were even more attached to it.”

Working with the Leonard Bernstein Estate, Arenzana received the book to the show, which came in script form, plus full descriptions of the characters and tips on the costumes. “They provided us with the books, the score for the music, my own book for the director, and a book for the orchestra,” she noted. “There’s everything we need to deliver a good show. It took us almost two months to get the license for it; they are very strict on who they give the license to. For a small production, it’s big.”

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