Within weeks of the announcement that Opera Australia will be presenting a new production of Leonard Bernstein’s iconic West Side Story as its Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour in March 2019, the company has announced that another different production (this one indoors) will come to Sydney and Melbourne next year.
Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment announced today that the BB Group production of the 1957 musical, which reimagines Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the streets of Manhattan, will be at Arts Centre Melbourne in April and the Sydney Opera House in August 2019.
West Side Story. Photo © Nilz Boehme & Johan Persson
The indoor production, directed by Joey McKneely, will essentially be the same production that toured Australia in 2010, when it starred Julie Lea Goodwin as Maria (she will play Maria in next year’s HOSH production) and Josh Piterman as Tony.
“West Side Story is one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre ever written, which is evidenced by its continuing success around the world. And to have two sensational productions in Australia in 2019 continuing the Leonard Bernstein anniversary celebrations is terrific. It was an opportunity that we just couldn’t pass up,” said Opera Australia Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini. “We are thrilled to bring fans of musical theatre this newly announced magnificent production by Joey McKneely and on top of that, we will also have a brand new production of West Side Story created for our outdoor Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour stage by some of the best designers in the business. We really saw this as delivering the best of both worlds for everyone involved.”
While Melbourne audiences will only get one West Side Story in 2019, staging two productions of the same musical in Sydney is an unusual move that may split audiences between the indoor and outdoor productions.
The two productions will be completely different, with different casts, and the indoor McKneely production is part of an international tour that will see it go to Germany and China between the Sydney and Melbourne runs.
Audition submissions for McKneely’s West Side Story are now open, with auditions commencing in August. The HOSH production has already attracted criticism for its casting of a white singer in the role of Maria, who is Puerto Rican. A petition has been started, calling on OA to reconsider its casting choice. “Whilst we acknowledge Opera Australia’s contribution to the performing arts and applaud its commitment to providing Australians with work, we cannot quietly sit back and watch a racist tradition continue,” the petition on Change.org reads. Controversies over casting aren’t new for the musical, which depicts a rivalry between two gangs , the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white Jets. This year’s BBC Proms saw Sierra Boggess withdraw from a concert version of West Side Story following accusations of “white washing”.
“Please remember what this story is about and the importance it has in not only sharing a fundamental message on racial relations but also its role in elevating Latinx talent,” the Australian petition says. “Our country prides itself on its multiculturalism and we should celebrate it in the art we share and create.”