A fictional encounter between West Side Story's Tony and William Shakespeare's Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet. Tony and Maria. Though their stories are separated by four hundred years, they are united in their timeless tale of love and the impetuous, idealistic passion of youth. The complete representations of universal emotions and moods has made Shakespeare's play a constant source of inspiration for both classical and contemporary composers. Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and Bernstein's "West Side Story " are parallel in their reflection of the passion, conflict, joy and tragedy of the lovers' tale. Romeo is Tony, Juliet is Maria.
The fusion of Tchaikovsky's and Bernstein's musical interpretations of Shakespeare's play is the basis of Blue Devils' 1998 show. The program, entitled "One Hand One Heart" is a musical and visual juxtaposition of the classical and the contemporary styles. The men of the guard portray the contemporary character of Tony, while the women portray the classical Juliet. The story of these two characters, divided by time, united by their timeless story, is told by the brass and percussion sections. Constantly shifting back and forth from the classical and contemporary musical compositions, at times playing both simultaneously, the Blue Devil's are excited to perform this unique and ambitious program, one that is sure to become a contemporary classic.
In "Romeo and Juliet," William Shakespeare caught the very essence of young love and glorified it as pure, innocent, and ultimately tragic. The story told of the desires of two youths who sought solace and comfort in the arms of each other. They yearned to be allowed to live in peace, embracing each other as part of their own being. However, family and community pressures attempted to break them apart in order to preserve the artificial social order. Ultimately, only in death where they allowed the peace they so desperately sought.
Shakespeare's masterful and vivid descriptions brought the two title characters to life in such a manner that all who read the bard's words experienced an overwhelming sense of personal loss, as if their own psyche was ripped away by the hatred and intolerance of societal norms. The "Romeo and Juliet" musical setting of Russian master composer Peter Tchaikovsky captured the pathos and drama of the story in some of the most beautiful-yet-searing ballet orchestral music ever written.
The centuries old morality tale by Shakespeare is untainted by the evolution of time. The soaring strains of the human spirit captured by Tchaikovsky's pen still have the ability to bring a tear to one's eye, remaining a staple in the repertoires of symphony orchestras world-wide.
While some perhaps were willing to suppose that the circumstances that pushed Romeo and Juliet to their deaths were products of a long ago environment and a far away society, Leonard Bernstein reminded us that some lessons have not been learned despite the passage of over four hundred years, and that the intolerance of centuries past is alive and well, right here in our home country.
"West Side Story" revolutionized the American musical theater. It did not come gently upon the Broadway scene. Rather, it descended with a crash, jolting theater goers and critics out of their secure slumber. Up until then, musicals were safe and sugar coated. Even if there was a faint underlying message, the joviality of the music, the sashaying of the dancing, and the politeness of the lyrics suggested that all was all right with the world.
"West Side Story" reminded us that all was not all right.
Updating Shakespeare's classic story and transporting it to the congested tenements of New York City, the musical provided a dose of reality that was disturbing yet captivating. Like watching an accident in slow motion, the viewer knew that they were about to witness the hopeful lives of the two lead characters turn to shambles. Yet, Bernstein's use of comedy and drama kept all glued to their seats, their eyes open in wide amazement.
Bernstein turned the American stage on its ear. Still rather young himself, he had the audacity to revisit Shakespeare's tale of young lovers and reshape it in the new and bold image of contemporary American society. It was if he had the courage or foolhardiness to try to rewrite a sacred text. Everyone knew one couldn't improve on a classic, so instead, he molded it into a tale that was compelling on its own merits.
Shakespeare's text had to wait for Tchaikovsky to come along substantially later in order to have music breathed down the nostrils of its poetic being. This Bernstein fellow was attempting to be a true Renaissance man, penning his own text and writing his own music to go with it. Certainly he had never heard of the concept of spreading oneself too thin.
Audiences laughed at the antics of the ghetto youth and they cried at the unrequited love that permeated every crevice of the musical. And at the end, as Tony lay dying, a victim of hatred and prejudice, all in the theater were shocked by the senseless action, perhaps meditating on the prejudice that existed in their own hearts.
The music of both Tchaikovsky and Bernstein lived on outside of the ballet and the theater, finding its way into productions as diverse as figure skating and drum corps. And now, bringing to life a concept that is as brash as it is unique, Blue Devils have compressed the time span of four hundred years between the two musical entities, blending and shaping the music and storylines into one coherent production.
Like time travelers descending from the heavens, ignoring the constraints of chronology that force mere mortals to live each day in a prescribed order, Juliet from "Romeo and Juliet" and Tony from "West Side Story" have discovered one another, and they each realize they are incomplete as humans without the other providing the other piece of their life puzzle.
United in the timeless tale of love and the impetuous, idealistic passion of youth, they sacrifice their own goals to wrap their destinies around that of each other. We get to glimpse the passion, conflict, joy and ultimate tragedy that unifies them with "One Hand, One Heart," the title of Blue Devils' remarkable 1998 production that goes where no Juliet or Tony has gone before.
With a love of pure and innocent as theirs, the mere restrictions of time and place aren't even an inconvenience. They live for the moment and for each other. What relevance is time when one's love is timeless?
Blue Devils fuse together the best of the Tchaikovsky and Bernstein scores, further uniting the visual styles of classical Shakespeare with contemporary American theater. One can't tell where one time period stops and the other starts because for a few fabulous minutes, the time periods run parallel, weaving around each other like the embrace of the two central characters.
The men of the guard portray the contemporary character of Tony; streetwise and brash. The women of the guard portray the classical character of Juliet; refined and demure. They have nothing in common except their eternal love for one another. No one can predict or control real love. It just happens despite any and all circumstances that try to prevent it. These two characters break down the barriers of time and prejudice to create their own world of time and being. And along the way, we surrender our own preconceptions of time as well.
The corps' stellar brass and mighty percussion are seamlessly involved in the story as well. It's their musical portrayal that is woven amidst the visual interpretation. It would be folly to suggest that either the music or the visual package is laid atop the other. One can't exist without the other. The music is as visually dynamic as the visual program is musically dynamic. The melodies of Tchaikovsky and Bernstein exist side-by-side as if they were originally written by one composer with this production in mind.
One knows what fate awaits Tony and Juliet, and yet one can't help but feel an elevation in one's spirit that these two souls found each other. They are better people for having experienced the love and compassionate embrace of the other. And we, too, are better for having witnessed this journey into the deepest reaches of the soul, proving to ourselves that it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
The universal timeless theme of conflict and love will surely touch the very foundation of your own soul.
"One Hand, One Heart." From Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Bernstein and Blue Devils...to you.