Stephen Casey Takes a Step in Time
Recreating Jerome Robbins’ Choreography for West Side Story

By Lisa Higgins

The futility of intolerance.

All the dance, all the music, and all the words that make West Side Story the singular achievement it is, for Jerome Robbins—who conceived, then choreographed and directed the show—the central theme is simply “the futility of intolerance.”

Perhaps this fundamental idea propelled the geniuses who created West Side Story to produce some of their greatest work. “I don’t know what was in the back of their minds, these guys were so career-driven—but nobody thought (West Side Story) was going to be a hit,” Gerald Freedman, Robbins’ assistant director, told Robbins’ biographer. “They weren’t working for a hit. They knew this was some strange animal, so that they could pour themselves into it, and it was only about excellence.”

In gestation during the early 1950s when “Broadway was still tied in many ways to the old leggs-and-laffs tradition,” West Side Story was shaped in part by Robbins’ emergence from the world of classical ballet, paired with composer Leonard Bernstein’s enormous talents in classical music.

“Robbins was of both worlds—prolific in classical ballet and Broadway,” says Stephen Casey, who returns to PSF to recreate Robbins’ original choreography. “He merged book, music, character, and score, and made them seamless.

“In West Side Story, the opening scene begins with a dance. Robbins loved movement that came from simple actions, like walking, strolling, running, and more technical movement evolved from those actions to tell a story,” Casey says.

“In the prologue, you see Jets on a street. Their walk becomes a snap, a snap becomes a glide, and the glide becomes the iconic ‘sailing step’ of the Jets. Then in the background, you see the angle of the Sharks’ elbows, and before anyone opens their mouth to speak or sing, the story is told through movement and dance.

“You have to maintain Robbins’ staging and choreography because it’s so integral to the story.” The dancing in West Side Story exceeds the dancing in any other musical PSF has produced by light years. Similar to the way Les Misérables was the most challenging singing production PSF has ever produced, West Side Story is the most challenging dancing show, Casey says. “Restaging someone else’s choreography is a huge responsibility,” he says. “You have an obligation to do it right. You’re passing on a legacy.

“Dancers have to know why they’re doing what they’re doing: it can’t just be about the steps.

“With Robbins’ choreography, it’s not just the steps, it’s how they move together and how they weave together. It’s highly physical and athletic and very complicated in its design.”

And that’s not all, Casey says: “The choreography is very challenging musically and the dancers must understand the score completely. It’s not 5, 6, 7, 8: the meter changes constantly, the accents change constantly.”

Casey, who created the choreography and some of the musical staging for Les Miz last season as well as for PSF’s Oklahoma!A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and 1776, previously had the challenge of recreating Robbins’ choreography for PSF’s 2014 production of Fiddler on the Roof—all productions that were directed by Dennis Razze, associate artistic director.

“I have worked with Stephen on so many shows now,” says Razze, “it’s like we are an extension of each other. Stephen is a fantastic choreographer—he works fast, can recall every step, every count by heart, and is terrifically clear about what he wants from an actor or a dancer.” Razze continues, “Stephen has made it his business to study every aspect of Robbins’ choreography for this show and not only knows the movement but what each movement communicates about the story or the characters. He’s absolutely brilliant.”

The depth and range of Casey’s knowledge about Robbins and his work reflects Casey’s own artistry in addition to honoring Robbins. “Robbins went from American ballet to musical theatre to film. He did it all. How can you do all that in one lifetime?

“What do you say to genius?”

Robbins’ vast collection of work tells many stories. And in West Side Story, his brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Robbins’ choreography indeed reveals the futility of intolerance.