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Interview: West Side Story’s Tony and Maria – Ross Lekites and Evy Ortiz

One of the most prolific musicals in all of history got a new lease on life in 2009 when Arthur Laurents directed a revival version of West Side Story. This time around, with a little translation help from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show mixed in Spanish lyrics and dialogue to bring a new sense of authenticity to the characters. This new version ran for two years at the Palace Theatre selling over a million tickets before a final performance early this year. The tour started in October 2010 and has been going strong since. We got a chance to ask some questions with the shows two leads – Ross Lekites playing Tony and Evy Ortiz as Maria – to find out what it’s like stepping into play two of the most famous characters in all of musical theatre and what makes this show still so special today.

What was your first exposure to West Side Story? Did you watch the movie when you were younger, when did you first see the stage version? What do you remember about that first experience with it?

He Said: I think my first exposure to the show was the movie. I fell in love with the music, specifically “Maria” and “Tonight”. “Maria” has been a song that has always been around me in training and even to this day, it is still one of my favorites.

She Said: I was first exposed to it through the movie as well. I loved the movie and sang all the songs. When I was little I actually wanted to be Anita because she had all the fun dance numbers. But the character of Maria has been ingrained in me since college. It was my character study for my recital and its the role I was always told I should play. I didn’t see the stage version of the show until I watched this production, after I was hired to take over the role.

Did you connect with your character the first time you saw the show? If you had to bet, would you have seen yourself as your character or another one? Have you played the role previously (even in high school or a community theater, or in the shower)?

He Said: This is my first time with the role, and if I weren’t playing Tony I shouldn’t be near this show…you do not want to see me dance! If I could dance like the guys in our show I would love to play Action. His character is full of life and energy. But from day one I have connected with Tony, he is a dreamer and an optimist, and although I am not always that, I like to strive to be.

She Said: I love the Anita character because of her feistiness and she gets to dance all the show stoppers. But I always connected with Maria’s music, and I’ve found a Maria I can connect to in this production. She’s a dreamer as well but is also a realist when she needs to be.  I have to make the journey from a young naive girl with big dreams to a shattered woman every night in the show. I played the role once before in a regional production. That helped me because I had to jump into this production quickly.

Do you notice any differences between the guys and girls on tour, in the way they bond, the way they get homesick, how they deal with the tour lifestyle?

He Said: I think the guys rely on each other the same way the girls rely on each other. We all know what each other are going through and we help each other through it. We have become a family on tour and when one person hurts we all hurt for them. When people are this close for this amount of time we can almost sense when someone is going through something and just needs space or maybe just a hug.

She Said: Yeah, when you work this closely with people for a while you become a family. And you have to give support when homesickness kicks in. I also love the way the girls and guys all hang out and we’re not divided. Everyone has their own routines, like going to the gym or going on excursions. I blog about each city we visit just so that I don’t get locked in my hotel room and I’ll drag someone along for those excursions. We all have things that keep us feeling good on tour.

Have you toured through Denver before? Do you take any special precautions due to the altitude or the dryness here?

He Said: I toured through Denver last year with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and I fell in love with the city! I love the shopping, the food, and the amazing views. It is very dry here and the altitude can be a problem, but I try to just take care of myself and hydrate. I look forward to being here for three weeks and exploring more of this great city.

She Said: I have never toured through Denver before and I’m looking forward to exploring!  I bought a humidifier and lots of tea to stay hydrated.

What is your favorite moment to perform in the show? If a different one, what is your favorite moment to watch?

He Said: My favorite part of the show is during the “Tonight” quintet. Every actor and actress is singing together, Sharks singing in Spanish, Jets in English, and somehow we all blend together to make one of the most powerful numbers in the show.

She Said: I agree with Ross, that moment is magical. I’m standing on the balcony singing and can feel everyone else’s energy. We all are absorbed in our individual stories in that moment, singing about what we expect to happen. The audience loves it too. I also love the end of our first Balcony Scene. The music and lyrics are just so beautiful to sing.

West Side Story is more than 50 years old. What is it that makes this show current today? Do you think that the addition of the Spanish language helps that happen? What else in the show is still relatable to audiences in 2011?

He Said: I think the thing that keeps West Side Story current and relevant is the fact that racism is still a big part of our world, sadly. It is one of the biggest themes of the show and I think no matter the time, it is something that the audience connects with. I think what the addition of the Spanish does is it gives the Puerto Rican characters a greater sense of character, aiding in the reality of the show. I think love, and the battle to hold love together is something that anyone can,at one point in their life connect with.

She Said: Absolutely. And the Spanish allows the Puerto Rican characters to seem more authentic because they communicate how they would in real life. I’m Puerto Rican and in my family that’s the way we’ve always spoken, a mixture of English and Spanish. Most audiences appreciate this reworking of the show. It’s definitely grittier and more realistic.

West Side Story runs at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Center from now until January 1st, 2012. For tickets and more information, click the banner below.

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