Music man Chan’s never ending ‘Story’

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Music director and composer Donald Chan… “We have tried to be faithful to the 1957 original with our young performers so this doesn’t look like a museum piece.”

WITH more than 300 performances of “West Side Story” under his belt and the number rising fast, maestro, music director, and composer Donald Chan is the most sought-after conductor for the show once described by “The Times” of London as “the number one greatest musical of all time”. 

Chan was headhunted by La Scala to conduct “West Side Story” in Milan during 2000 and 2003, he was the featured piano soloist with the San Jose Symphony for Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety” during the composer’s centenary celebrations, and now he is music supervisor and conductor for director Joey McKneely’s “West Side Story”, coming to Canberra Theatre as its blockbuster musical for 2019.

His standards are exacting. 

“As music supervisor, I oversee everything and make sure that all things musical conform correctly to what we need,” Chan says by phone from Sydney, where he is touring with the show.

As well as being well known in the world of musical theatre, having worked on more than 100 musicals and operettas and performed with stars such as Gene Kelly, Ethel Merman, Chita Rivera and Martha Graham. 

It was while studying at Juilliard that he attended seminars held by Bernstein. 

“It was exciting, he was very charming and open to a lot of things when he was teaching, it was a turning point for me,” he says.

“West Side Story”, too, was a turning point and Chan considers why.

“Most musicals from the 1950s had happy endings,” he says.

“But not in West Side Story… somebody dies, somebody gets raped, it has a lot of different dramatic qualities and it has a big signature ballet.

“I think it is a very iconic piece, an outstanding work recognised as something quite different from the norm and often played in concert halls as well as theatres.”

But to Chan, the most important thing is that the show, dreamt up and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, put together music, actors, singers and dancers who were young and who looked the part.

“West Side Story”… “Somebody dies, somebody gets raped, it has a lot of different dramatic qualities and it has a big signature ballet,” says Donald Chan. Photo: Jeff Busby

Something that sets “West Side Story” apart is the centrality of Robbins’ choreography. 

“It’s been a problem for us casting young people who are not just musicians or actors or dancers – it’s putting it all together that makes it work,” he says. 

Another factor, he believes, is that although it has a timeless story based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, it is also exceedingly timely. As Chan says: “It deals with racism, there are factions fighting each other, just like today, it’s very contemporary.”

“We try to put it on as it was then, but Bernstein, Laurents, Sondheim and Robbins were all geniuses, so all had their own idiosyncrasies.

“It took those kind of personalities to do what they needed to do.

“Our director Joey McKneely and I have tried to be faithful to the 1957 original with our young performers so this doesn’t look like a museum piece.”

“West Side Story”, Canberra Theatre, October 10-27. 

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