West Side Story

Cast member shares how the Phoenix Theatre’s latest production still resonates with audiences today

By Seth Reines, October 2018 Issue.

This year marked a worldwide Centennial celebration of the late great Leonard Bernstein. The Phoenix art scene feted the flamboyant composer/conductor/author/music lecturer/pianist with Arizona Opera’s Candide and Phoenix Symphony’s West Side Story in Concert.

Bernstein, one of the first American conductors to receive international acclaim, composed in a wide range of musical styles from symphonies to Broadway scores.

For more than six decades, Bernstein’s West Side Story, the musical retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, has reflected its times. The original 1957 Broadway production, which was created by Jerome Robbins (director/choreographer), Arthur Laurents (book) and Stephen Sondheim (lyricist in his Broadway debut), drew its inspiration from the gangs that ruled New York City’s upper West Side in the 1950s.

Edward Maldonado’s theatrical credits include iLLA: A Hip Hop Musical (Off-Broadway), Richie Valens in Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story (national tour), “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, Miss Industrial Northeast in Pageant (Arizona Broadway Theatre) and Judas in Godspell (Phoenix Theatre). Courtesy photo.

In 1961, West Side Story became a highly acclaimed film, winning 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Now, filmmaker Steven Spielberg has announced that he is remaking West Side Story for a new audience. The film, still a musical, will feature an edgier new script by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.)

In the meantime, Valley theatergoers can catch the show that’s become widely known as one of the most performed productions in American history at Phoenix Theatre through Oct. 14.

West Side Story is full of fire and passion. It’s violent, it’s sexual, it’s rife with tension just on the verge of explosion. Our production pushes all of those tensions to the surface in a way that’s incredibly relevant today,” stated director Michael Barnard via phoenixtheatre.com.

Arizona native Edward (Eddie) Maldonado stars as Bernardo, reprising the role he played in Phoenix Symphony’s West Side Story in Concert and Virginia Repertory Theatre’s highly acclaimed summer production.

Echo caught up with Maldonado ahead of the show’s Sept. 5 opening, and here’s what he had to say.

Echo: What makes Phoenix Theatre’s West Side Story unique?

Maldonado: Phoenix Theatre’s producing artistic director Michael Barnard and Broadway choreographer Patti Colombo have crafted a gritty and raw concept that highlights nuances and details you may not have recognized in other incarnations of the classic. The Valley of the Sun is a community built on diversity. To reflect that diversity on [Phoenix Theatre’s] stage, to dramatize injustices we are still facing today combined with passion, an epic love story, high quality dancing and brilliant scenic design
is riveting!

Echo: Why do you love playing Bernardo?

Maldonado: He is truly an extension of me … his passion, his values, his perspective on tradition and loyalty – it all resonates to who I am in real life. The social injustices and corruption, the unforgiving circumstances that Bernardo is navigating is unlike any story I had yet to tell until my time at Virginia Repertory Theatre this past summer.

Broadway’s Nathaniel Shaw [an ASU graduate] directed me to really delve into the heart and soul of Bernardo, face his challenges as my own. It was breathtaking and a game changer for me as an actor, singer [and] dancer. Bernardo isn’t the bad guy people want his character to be. He’s a family man, a young guy looking to protect his values and family, pursue the American dream in a place that is soiled with inequality and violence. Honestly, if I, as an actor, can capture that humanity and still make you smile and relate to his passion at times – root for and hate him, understand and challenge him – then that’s why I love playing the role.

Echo: Why is West Side Story so relevant today?

Maldonado: Gun Violence. Racial injustices. Social Inequality. Especially in Arizona, with the border issues, with DACA [and] our political leadership. You have foreigners fighting to belong to a place they think will be better, they dream will make life more tolerable, only to be greeted with hatred, corruption and, at times, violence. West Side Story is too relevant today.