West Side Story. Picture: SUPPLIED
West Side Story. Picture: SUPPLIED

West Side Story is a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but in a contemporary American gangland setting. Why does this story still connect across centuries, contexts and cultures?

The musical is about outsiders trying to find a way back in. They [Tony and Maria, played by Lynelle Kenned] are outsiders in a country, America, that claims to accept them, but doesn’t necessarily. I think everyone can relate to that, be it the diaspora, migrants or refugees.

You have ticked a lot of boxes in terms of playing male leads in big-name musicals - The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Grease, Sunset Boulevard, Jesus Christ Superstar ... Are there any roles remaining on your bucket list?

The role of Tony was never on my bucket list — I never considered myself a Tony because, traditionally, Tony is a light tenor, of slight build with boyish looks. I’m a high baritone, tall and built like a rugby player. But along came the role. I turned it down twice before director Matthew Wild persuaded me that I could find a way in. But [the role of Jean Valjean in] Les Misérables is still top of my bucket list of roles, and so are Henry Higgins [in My Fair Lady] and Fagin [in Oliver!].

West Side Story is taking Jo’burg by storm, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is coming later in the year. What other big-name musicals would you like to see staged in SA?

I think Matilda would do wonderfully well here, considering that Roald Dahl is a universally loved writer. We also have wonderful child talent, as shown by last year’s production of Annie. But mainly, I would love to play [Matilda’s villainous headmistress] Miss Trunchbull!

During #FeesMustFall last year, it was suggested free university funding should not be made available for “soft” skills such as the arts and drama. What are your thoughts?

I work a lot with young people from the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra and drama colleges, as well as dance schools, and the common denominator is that those from disadvantaged backgrounds thrive more and gain a sense of empowerment, excitement and discovery from the arts. The arts used to be considered elitist, but wherever I do a class the response is best from those from poorer families. Being able to dance, sing or act is a way for them to express themselves. Those [negating the value of the arts] haven’t experienced it that yet.

Which do you prefer —– beautiful, tragic endings or smiley, happy endings?

You’re speaking to someone who was shot in Jesus Christ Superstar, [had his throat] slit in Sweeney Todd and disappeared in Phantom ... To be fair, happy endings do have a place. But I think our social culture has changed —– TV is so gritty and real at the moment, challenging you with the truth. That morbidity becomes strangely addictive. In West Side Story, the tragedy at the end is a catharsis, a release valve for the audience. So for me, it’s sad endings all the way —– if it they serves a purpose.

What’s your greatest indulgence?

KFC after an opening night. In fact, I had a Zinger last night [after the Johannesburg opening of West Side Story].

* West Side Story is on at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein until March 5

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