West Side Story is a show for true triple threats.
Challenging the abilities of almost everyone involved, the ridiculously complex and intricate show has already dazzled Melbourne audiences, and is opening in Wellington, New Zealand this evening. The company then move to Germany, before returning to complete the final few stops of the Australian national tour.
The show is a true ensemble piece, with every performer in step. Although one extremely solid unit, the show wouldn’t be complete without its lead cast. Enter Chloé Zuel and Lyndon Watts, the fiercely talented duo playing Anita and Bernardo respectively.
Chloé completed her training at ED5 International, and has worked as a singer both nationally and internationally. She most recently appeared in the Australian premiere production of Beautiful: The Carol King Musical. Other Australian credits include Reno in Dusty (The Production Company), one of the Dynamites in Hairspray, Pilar in Legally Blonde, and Joanne in Rent (Hayes Theatre).
A graduate of WAAPA, Lyndon made his professional debut in the Australian national tour of Sweet Charity (Hayes Theatre). Some of Lyndon’s past credits include Anything Goes, Singin’ in the Rain, and Aladdin (cover for Jafar).
To say their time working on West Side Story has been lifechanging would be an understatement, but I’ll let them explain that…
Do you guys have any personal connection to West Side Story?
Lyndon: It’s my favourite musical! I’ve loved it since I was a kid. I’ve done it twice – amateur with school and again during training. It has a very special spot in my heart. A beautiful, beautiful show.
Chloé: He knows it inside out. It’s so helpful for me. Of course, I’ve always known West Side Story. It’s world famous. It’s amazing, and famous for a reason. But coming into the show and having Lyndon’s passion and knowledge is so amazing for me.
How does it feel to be working on a show that really pushes you as a performer?
Chloé: For me it’s a dream. You work really hard for such a long amount of time growing up. Sometimes you’ll do a show where you just sing, and that’s really challenging, but all you have to focus on is the singing. That can kinda be stressful, when you’e only focussing on one thing – it makes everything else more heightened. And other times, you might just dance or act, or whatever it is. So for me personally to be able to use all my skills and push myself to the absolute limit every day, it feels so rewarding and exciting. It feels like I’ve been working a really long time to get here. It’s a really nice challenge and privilege for me.
Lyndon: The role that Chloé does so well, Anita, is one that is kind of rare in music theatre. It’s truly triple threat. And it takes an absolute demon to be able to do all three disciplines so well, which Chloé does with such incredible skill and abandon. It’s a show that requires triple threats. A lot of modern shows, as Chloé said, ask for a certain niche. But this West Side Story production is full of triple threats.
Chloé: I mean, Lyndon’s a beautiful singer but he doesn’t get to sing in this. He doesn’t get his solo line. [both laugh]
The show is so technically complex – how did you find combining all the elements in rehearsal?
Lyndon: It was a holistic rehearsal period. Everything came at you at the same time – it wasn’t picking up the music and pairing it with the choreography. It was Joey’s ‘all or nothing.’
Chloé: All in!
Lyndon: You’ve got to do it all. And it’s the best way to do it because you don’t have to think about it later on like “okay, I’ve got the song, now I have to add in…” – it’s just all at the same time, you get a holistic view of the piece which is really important.
Chloé: We learned the choreography and at the same time [Joey] was like “And it’s this intention! And this intention! And don’t forget to shout this bit! And go and sing that song but make sure that while you’re singing you’re acting!” [To Lyndon] I don’t know about you, but in the first two weeks I don’t feel like I saw anyone, or said anything or did anything except West Side Story! I kind of pulled my head out from the sand about week three of rehearsals. I don’t know, now that we’re here it’s like “It was easy! It’s fine!”
Have you enjoyed learning and performing in an accent?
Chloé: I love it!
Lyndon: It’s so much fun. Accents have little rules, and once you learn the rules brain, you’re set. With the Australian accent, we have quite a monotone dialect. But Puerto Ricans are more up and down, it’s physical. It was an experience trying to adjust into character.
Chloé: That was difficult for me, I think I must stand and talk with no movements of my body or face – my singing teacher says that I don’t move half of my face half the time [laughs]. Anyway, that’s not what Puerto Ricans do. So I’ve had to learn to be more expressive with my face, and my body, and my hands, and my vocal tonality. But god, it’s so fun. And we end up accidentally talking to each other in accents backstage.
Do you have a favourite part or moment of the show?
Lyndon: I have several. But one of my favourite moments is in the “Somewhere” Ballet – there’s a section called “Pas de Six” and there’s a moment of choreography where six people hold their hands up, and they take each others hands and it’s just… stunning. And the musical moment is incredible. I cried every single time I watched it in rehearsal. Every single time.
Chloé: Mine is the prologue, which Lyndon’s in so he can’t watch it. It is my absolute favourite, and Sophie [who plays Maria] and I go out and watch it on the screen every day before we go on. That’s by far to me the best in the show.
Since you both mentioned bits you aren’t in… what about a favourite song that you’re a part of?
Lyndon: Mambo. One hundred percent, I love it. It’s the “Dance at the Gym”, the whole thing goes for 10 minutes or so, and it’s just highs and lows, so emotionally packed. And the music is, I think, some of the best in the show. It’s incredible.
Chloé: I love “Dance at the Gym” too, I mean… I was thinking about America, but it’s so hard that it’s hard to get past how hard it is [laughs]. So maybe “Dance at the Gym”… for now. I need to run on the treadmill a bit.
Lyndon: Maybe in a couple months in that’ll change!
West Side Story is known for its iconic choreography – how have you found the dancing?
Lyndon: Dance wasn’t my forte growing up, so it’s something I’ve hard to work very hard at later on in life.
Chloé: You would never guess!
Lyndon: This style is my favourite style to dance in. I think that’s one of the reasons West Side Story is my favourite show. It feels good in my body, to be able to give the leg and that line – that jazz Jerome Robbins choreography. I would hope to say it sits well in my body and it feels amazing to dance. It’s never a struggle, it’s just wanting to get it so precise and get all the finite details that Joey has cast on to us.
And you’re performing internationally over the next few months before returning to finish the Australian national tour?
Chloé: We’re so lucky, we get to go to Wellington and Germany. I’ve wanted to go to Germany for as long as I can remember. So not only do we get to go there, but we get to go with this show.
Lyndon: Doing what we love, it’s such a blessing.
Chloé: And then we get to go to the Opera House, which is amazing.
Lyndon: We play some incredible theatres. The best theatres.
West Side Story touches on some heavy topics including racism and immigration, which are things we’re still dealing with today. Do you think it’s important for people to see these reflected in theatre?
Lyndon: This show was incredibly controversial when it first came out, people didn’t think it would run longer than a month because it was so dark. It debuted on Broadway and people hadn’t seen anything like it – The Music Man was playing at the same time, which is a gorgeous, joyful piece. This hadn’t happened before, the things that happened on stage are very confronting.
Chloé: It’s political, but a nice reminder. A nice little wakeup call if you take it that way.
Lyndon: I was talking to one of the Shark boys, and he had a mate who’s not a theatre-goer at all. And he came along and saw the friends and family performance, loved it. He thought it was incredible, and can’t wait to come see more shows, if not this one again. I think it speaks for itself, it’s such a classic.