THERE’S a distinct air of excitement as Will Tuckett arrives for our interview. He and his designer have just been checking out Hall One of The Sage Gateshead, where they’ll be staging a fresh take on old favourite West Side Story in the summer, and talking about its possibilities has made him a few minutes late.
So the dancer and choreographer is full of apologies – and enthusiasm for the coming challenge which will see Hall One conjure up the vibe of 50s New York for a bold retelling of the Bernstein classic.
“We’ll be able to give it quite a bold and different look, made specifically for the stage here,” he tells me. “We’re not going to make the Sage into something it’s not but really use the building for how fantastic it is acoustically and its distinctive look.”
This marks the first of many visits to come for the award-winning Tuckett as the production, a joint venture involving the Sage and the Royal Shakespeare Company, takes shape.
With amateur performers set to share the stage with professionals in the tale based on Shakespeare’s doomed lovers Romeo and Juliet, the first stage of local auditions has already taken place, and more will follow this month so there’s still time to apply.
When the musical opens in July, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival celebrations, audiences can expect a grand affair.
Tuckett and designer Michael Vale already had quite specific ideas on how they want the show to look and seeing Hall One and its wide stage for the first time is giving them food for thought on how to progress their original plan.
“You have a few ideas then you come and see the space and that develops things,” says Vale.
West Side Story sits in a very particular time and place, explains Tuckett, with restrictions imposed by the West Side Story estate. So West End shows and tours have that same 50s look, with the familiar New York set and costumes.
But as this is to be a one-off run in one venue, the team didn’t have to tick all those boxes and, because it can’t resemble the original stage show, Tuckett, who’s also directing, is excited about a freedom that will see them effectively go back to basics – the fabulous choreography and score – and start from scratch, giving it, he says, “a kick into today”.
With the aim of making audiences feel they are seeing and hearing West Side Story for the first time, he’s going all-out to ensure it packs a punch. From what the pair have told me, it’ll do that in look alone.
They’ve had in mind the original poster designs, with iconic lettering and fire escape, by graphic designer and filmmaker Saul Bass (who also did those poster and film title sequences featuring racing, disjointed or block text for movies such as Hitchcock’s Psycho) as well as Frank Miller’s Sin City: the black and white neo- noir style crime thriller based on graphic novels which picks out details in comic book colour.
“One of the things we’re looking at is taking a lot of inspiration from the graphic design of that period,” says Tuckett.
And expect bold, big sound – courtesy of a live Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Gateshead- born John Wilson – a limited colour palette and use of AV graphics for the street-savvy New Yorkers’ Sharks and Jets world: its look being of a period but connecting with young people by also managing to be something else entirely.
“The music is so great, we want to create a powerful style for it,” explains Tuckett. “Ballsy, punchy and muscular” is what he’s looking for, with dancing doing much of the talking.
And his Tony and Maria will finally get to dance. In the midst of the characters’ innocent blossoming romance, he thinks the moment cries out for it. “Tony and Maria don’t dance at all in the film – we want them to!” he insists.
It’s to have a young cast and Tuckett has come up with new choreography to give it a fresh energy: “It’ll be more about and of young people now. We’ll be really freshening it up.”
He already has a Tony in mind for the show but, with other roles up for grabs, he’s looking forward to the next round of the selection process. Already 250 local applicants of all standards have been whittled down to 50 at auditions in Dance City.
Having a cast mix of both professional and amateurs is down to the RSC’s Open Stages initiative and, says Tuckett: “It’ll be really exciting. It’s got to sound great and it’s got to look great. That’s one of the challenges of it.”
He’s keen that the cast have as good a time as anyone. Tuckett has an enormous amount of experience both on and off stage.
He’s Royal Ballet School-trained – he was a member there from 1990 to 2005 and still dances for the company as a principal guest artist – as well as being a choreographer and director, having also worked for the Opera House, made TV films, and created more than 20 ballets for the Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells and Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Does this latter career give him something that dancing didn’t?
“They’re very different roles,” he answers. “I’ve been doing this for such a long time now and I really enjoy having the whole picture.”
Taking a seat in the audience as a director, instead of being on stage, can be terrifying, he says. But the pleasure, the end result, is seeing everyone have a good time.
“We want them to come out having had a fantastic, exciting time and we want the cast to have a fantastic experience making it.”
:: West Side Story will run at The Sage Gateshead from July 4-7. For tickets, visit www.thesagegateshead.org or call 0191 443 4661.