Globe-trotting, internationally renowned opera and theatre director Francesca Zambello is back in Chicago at Lyric Opera of Chicago directing the universally beloved musical West Side Story — still relevant some 66 years since its Broadway debut — and how very lucky we are to have her here. She partnered previously with Lyric on productions of Tristan und Isolde (1999), Porgy and Bess (2008 and 2015), Luisa Miller (2019), Showboat (2012) and Florencia en el Amazonas (2021) — so she is no stranger to the grand Lyric stage.
West Side Story is the latest in a series of Broadway musicals at Lyric — following last fall’s blockbuster production of Fiddler on the Roof — and these classics really seem to resonate with modern audiences. West Side Story continues in that vein with the timeless story of two lovers torn apart by circumstance, fear and prejudice.
In a heartfelt letter to her West Side Story cast, Zambello writes, “Leonard Bernstein scrawled ‘an out and out plea for racial tolerance’ across the first page of his copy of Romeo and Juliet. As we approach this piece once again, I hope we can make that plea reverberate in a new way. I look forward to us finding our own way forward.”
Better jumped at the opportunity to interview Francesca Zambello about her newest Lyric production, including her history with the piece and why she finds it so relevant.
Better: Your list of accomplishments is simply staggering. Was there a particular mentor or experience that really set you on your path to becoming the in-demand opera director that you are today?
Francesca Zambello: I did have several mentors, perhaps most notably the opera director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. I was an assistant of his for a number of years. Like with cooking, you’re a sous chef. I traveled around the world with him and learned a great deal. Also, my time at the Skylight Theatre in Milwaukee. I owe them a great debt … I had six years of experience there and got to stage so many shows.
I understand you have a number of local connections?
Zambello: My mother was an actress who grew up in Highland Park. My first internship in high school was a theatre in Fish Creek, Wisconsin … the Peninsula Players. And of course, I’ve worked often in Chicago, and my wife is here on business quite a lot. We do love Chicago.
West Side Story is such a Broadway classic, and it’s seen a real resurgence in the last few years, with Broadway revivals in 2009 and 2020, and the Spielberg film adaptation. What do you think makes it still relevant now, 66 years after it first premiered, when so many works of that period are so dated?
Zambello: The themes are very contemporary in terms of its story about two gangs — groups who believe they have the right to a certain territory. In broad terms, it’s what we’re going through now in this country. We are so divided. It’s the fear of the other — whether the difference is culture, gender, race or sexuality — and the creators of West Side Story couldn’t possibly have imagined it would be worse now. The other contemporary issue is gun violence. That’s what really caps the story. When Maria grabs the gun, it’s a charged moment … anyone can kill now so easily. They couldn’t have imagined that guns would be so prevalent. And it’s also a story about forbidden love, and a lot of relationships are still hidden.
Why is West Side Story an “essential” piece of theatre?
Zambello: There are three things: Leonard Bernstein’s music is revolutionary, and hearing it in this context with big cast and big orchestra on the Lyric stage is amazing. The choreography: Jerome Robbins created a language of movement that reflected the different groups on stage, and it’s revelatory in the tradition of other choreographic greats, like Agnes de Mille. The story: Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Arthur Laurents’ book still feel so contemporary. Sure, there’s a “daddio” here and there, but the story of hate and divisiveness with a forbidden love at its core — the Romeo and Juliet story — it’s still great drama. Timeless.
Have you made any substantive changes to the show in terms of omitting songs — Ivo Van Hove left out “I Feel Pretty” from the 2020 revival, which clocked in at well under two hours with no intermission — or dialogue — as Arthur Laurents did in the 2009 revival, with Spanish lyrics and dialogue replacing some of the original libretto?
Zambello: Here’s what I think: It’s written, we should do it and make it work within the context of the piece. These pieces are locked in time in a way, but as a director, you have to find a way to make them okay. There is no hard and fast rule. With operas, we do them as they’re written.
When was the first time you directed West Side Story?
Zambello: At the Skyline Theatre in the late ‘80s. We did a tour of Wisconsin, which included prisons, where Maria had to use her hand as a gun — the prop wasn’t allowed.
Is this the production similar to your 2004 staging at the Bregenz Festival — albeit without a floating stage?
Zambello: This is a totally different production than the one at Bregenz. The set of the Lyric production is more suggestive of New York in a more stylized way. When you have great work, you can keep reinventing it. Great works of art are always contemporary.
To reserve your tickets or find additional information for West Side Story — running June 2-25 — visit the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
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Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.