This month, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater is staging one of the most iconic musicals of all time, West Side Story, in its largest theater. And director Mark Clements has tasked Broadway veteran Jon Rua – who served as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s understudy in the original production of Hamilton – with creating all the choreography for the show.
We caught up with Rua shortly after he flew to Milwaukee to begin rehearsing with the West Side Story cast.
What has the West Side Story rehearsal process been like so far?
It’s been inspiring, challenging.
The Rep has been awesome to work with. They’ve cast a lot of great talent and many people who have that triple or quadruple threat background.
Is it hard to find a new way to present material that so many people are already familiar with?
Yes and no. My artistic strength isn’t in traditional, classical ballet, so I knew that I wasn’t going to do what they originally did. I had to think of a new way to tell the story … I knew that I understood the characters and had an idea and a vision of what I wanted to depict. I just had to figure out how to achieve it.
Most musicals don’t have big parts for dancers anymore. West Side Story does. So it’s been exciting.
Did you come into rehearsals with a set idea of what the choreography should look like already in place?
I’d say that I came in with about 80% of the dance “vocabulary” that I wanted to use already, but none of the staging. It’s like a chef coming into the kitchen with all the ingredients he needs to make dinner. But he still needs to do the cooking. Nothing is premade.
Are you classically trained? Or did you take a different approach?
I danced in high school, but not seriously. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know dance studios even existed. I didn’t take my first dance class until I was 20 and a student at Rutgers – a teacher there introduced me to the underground dance world in New York City.
Hip-hop and funk were my foundation. But I also did musical theater recreationally. So I wasn’t afraid of tap or ballet.
You’re not just a choreographer. You’re also an actor and a singer and a dancer. Do you identify with any one of those roles more than the others?
I identify mainly as an actor and choreographer because so much stems from them. Being an actor allows me to sing and dance. Being a choreographer allows me to direct. So a lot of creativity can come from those two roles. And I guess you could say that I also identify more generally as a creator.
Tell me about your role in Hamilton. You were in the original cast, right?
I was a featured ensemble member. I was at the first reading at Lincoln Center. And I’d been working with Lin and those guys for years before that too [Rua was cast in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway hit, In the Heights].
I was told I was going to be Charles Lee and Lin’s cover. I had to go on once at the last minute – I was basically just thrown on stage. That was the first time anyone saw the show without Lin or Javier [Javier Muñoz was designated Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original alternate]
What was that experience like?
It was amazing. It was like being gladiator and taking a lion down. I felt like I was living the role every time I went on, like I was always doing it for the first time. And in a way I was, because I never got to rehearse with the full cast.
I remember the first time I went on, I stepped out, and it was dead silent. Usually there’d be a huge round of applause for Lin or Javier. But the audience was just silent.
You had to prove yourself?
Well, I knew I could do it. But I had to convince the audience.
Later, I got an email from someone who lived across the country who was saying they spent thousands of dollars on the show and were initially so mad that Lin didn’t go on, but that they wouldn’t have had it any other way, because they ended up loving the show.
The thing that was beautiful about Hamilton is that so many people who’d never seen a Broadway show before, or musical theater before, came to see it. And I want that to happen with West Side Story too. You can innovate any show. You just have to do it in a way that isn’t fake.
Anything else you’d like to add about West Side Story?
Spread the word. I want to encourage anyone and everyone to come see it. Sure, it’s a story you know. But you haven’t seen it like this before. You’re going to see it with a young cast, with a believable cast who understand the heart and meaning of a real West Side story.
West Side Story runs from Sept. 17-Oct. 27 at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.