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Director of BYU–Hawaii’s ‘West Side Story’ wants to present a message of unity to bring students together

A cast member of BYU–Hawaii's "West Side Story" holds on to a stage prop while singing.

As BYUH prepares to put on a production of “West Side Story,” the director, along with cast members, discussed how they want to use the diversity of BYUH to show a new side to a classic story.

When taking a closer look at “West Side Story,” Aaron Densley said, it is a tragic story. “When you really look at ‘West Side Story,’ they’re all Americans … That’s why it’s so tragic. Because these people are fighting and killing each other when they’re all the same.”

Densley, the director of BYUH’s production of the musical, said his hope for this production of the iconic musical is for audiences to see how the United States is no longer white and brown or black anymore. Instead, he said he wants the audience to see the United States as a collection of different cultures and ethnicities.

He shared he wants audience members to watch the musical and say, “Why are you guys fighting? You’re all the same. Stop it.”

Ralph Juntilla Mallapre, a sophomore from the Philippines majoring in music, plays Tony, one of the male leads in the musical. In “West Side Story,” Tony is a member of the gang called the Jets. In the film adaptation of the musical, the Jets are a gang of white New Yorkers who clash with the Puerto Rican population and the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks.

Mallapre said he had never heard of “West Side Story” before the school announced they would be staging a production of the musical. After watching the movie, Mallapre said he was captivated by the music and the story behind the musical.

“When I cast Ralph as Tony, I told him ‘... If you want to play this role, you have to know what it’s like to be an American. Do your research, and really look into it,” said Densley.

Mallapre said learning New York culture is one of the hardest parts of the acting process. He added although it is a challenge, it is one he welcomes and is ready for.

He recalled an experience he recently had in rehearsal when Densley had explained to him how to best portray his character’s emotions. “He taught me how to act out my song and to be natural.” He said Densley told him to act like himself. The best way to portray his character’s love is to envision how he [Mallapre] would act if he were in love.

Although Nalani Matthias, a sophomore from New Jersey majoring in music, is from the United States, she still has had to adjust to her character. Matthias plays Maria, a Puerto Rican who is a member of the rival gang to the Jets, the Sharks. Maria and Tony are in love with each other, setting up a Romeo and Juliet dynamic in this musical.

Matthias said she has always had an interest in this musical. After seeing a professional production of it over the summer, she shared she has wanted to have a chance to play Maria.

Matthias said it has been a challenge to portray this character who is very different from her. Although it is a challenge, her goal is “to learn as much as I can … Every show I do, I learn more and become a better actress.”

The biggest reason for BYUH doing this production is to show the students racial conflicts don’t need to happen, explained Matthias. In this production the gangs are both racially mixed, so it is not white versus brown. She said it shows differences are good, and people can all learn from each other.

Densley said, “This is one of the most diverse campuses in the United States. You just look at the [Flag Circle] that represents the world.” He said when he and his wife were interviewing for their jobs at BYUH, they were given a mandate from President John Tanner. He told them to make the stage and the audience more diverse like the Flag Circle represents. Densley said he saw this musical as an opportunity to fulfill this mandate.

Diverse actors bring unique challenges

Because of the diverse student body and limited number of Puerto Rican and Latin American students, Densley said he had to go a different route.

Densley described how he believes he has cast the musical in a way that keeps the heart of the story intact, while also providing actors a chance to develop their craft.

When there are no other options, he said, people need to change the casting to suit the capabilities of the actors at hand. Through research, scholarly materials, and reading interviews from and talking to Puerto Rican Americans, the actors learn more about the culture.

He shared as actors dive into their character’s culture, they gain more and more pieces of the puzzle, which makes up their experience. “You’re never going to get the full picture, but you can get enough of the essence that you can tell the story from your perspective,” Densley said.