One of the most popular musicals of all time, West Side Story, is heading back to Chicago for a one-week run. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, this story tells the tale of rival gangs the Polish Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. When love crosses territories, tragedy can't be far behind.
Leonard Bernstein created some unforgettable music for the show, including "Somewhere" and "America." West Side Story swept the Tony Awards back in 1957 before becoming a motion picture that won ten Academy Awards.
The show has had many revivals over the years and the latest touring version landed a great degree of success with Spanish updates to the script.
Starring as Chino, Juan Torres-Falcon is originally from Florida with a Cuban background and graduated from New York University. He has appeared in several musicals in the past such as Chorus Line and Rent but now rumbles into Chicago with West Side Story.
Windy City Times: Hello, Juan. Tell me about your background.
Juan Torres-Falcon: Well, I am Cuban and was raised in Miami. I have been living in New York eight years. I have been on the West Side Story first national tour since last year in September.
I lived in New York when I was studying at NYU. There is no other place to be for theater. I fell in love with the city so I stayed.
I have been there since 18 and I am turning 26 this year, which only you, God and I know.
WCT: So don't put that in the article?
Juan Torres-Falcon: Oh, please do. I was just looking for a good punchline!
WCT: Did you always want to be in theater?
Juan Torres-Falcon: Nope. My mom works in television so when I was a little kid I was always fascinated by acting, TV and movies. Once I found musical theater that sort of became it for me. I knew it was something that I was born to do. My mom especially loves musicals. We traveled to New York to see so many shows over the years so that was very inspirational. Since I was little I was an audience member that always wanted to be a part of it.
Sometimes I stand in the wings watching the show happening and still feel like the 10-year-old watching The Lion King. I watch the women doing "America" or the Jet men playing "Cool" with some of the most iconic choreographies and in of the most iconic musicals and I am instantly back there. Traveling all over the country with West Side Story is a dream come true.
For many of us this is a homecoming that is epic. When you grow up it is West Side, A Chorus Line, Oklahoma and Phantom of the Opera so this a big show that everyone wants to do. This is the highest expression and awesome!
WCT: You get to travel all over the place like Chicago, too.
Juan Torres-Falcon: I am every excited to come to Chicago because it may be my favorite city in the world, after New York. I worked in Milwaukee a lot at the Skylight Music Theatre so any chance we would get, all of the gays would hop over to Chicago and let our hair down in Boystown.
WCT: Describe your character, Chino.
Juan Torres-Falcon: I think he is very misunderstood. He's a shy guy and a hard worker. He's come to America to fulfill his American dream. He wants to come back and take his riches to Puerto Rico. He and Bernardo and most of the Shark men want to live it up here in NYC. All he wants is to make Bernardo happy.
To take that shy boy from a shy boy to a murderer is something interesting to go through every night. He is pushed to kill when these two gangs become unraveled and [is] not necessarily a bad person.
WCT: This is the version that uses a lot of Spanish, si?
Juan Torres-Falcon: Yes. Since 2009 they added Spanish to create a greater level of authenticity for the Sharks. It definitely does that. I think a lot of people are skeptical about the Spanish because it may deter from the storytelling but I think it actually enhances it. The writers did such a good job.
Lin-Mauel Miranda, who did In the Heights and this revamp, was just in Chicago last year doing Working. He is of Puerto Rican descent and worked very hard to have enough context with English being spoken in between to create a good level of Spanglish so that anyone can understand.
If it is your first time seeing West Side Story ,you still get all the meanings from someone who has seen it in the film and onstage. It goes on the same playing field. I think the Spanish really makes this play shine.
The Sharks not only have a cultural divide but they are not even able to completely understand each other with language sometimes. It creates a level of intensity and aggression. It adds an aggression that I don't think has been in West Side Story before. It keeps it fresh.
WCT: The last tour of West Side Story in Chicago had one of the [supporting] actors go on to be on Glee. Would that be something of interest to you?
Juan Torres-Falcon: If you know any agents, give them my name and number! I love the way that Glee connects musicals to younger audiences. I personally love musical theater. I feel very at home there. I am very passionate about performing live onstage.
With television shows like Glee and movies like Pitch Perfect, there is a renaissance with young people and their appreciation of musical theater, for sure. That Glee generation is coming to see West Side Story. They are reaching out to us on Twitter and Facebook. I don't know if that has ever happened in previous generations. It is so interesting that we get to connect on social media with audiences of cities that we haven't even been to yet.
WCT: What a great way to interact with your audience.
Juan Torres-Falcon: Last night a junior in high school from Peoria, Ill., reached out to us about it being his birthday and he was coming to see the show. We were able to get him backstage and celebrate.
When we were in L.A., students asked us through social media about audition pieces and where we went to school.
My little brother is 8 years old, and dancing and singing. Because of Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance?, it is acceptable for little boys to dance. That wasn't always okay.
I wish we had Glee when I was 16. It has made a place to belong for people in the arts and who love musical theater. It is now at the forefront of television and media.
WCT: People used to think musicals were dead or only for an older generation and now they are coming back.
Juan Torres-Falcon: West Side Story was first shown to the world in 1957 and we are still talking about it. Our production company doesn't have to do anything and it sells. It has incredible name recognition, not only with people that saw it in the 1960s or the 1980 revival but with young people. I have to blame, in a good way, Glee or Pitch Perfect for doing that. Shows like Wicked and Book of Mormon have created a younger fan base. They are the gateway drugs to the other iconic musicals!
Look for West Side Story at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., on June 11-16. Visit BroadwayinChicago.com for tickets and information.