Jenna Burns and Keely Beirne may have a handful of differences—Burns is a lass from Kansas City while Beirne is a certified New Jersey girl; the former has been singing since she was a child while the latter has danced her way to adulthood—but their mutual love for theater and performing have brought them together around the world and now, to the Philippines. The theater stars are currently in the country playing the roles of Maria and Anita, respectively, in “West Side Story.”
Set in the ‘50s, West Side Story is a modern take on Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. It features star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony who came from warring gangs of the upper west side in New York. Their forbidden love affair stems from the fact that Maria is the sister of Bernardo—the leader of the Sharks, a gang comprised of Puerto Rican immigrants. Tony, on the other hand, is a former member of the opposing gang, the Jets or the so-called white gang.
Just before they take the stage for their first Philippine performance on Thursday, the lovely ladies sat down with The Sunday Times Magazine for this one-on-one interview, where they first shared their fondest memory of the iconic musical.
“I was first exposed to West Side Story through its music. My aunt gave a bunch of Broadway soundtrack and WSS was one of them. And then it came more to life when I saw it in the movie and on stage with all the dancing,” Burns recalled.
“As for me, I first saw it when my sister played Anita [Bernardo’s feisty girlfriend] in WSS when she was in high school. My sister’s a huge role model for me so I’ve always wanted to play Anita,” Beirne shared.
While both of them had early on set their eyes to play Maria and Anita, they did not realize their dreams right away.
For Beirne, taking on the role of Anita means having the maturity to evoke the right emotions, which she did not have the first time she auditioned.
“I felt I was too young to get the job three or four years ago, when I first auditioned. But I’ve had so much life experience since then that I could actually now connect with my character quite well, especially when it comes to love, breakup and death. I really took to heart what our director said before we hit the world tour, ‘You will become a woman playing this role.’ I’ve seen that happen to me which I think is really exciting, I feel that it’s an honor for me to play this role.”
As for Burns, who is playing Maria for two WSS productions now, her character is not much of a stretch from who she really is, “It is just tapping back into what I was like when I was her age, at 15 to 16 years old, and remember what it was really like to have a boy so close like that for the first time and all those feelings.”
Nevertheless both ladies admire how their characters portrayed femininity in the story, especially since it was set at a time when feminism was not as big as it is today.
“Maria starts out the show being treated like a child by everybody—she’s never been given any opportunities to make her own choices. She goes through such a journey that by the end, she became a woman exemplifying more strength, courage and perspective than anybody else, even men,” Burns shared admirably.
“I think it’s pretty incredible that this show is written in the ‘50s and Anita is a role that has such women empowerment: she owns a beauty shop so she has a higher economic status. Then, the power struggle between her and Bernardo is there but I think it’s a pretty even playing field, she’s not the housewife at home while husband is at work type. Those are pretty impressive but the personality, courage and confidence she brings is really inspiring and I can’t believe that it’s written at that decade,” Beirne evaluated.
In ending, both ladies believe that besides trumpeting empowered women in the play, WSS remains such a huge hit even after more than 60 years because of its universal message.
“Unfortunately, I feel like the story will always be relevant. That’s the beauty of our world, we are so diverse. But sometimes, this diversity also becomes a challenge especially when we are shoved to be with people who are different from us, people we don’t understand, and people who come in to our show can relate to that,” Burns finally suggested.
Beirne, meanwhile said, “Obviously, the racial tension is always the thing, but there’s such larger universal theme that every human can feel—love, sadness and hate, unfortunately.”
“But in the end, I hope the message [that they will get]is hate is such a horrible thing, it always ends in tragedy, but love conquers all. If only everyone could spread, share, give and receive love—cause those are all that we want,” Beirne ended.