In Style + Design

West Side Story Takes The Stage On Stunning Sydney Harbour

This year, for the first time ever, Opera Australia will present a musical for its annual Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour event. With the city skyscape and the Opera House as its backdrop, West Side Story will take to the famous overwater stage.

Making the performance even more magical is the fact it was choreographed and co-directed by Julio Monge, who worked with the musical’s original choreographer and director, the late Jerome Robbins.

“The work I did with him was a piece called Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” says Monge. “It was a celebration of his most important theatrical works [including West Side Story]. It was a great thing, and I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

“And so, I learnt this material from him, and that makes me one of the few people who have the foundation to send this out and teach it.”



Monge learnt the snapping of the fingers move from the musical’s original choreographer, the late Jerome Robbins. Credit: Rhiannon Hopley

One move in particular Monge learnt from Robbins is the snapping of the fingers – when the leader of the Jets explains to the rest of the gang that if they show their vulnerability, they’ll lose the game. Instead, they needed to keep their cool.

“Robbins was very particular at expressing emotions and ideas on stage, and he explained to us the root of this move was him observing a gentleman on the street snapping madly – he seemed to be out of sorts – and Robbins thought that that nervous energy was very interesting and so he used it.


Robbins was very particular at expressing emotions and ideas on stage, says Monge. Credit: Prudence Upton

“You’re not just snapping your fingers to keep time, you’re actually expressing an emotion, a state of being, an anxiety, and trying to control your energy. And so, a movement becomes an action, and that makes it very interesting to watch.”

New York-based Monge flew to Australia to work with the performers for five weeks, six days a week. The first four weeks of rehearsals were held at Sydney Olympic Park.

“We couldn’t find enough space to rehearse that could match the actual space,” he says. “It was great, but it was really funny because we were in the middle of nowhere in Olympic Park surrounded by gymnastics kids and weightlifters.”

West Side Story’s set was created by award-winning designer Brian Thompson and includes three custom-built subway cars. Credit: Hamilton Lund

The actual performance space is an angled stage with a New York City-styled set created by award-winning designer Brian Thompson. It includes a highway overpass that weighs roughly ten tonnes and soars 15 metres above the stage, and three custom-built subway cars.

Mid-show fireworks and a real-life cop car complete the set experience. Monge calls the final result “very cinematic”.

“The fact that it’s on the water with the beautiful view of the Opera House and the Harbour and the city – it’s phenomenal and I think West Side Story is the perfect piece there.” 

West Side Story is running from March 22 through April 21, 2019.

(Lead images: West Side Story at Handa Opera / Hamilton Lund & Prudence Upton)

Published 22 March, 2019