By Katie Fraser

When it comes to theater, the idea of “difference” has been widely explored.

Whether it’s accepting them, learning to deal with them or loving despite them, it is an ever present theme across the art form.

For their next show the Ordway is presenting “West Side Story,” a tale of two teenagers from opposite sides of town that fall in love.

If this sounds familiar, and it should, it’s because this musical was inspired by the most classic story of difference of all time – “Romeo and Juliet.”

Paired with the music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurent’s adaptation has helped the 400-year-old story of star-crossed lovers live on.

Tyler Michaels, a Twin Cities native who received the Emerging Artist award at the 2014 Ivey Awards, is performing in his first Ordway show as the lead – Tony.

Michaels took some time to speak about the musical and why he believes it has stood the test of time.

Many fans of theater in the Twin Cities are most likely familiar with your name as you’ve been quite active within the local musical theater scene over the last few years. Of all the roles you’ve played, what makes Tony particularly challenging?

Michaels: It’s definitely the music. While I’ve had a ton of experience singing in many other shows, “West Side Story” is like opera. It takes an immense amount of effort and technique to be able to fit the music into your body and voice. It’s very different from most of the musical theater styles that I dabble in. Its style is part of what makes the show so amazing and timeless.

It must be exciting to get to play a role that is different from what you are used to performing! Tell me, aside from challenging yourself, what is your favorite thing about playing Tony?

Michaels: I think it is the epic-ness of the story. It’s so moving, poetic and truthful. Everything about the story has a purpose and a drive. The same goes for the songs. They have this amazing complexity that gives the show a real heartbeat. I live for those moments where you feel the pulse of the music in your bones. It happens like every five seconds in “West Side!”

Speaking of the music, what is your favorite song in the show?

Michaels: It’s got to be “Cool.” The Jets are just stunning in the number, almost viciously so. It’s truly incredible. Bob and Diane (our director and choreographer) have created something pretty darn amazing in that number, and the performers put their blood, sweat and tears into it. It really shows.

That sounds like quite a showstopper. I’m sure audiences are eager to see it! Oftentimes, complex shows such as “West Side Story” have a cast of really wonderful characters. So much so, it can be hard to want to play just one! If you were to play a character other than Tony, who would you choose?

Michaels: It would have to be Riff. He’s the coolest Jet in the musical. And he gets to do the rumble fight/ballet. I would love to do that!

That does sound like a lot of fun! I bet Tyler John Logan has some fun with it. So, this show shares themes with many other plays, such as “Romeo & Juliet,” why do you think that themes of falling in love despite differences are so prolific in theater, musical or otherwise?

Michaels: I think it’s because that theme is so relatable. Everyone experiences love, everyone experiences difference, and everyone experiences heartbreak. It taps into our humanity.

To you, what makes “West Side Story” resonate across generations?

Michaels: I think you sort of hit it on the head in the above question – this idea of “difference.” You would think a story about gangs in 1950’s New York would feel dated, but it doesn’t at all. It is so timely. Especially with everything that is going on in our country, let alone the world, be it politically, culturally or racially. The problems we are having right now are the same problems that this show hits on. It’s quite amazing, and it’s been that way for nearly 60 years.

It is truly amazing when a work of art can touch on something so human that its impact lasts generations. So, what do you hope audiences come away from the show feeling?

Michaels: I do hope people walk away wondering about how the show connects to our lives today. They might ask: ‘How can we live together in a world with so much difference? How can I reach out to others I disagree with? How can we change to communicate with others?’ Mostly, I hope they walk away with a feeling of hope.

West Side Story” opens Tuesday and runs through April 16. Tickets cost $29 to $129.50. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts online.


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