Spotlight: All’s fair in love and gang fights - Riff and Bernardo’s take on West Side Story

By now it is no secret that we absolutely loved West Side Story (our #SceneIt doesn’t lie), but there is so much more to this epic love story than just our doomed star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria.


The turf war between the two rival gangs brings as much passion, suspense and drama to the classic tale, so we grabbed the opportunity to get the inside musical insight from the two amazing dancing gang leaders Stephen Jubber (SJ) as Riff of The Jets and Chris Jaftha (CJ) as Bernardo of the Sharks with both sets of jazz hands.


They say all is fair in love and war, so we asked the fellas for their take on this iconic musical love story:


The gang dance fight scenes were originally inspired by the 1950s gang violence in New York. Dance usually has a joyful connotation to it. Does gang dance feel different, powerful or violent to you in comparison?


SJ: There's a testosterone fuel to the dance world of West Side Story that I think the guys enjoy. Violence and art sit on a knife edge in this show.     

CJ: Dance is usually used to tell a story. So it would feel as different as interpreting a different story, every story is different and interpreted in a way that would best tell the tale.


Being the leader of a gang is not always a likeable role. Yet in West Side Story people to some degree seem to either be ‘Team Jets’ or ‘Team Sharks’. Why do you think such rivalry appeals to an audience?


SJ: We'll always look for characteristics we see in ourselves. With the Sharks, it's the struggle for acceptance in a foreign world that fears and despises us; for the Jets, it's the disillusionment with the world forced onto us. Two sides of the same coin really. But there's always a joy to watching these two worlds collide and tear each other apart. It's hard not to pick a side in such a titanic struggle. 

CJ: I think it depends on who relates to which characters within the gangs rather than identifying with a gang itself.


In West Side Story you are one of the gang leaders, even if a musical one, that is quite an intense role. Is there any aspect of your character that you can relate to?


SJ: This Riff guy. I admire his style. He's busted some heads, earned his stripes and he's so secure in his leadership role that the Jets can go on a rampage and yet a stern word will snap them back into choirboys. I can't relate to that kind of power in the slightest. But it's pretty rad.  


CJ: My character fights for honour and equality and then gets caught up in his ego and loses a bit of perspective. I would like to think that I relate to my character's honourability.

If you could give your character any advice as to how to act or respond differently, what would that advice be?


SJ: I wouldn't tell my character how to act. This guy’s more ballsy than I could ever be. That demands some respect. Even if it spells self-destruction.               


CJ: Don't go to far... but then that would change the story.         

If you could speak to Tony and Maria as yourself (not your character) what would your advice be for the star-crossed lovers?


SJ: Get out. Don't even pack. Just go. This freight train is going one way and you've got to jump it if you want to survive.                

CJ: I would tell them both to come to the rumble with Anita and try and diffuse the situation.    

West Side Story is a musical that has stood the test of time, with people still flocking to see it even without it being ‘modernised’. Why do you think it remains relevant?


SJ: People still fall in love, right? Under adverse circumstances, right? It was relevant when Billy Shakespeare penned it; it was relevant when the creative forces behind West Side Story revisited it. It will be relevant a hundred years from now and beyond. 

CJ: It deals with everyday reality and issues like love, tragedy, race, inequality...there is something in it that everyone can relate to. Plus the music is stunning, the choreography just as great and the acting superb.


Do you prefer performing in a musical to performing in a drama or comedy or even screen acting? What about your chosen field appeals most to you?


SJ: Can't beat taking a curtain call and hearing a crowd swell as you bow. Film and television stars, do you know what that even feels like? Stage is my first love, and musical theatre is pretty rewarding. Get to do it all: a dramatic scene that morphs into song that morphs into a killer dance routine. I wish I could do it all year round. 


CJ: I love make believe regardless of the genre and regardless of whether it is stage TV or film. I just enjoy telling great stories and living vicariously through someone else's life. That being said, film is my first choice.


What about West Side Story appeals to you personally?


SJ: The scoring is pretty complex. I'm so happy to be working on a piece that tests even the professional musos in the orchestra pit. There's so much going on. And it's a real treat to work with such great stuff going on under you.  


CJ: The realism of it all.

Tell us about the casting and rehearsal process. How did you prepare to step into the leadership shoes of your character?


SJ: They guy I brought to the auditions a year prior was the guy I brought to the rehearsals. It's a testimony to the strength of the script. It's all there. Just give the words life and your job is done. 

CJ: The casting process began a long time ago, and some of us had accepted our roles very close to a year ago. It was a fun process. Rehearsals was tough as it was a constant creative process with the risk being great but the reward high and we certainly have been rewarded with a gem of a show, everyone has worked so hard to create a really lovely piece of theatre that will certainly go down in the history books.


Which of your fellow cast members do you look up to and why?


SJ: Jon (Tony) is every bit an industry leader. When he speaks, I listen. But nobody in this cast is a turkey. Everyone is proficient and has wisdom to share. Best to take note. 

CJ: I believe that you can learn something from anyone- this is how I grow.


If you could play any other role in West Side Story, which role would it be and why?


SJ: Action was the role I set my sights on. But in the final analysis, there's no role I'd rather have than my own. Gift of a role. Cool songs, cool moves. Cool...


CJ: I wouldn't want to play any other role. Too many big shoes to fill.

If you could steal a set prop, which one would it be?


SJ: There's a classic car on this show, isn't there? 


CJ: The basketball and hoop.

More than sixty years after its inception, West Side Story remains relevant for its portrayal of and spotlight on the unnecessary carnage and heartbreak that inevitably follows gang wars.  A concept that is particularly relatable to Capetonians. Given the gang pressure our youth face growing up with the idea that that form of belonging is the ultimate cool, it was truly inspirational to hear that Chris Jafta supports the programmes that attempt to keep these youngsters off the street and away from the threats experienced by Bernardo and Riff too: 


“I think anyone who is involved with projects such as these should be given a huge pat on the back and more funding to help ensure they have what's necessary to help transform lives and provide other options rather than gangsterism.” 


Along with this insight we pushed our luck a little further and also got him to tell us how a closely knit, very talented cast, with strong personalities, get along and avoid tension and conflict, to which he insightfully revealed that “respect and love is the name of the game... be slow to speak, slow to get angry and quick to forgive... easier said than done, but a good principle to live by”.      


Keen to see Riff and Bernardo face off in all of their talented muscular glory in the mega-musical West Side Story? Don’t miss the thrilling action in this MUST-SEE show which runs at the Artscape Theatre until Sunday 23 August, 2015. Tickets are available, from R95 to R400, at Computicket.    



Please reload

© Loots Digital (Pty) Ltd 2019