When we sit down to talk to Jenna Burns via phone it is 8.30 am in New York, where she is just finishing up a break from the international tour of West Side Story. Rehearsing from mid-October and then performing in cities across Europe, Jenna admits she sometimes struggles to remember where exactly the cast have visited or even what day of the week it is. Having never been to Dubai before, she’s excited to see a country very different to what the tour has experienced so far and she’s particularly interested in trading in New York’s freezing winter for the U.A.E’s milder climate. We got chatting about the challenges of performing such a famous show, getting inside the mind of a sixteen-year-old girl and the relevance of the musical’s central message…
What’s your day-to-day schedule like when working on the show?
When we’re doing a full week of shows, which is eight shows a week, we perform through Tuesday to Sunday with a matinee on Saturday and Sunday. So we try to be good about resting during the day if we can. We all try to take care of ourselves physically so a lot of that includes sleeping in and going to the gym and relaxing before the show. But also we’re travelling to amazing places and we want to be able to see and take in the new city that we’re in – we try to find a balance between the two.
You mention going to the gym - is it physically demanding doing the shows every night?
The dancers have been dancing so much in New York but there’s something to be said about when they come into rehearsals and our choreographer Joey hits them really hard with all this choreography and pushes them really hard. So the rehearsal process really helps you build up a stamina and endurance. Doing the show once is no big deal, the dancers will dance the numbers and they’ll be fine but in rehearsals you’re doing it over and over, you’re drilling it, so by the time they reach the performances they’re really ready. They’re still huffing and puffing when they come off but the rehearsal beforehand gets you in shape for it and ready to go.
It’s different for everyone though because I probably have the least physical show aside from the older men characters in the play. For me I have to really make sure I’m working out outside of the show because I’m not getting a workout during it!
So far you’ve been to cities in Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy and Austria - is it challenging switching venues all the time?
Each time we get to a new venue we’ll have a sound check and staging rehearsals where the crew has built our set onto the stage. Then we have small rehearsals where we’ll work through some of the dance numbers and the trickier stuff in terms of entrances and exits because every theatre and opera house is built differently. For example, in terms of the backstage space, there are certain numbers where the guys in particular have to run round backstage to get to the other side of the stage really quickly, so they’ve got to figure out where there have room and where they need to be careful and watch out or they’ll have a collision with someone.
This time when we go to Dubai we’ll have taken a three week vacation, so we’ll have more rehearsals than we normally would. We haven’t taken this long of a break ever, so we need to make sure we’re right where we left off. But other than that we typically just have a couple of hours before we do the first show to just pace it out.
How do you keep it fresh each night when you’ve rehearsed the show so many times that it’s like clockwork?
That’s definitely something that I’m figuring out as I go, because this is the longest run of a show that I’ve ever done this is unchartered territory for me. I already have little things I do to help keep things fresh, things I explore and play with, just to keep the performance exciting and discover more layers. It’s been interesting for me that sometimes it comes in waves when I’ve been having to actively think about new things and then other times it’s happening automatically and I don’t have to try too hard to keep it new. Everybody’s different and they all have different tactics to achieve that.
How did you get into acting?
I started in musical theatre when I was really young. I’ve been singing forever but I started doing musicals when I was eight and continued until I graduated high school, doing about three shows a year. I decided pretty late though to pursue it as a career. From the age of five until fifteen I wanted to be a Kindergarten teacher! So I didn’t decide until a year before I graduated that I wanted to continue to pursue it and then I ended up going to college to do musical theatre in Nashville, Tennessee, and studied there for four years before moving to New York.
Considering the core themes of the show are about the ‘American dream’ and the new lives that immigrants try to build for themselves, do recent events in the U.S give those ideas greater resonance?
Absolutely. The show in general is just as relevant now - if not more relevant - than when it first opened on Broadway in 1957. Unfortunately it will probably always be significant because we’ll always have disagreements which each other. There will always be people that are different to us who we don’t understand and it’s tempting to turn that into fear and hatred and violence but that’s one of the great things about this show. It’s trying to teach people not necessarily to look past those differences because they’re what make us all unique and what makes our world interesting, but to embrace those differences and to look at the person for who they are.
We’ve been given a really neat opportunity to be doing this show right now. It’s been interesting for us to experience post-election reactions from Europe, seeing what non-Americans think of our current situation, and we’ve gotten a really wide range of responses. I think we have a great opportunity as Americans telling this story to people that are trying to interpret what’s going on over there in the U.S and who are confused about events. Hopefully we have an opportunity to shine some light into that darkness and confusion.
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
One of my favourite moments to perform is the song ‘I Feel Pretty’ at the beginning of Act Two. I like it because I just get to have fun and be silly with the other girls on stage. Maria is happy for most of Act One but it’s a different kind of joy that she lets out with her friends in that moment. I feel it shows Maria’s youthfulness and that her excitement about life has completely changed after she’s met Tony. It’s just very fun to do each night, running around with the other girls and playing with props. It’s nice to have as a balance to the more serious parts.
How similar are you to your character Maria?
There are some things that are very similar, but Maria is sixteen and I’m not anymore so I have to work to get back into what it felt like when you first have feelings for a boy - that feeling of ‘Oh my gosh, when they’re nearby I feel a certain way’ - when it’s all new. It’s been a while since I had those first experiences but all I really have to do is tap back into my younger self.
One thing I would say is that I wish I was more like Maria. She is so excited about life that when she gets an opportunity in front of her, like when she meets Tony, she’s able to just jump in and her heart is completely in it all the way. I think I’ve changed as I’ve gotten older but I’ve always tended to be more rational and someone who thinks things through. So sometimes I wish that I just jumped in more and that’s something I definitely think I could learn from her.
It’s been awesome getting to work on this show as this is my second time playing Maria – I did it last year with the same director, choreographer and music director – so it’s a very similar production and I discovered that I had missed playing her.
Musical theatre of this scale is fairly new to the UAE, do you think that will affect the audience’s experience?
As we’ve only been in Europe so far the audiences have generally been exposed to musical theatre before so I’m especially looking forward to come to Dubai where that is not the norm. I think there’s something about the American musicals that everybody loves when they encounter it for the first time. I’m really happy that this might be some people’s first real experience with an American musical because I think it is the perfect one – the story is so relevant, the music is brilliant, the dancing is amazing and it’s just a fantastic show.
I’m hoping people will be able to see how powerful musical theatre can be to communicate a story in a way that operas or perhaps straight plays lack. Using spoken word, music and dance all together reaches a different level of storytelling that penetrates hearts deeper and really effects people, sometimes more than just one of those art forms can alone. I’m definitely excited about the prospect that this is something the people of Dubai may not have experienced very much. It makes me feel honoured to tell this story.
West Side Story is running at Dubai Opera from the 14th of February to the 18th. For more information visit www.dubaiopera.com