If you pause the film West Side Story at the end of the prologue, you can spot a 12-year-old boy peering through the fence at the brawling Sharks and Jets. This young New Yorker would grow up to be playwright Matthew Lopez’s father.
“It still gives me goose bumps every time I watch it,” Lopez says, recounting how his grandmother took her children to try out as West Side Story extras.
Lopez’s play Somewhere, titled after the Leonard Bernstein musical’s wistful love theme, gets a new production (with heavily revised script) at TheatreWorks in Silicon Valley, running through Feb. 10. Director Giovanna Sardelli and choreographer Greg Graham stay with the show from its 2011 premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe. Like that production, the revised Somewhere features someone else Lopez’s grandmother brought to the movie set—his aunt, Tony-winner Priscilla Lopez. She plays Inez, matriarch of the Candelaria family—all of whom, you might say, have spent their lives peering through the fence at showbiz.
The play opens in 1959 New York. Alejandro Candelaria, who once danced on Broadway, now works as a grocery clerk. His brother and sister dream of stardom, while his mother ushers for musicals and ignores Alejandro’s warnings that the family must move to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center.
“I often find myself writing about characters who are in many ways defined by their homes,” Lopez comments. In his popular Civil War play The Whipping Man (set for a dozen new stagings between now and April), that home is a war-wracked manse. In Somewhere it’s a beloved apartment slated for demolition in the name of civic enrichment. A resident of Brooklyn (when not in L.A. writing for TV’s “The Newsroom”), Lopez had a front-row seat for the changes wrought in his own neighborhood by the behemoth new Barclays Center. Still, the hot-button topic of gentrification found its way into Somewhere “by accident or, at least, on an unconscious level,” Lopez says.
“I wanted to write about people fighting to make their dreams in a city (as embodied by Robert Moses) that is indifferent to those dreams,” Lopez adds. “No one could say that the presence of Lincoln Center has not been an absolute good for the city and, by extension, the nation. The play simply asks, ‘What did it cost?’”
Ultimately, Somewhere is a tribute to the playwright’s inherited enthusiasm for musicals, embodied in all of its characters, and especially Alejandro. The least starry-eyed of his clan, Alejandro is, all the same, deeply in love with the theatre. In a climactic scene, he shows he still carries that torch by breaking into a virtuosic Jerome Robbins–inspired number. “I was way too invested in him as a character to care what an utter nightmare I had created for myself casting the role,” Lopez quips. (At TheatreWorks, dancer Michael Rosen was enlisted to play the part.) “As I wrote, Alejandro refused to stay in place. He forced his way into the center of the play.”
Go here for a more in-depth Q&A with Lopez.