Jewish actor shines in West Side Story

Rubin Matters plays Diesel in West Side Story, and recently starred in The Wizard of Oz as a member of the ensemble.

In the first musical to be performed on Sydney’s harbour stage, Jewish actor Rubin Matters stars as Diesel, second-in-command of the Jets gang in West Side Story. Sophie Deutsch spoke to him in advance of the premiere.

ON Manhattan’s West Side, love and hate manifest in their most extreme forms.

Caught in the crossfire between two warring gangs, young American teenager Tony from the Jets, and Maria of Puerto Rican heritage in the Sharks declare their undying love for one another, but for the racially-ridden rivalry to end, their love suffers the ultimate sacrifice.

On top of racial tensions, the fight over land is another key, sometimes overlooked, aspect underpinning the narrative in the classic musical West Side Story, which is being staged by Opera Australia at Mrs Macquarie’s Point from March 22 to April 21.

An explosion of fireworks emanated across Sydney Harbour for Opera Australia’s production of Carmen in 2017. Audiences can look forward to a similar display every night of West Side Story. Photo: Hamilton Lund

“As the show progresses, you realise that this is really a turf war,” says Rubin Matters, whose character, Diesel, is second-in-command of the Jets.

His gang is pitted in a bitter feud against the newly arrived immigrants from Puerto Rico.

“I think we all know how it ends, but it kind of raises the question, what was it all for? And what are we going to do about it?” remarks Matters. “It was actually more about the Jets living in one particular area and the Puerto Ricans have their own area, and then there was this spot in the middle of it and that’s the spot they are fighting over.” 

Curiously, the plot of land the Jets and the Sharks duel over is owned by the government, rendering their dispute entirely futile.

“Through all of this, no matter what happened, it was never going to be one of theirs anyway, which adds more fuel to that question of why, and what’s it all for?” Matters says.

From a young age, both gangs have been indoctrinated to hate the other, allowing deep-seated emotions to fester that often overpower logic.

“It got me thinking about humankind worldwide and what we are like as humans in any given situation and how we respond to that. The behaviour we are taught is so instilled in us that we don’t know any differently, we don’t question it,” comments Matters.

“I think it will resonate with a lot of people, not just the themes that you know from Romeo and Juliet, but as a reflection of society and a community and how we treat each other as humans.”

Their hatred may be race-based at first glance, but the so-called American youth are themselves second or third generation Polish immigrants. 

The two gangs may share more similarities than they care to admit, and were both once “newcomers” to the US. Reflecting on this aspect, Matters brings the musical home to his own family.

“Being immigrants from Poland, it’s very likely a lot of [the Jets] or their parents escaped the war, similar to my grandmother who escaped Poland to South Africa and then later immigrated to Australia.

“For me, family, heritage and the respect and knowledge of that definitely helps with a show like this,” he says.

In its original format, West Side Story would have borne an even stronger relevance for Matters’ family and Jewish families more broadly than many musical aficionados may realise.

The adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic love story initially centred around the blossoming romance between an Irish Catholic boy and a recently arrived Holocaust survivor in the gritty streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Taking place during the Passover–Easter season, the musical, appropriately titled East Side Story, was envisioned to be about a clash between Jews and Catholics.

Concerned the plot line was too similar to the popular comedy Abie’s Irish Rose, the creative team – comprising Broadway director, choreographer and producer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents – ended up opting for the romantic tragedy West Side Story that we now all know and love with hits such as Maria, America and Tonight.

The all-powerful themes of love, race, passion and hate will be amplified in a setting that itself exudes great wonder and passion.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour boasts a stage almost two and a half times larger than any indoor stage in Australia.

Taking a production of this scale to the outdoors carries its own set of unique challenges.

“The biggest challenge is probably bringing a Broadway show with all its iconic dancing outside, and onto a much larger scale compared to any other version of this that has been staged before. It’s probably, as far as I know, one of the biggest productions of this show,” Matters remarks.

“I think this interpretation along with the staging and location is going to give an experience that is totally new.”

But audiences can rest assured that the much-loved musical numbers will still take centre stage.

“You’re definitely going to get all the things you expect out of it, especially if you are a fan of the original show or the movie,” says Matters.

West Side Story is being staged at Mrs Macquarie’s Point from March 22 to April 21. Bookings: opera.org.au.

SOPHIE DEUTSCH