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The Family Drama Behind 'West Side Story'-Inspired 'Somewhere' At Hartford Stage

Matthew Lopez Writes Play For Tony-Winning Aunt Priscilla Lopez

By FRANK RIZZO, frizzo@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

April 6, 2014

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Playwright Matthew Lopez knows the exact moment he got the theater bug — and he's got the picture to prove it.

A faded snapshot from 1980 shows a nearly 4-year-old boy in the Broadway dressing room of his aunt, actress Priscilla Lopez who was starring in "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine." His eyes are wide and wondrous as she puts on her makeup and transforms herself for the matinee show for her Tony Award-winning performance.

Click! Destiny set.

"The course of my life was set on that trip and on that particular day," says Lopez, 37, the writer of "The Whipping Man" and other plays. "From that day forward, there was nothing else I wanted to do but work in the theater. Look at that picture. I'm like the junkie with his first fix."

That was the second stage show he ever saw. His first happened the day before when he saw Sandy Duncan in "Peter Pan," performing choreography by Jerome Robbins, a figure whose work would have a profound effect of members of his family.

Robbins also directed and choreographed the musical and film of "West Side Story," which has a connection to Lopez's family as well as his new play, "Somewhere." (The title comes from "West Side Story"'s classic song of yearning that begins, "There's a place for us/Somewhere a place for us.")

The family drama — with original music and dance — was previously produced in California but Lopez says this version "is a great leap forward for the play." It began previews  at Hartford Stage April 3, opens April 9 and runs through May 4.

The production also stars his aunt, who was nominated for a Tony Award for the original 1975 production of "A Chorus Line." (She sang "Nothing," and the iconic "What I Did for Love"). She won a Tony a few years later for "Hollywood/Ukraine.")

Family Drama

"Somewhere" centers on a struggling Puerto Rican family in 1959 living on West 65th Street, a neighborhood at the time of blacks and Hispanics. The apartment buildings were eventually torn down to make way to build Lincoln Center, which was part of city planner Robert Moses' transformative vision — for good and ill — for New York.

When Lopez's fictional Candelaria family receives an eviction notice to leave their rented apartment in 30 days, tensions arise between a defiant, hope-filled mother and her practical-minded son who has given up on his dream of becoming a dancer in order to help the family.

"[The mother on the play, Inez] wants so much for her children," says Priscilla Lopez during a joint luncheon interview with her nephew at Dish during a recent break in rehearsals."She tries to keep things afloat, and no matter what is happening it's all good. I've always said [the character is like] my mother but my daughter says it's me."

"I always knew that the play would be a battle of wills between dreams and reality" says the playwright," and the attempt to make those two things co-exist. Because dreams without reality is delusion and reality without dreams is too depressing to even contemplate."

'West Side Story' Locale

Before the West Side neighborhood was completely decimated, Robbins used the area to shoot the film version of "West Side Story." If you look quick you might see Lopez' aunt and father in the film. Matthew Lopez's father, Frank and Aunt Priscilla — she was 12 years old at the time — were extras in the film.

"My father is in the movie," says the playwright, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, both teachers "He is very visible in the playground prologue when they're beating up Baby John and you see this 14-year-old boy running up to this break in the fence, watching the action, in the center in the movie frame."

The film "West Side Story" was special, too, for Matthew Lopez not only because his father is in it and that it is a great musical but because it was the first time he saw Puerto Ricans depicted in any popular entertainment, even though George Chakiris was Greek [heritage] and Natalie Wood was Russian [heritage].

"But these were Puerto Rican characters on screen and that's all that mattered. That meant a lot to me being raised in a part of the country [the Panhandle of Florida] where we were the only Puerto Rican family.

Through being an extra in the film, Priscilla Lopez became friends with the dancers and learned about the New York Performing Arts High School that she later attended, and which changed her life.

"I remember my mother asking me what if I didn't get into that school and I said 'Then I'm not going to school. I'll go out into the world — and I meant it. My mother wanted this for me, too, mind you. She made clothes for people in order to give me [singing] lessons. But she also said, 'Maybe you should study typing so you have something to fall back on.' And I said 'I don't want something to fall back on. It's like I gave myself no other choice."

She did get into the famous institution that would later be known as the "Fame" school, based on the popular 1980s film. Just out of school, she was cast in a series of musical flops —- "Breakfast at Tiffanys," "Henry Sweet Henry," "Her First Roman" — before landing understudy and replacement roles in "Company" and "Pippin." But it was "A Chorus Line" — her character was based on transcripts of her own story which director Michael Bennett gathered from dance "gypsies" — that placed her into the spotlight.

Working Together

"I had my aunt in my mind for the role of the mother," says Matthew Lopez. "I sure as hell wasn't going to give anyone else that part. It was also a great excuse to look for a way to write something for her. Everyone should, really."

"It's been a joy to do," says Priscilla Lopez, whose credits also include Broadway's "Anna in the Tropics" and "In the Heights" and a long list of film and TV roles. "We have been further developing and changing the play [since its premiere] and it's rewarding to feel you're part of the process of its creation."

"Just short of royalties," her nephew jokes.

"Working with him is so easy," she says. "We have our moments but he is the writer and I like to honor everyone's position of what they do."

"When we are in the room together we are professionals," he says, "and I treat her no differently than I would anyone else and she treats me with the respect that she would with any other playwright and that's how it should be."

Aunt Priscilla continued, "It makes me really proud how articulate and smart he is and that I can witness it up close."

Her nephew added, "She is a wicked comedienne and one of the funniest women working in theater. She can cast a spell over an audience."

She certainly cast a spell over him when he was a boy.

"I don't think my parents knew what they were letting themselves into when they took me to see her in ["Hollywood/Ukraine"]."

From that moment on he saw his aunt " -- as a god," he interjects. Returning to Florida, he began performing in all sorts of shows. "My first time on stage was as Michael Darling in 'Peter Pan.' " He later went on to the University of South Florida at Tampa with a degree in theater performance. He went to New York in 2000 to pursue acting, only later to his place somewhere in the theater through writing. Hartford Stage will produce the world premiere of his newest play, "Reverberation," next year.

He says "The Whipping Man," "Somewhere" and ":reverberation" "are all about healing after some kind of upheaval, where home represents safety in a hostile world" and characters "attempt to build or maintain order in the face of chaos. All three plays are about how the world is dangerous place and how home acts as a safe place."

With the lunch and interview over, nephew and aunt start to make their way back to the safe place of the rehearsal hall.

But one more question: If seeing his aunt in "Hollywood/Ukraine" was Lopez' moment of theatrical destiny, what was hers?

"When I was eight I went to see the movie of 'The King and I' and it was magical," she says. "The Technicolor, and [Yul Brynner] is gorgeous and oh my god that purple satin dress and — well, just everything about it. Oh, I just wanted to be a part of that wonderful world.''

"Jerome Robbins," says Matthew, remembering who the choreographer for the movie.

"Oh my god. You're right. It was Robbins."

Click! Destiny set.

"SOMEWHERE'' is now in previews and opens Wednesday, April 9, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Evening performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. There are also 2 p.m. matinees on select Wednesdays and Saturdays. Information at 860-527-5151.

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