Interview: MaryJoanna Grisso Discusses Playing Maria in the National Tour of 'West Side Story'

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

“West Side Story,” which opened on Broadway in 1957, is widely considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. It also features one of musical theater’s most coveted roles in Maria, the love interest in the modern retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” MaryJoanna Grisso, in her second consecutive national tour in the role, will play Maria this weekend at the Fox Theatre, Friday, Jan. 3 through Sunday, Jan. 5.

MaryJoanna Grisso (center) as Maria in West Side Story. © Carol Rosegg Courtesy Fox Theatre

MaryJoanna Grisso (center) as Maria in West Side Story. © Carol Rosegg
Courtesy Fox Theatre

Leonard Bernstein’s sweeping score, Arthur Laurents’ book, the unmistakable Jerome Robbins choreography, and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim in what was his Broadway debut come together in a perfect storm of musical theater par excellence. Local audiences will see the 2009 version, re-imagined by Laurents to add an authenticity that theatrical convention didn’t allow in the late 1950s, like the inclusion of some Spanish dialogue and singing. Grisso calls the new version “gritty” and “truthful.”

ALIVE spoke with Grisso about the role of Maria, how she keeps up with the demands of touring and combating evil.

ALIVE: What’s the most challenging thing about playing Maria?

MaryJoanna Grisso: I’ve learned so many new things and I’ve realized so many other challenges, but I guess the hardest thing to do for Maria is the honesty you have to bring to the character. She’s presented with evil and she decides to respond with violence initially, like any human being would. She overcomes it and decides the only way to combat evil is to respond with goodness. And of course it’s a huge vocal role.

ALIVE: What’s your favorite song to perform in the show?

Grisso: This is such a hard question. It’s between two songs. “Tonight,” the balcony scene. I love doing that with Tony. It’s such a beautiful iconic song and very romantic. I love that, and I love “A Boy Like That,” the song with Anita. Michelle Alves is playing Anita and she’s fantastic.

ALIVE: You’re doing the 2009 version, so “A Boy Like That” is sung in Spanish?

Grisso: Exactly. You know, it’s not fully in Spanish. Parts of it are but it’s more in English. Only about 10 percent Spanish (language) has been added to this show, which is great, because it adds a level of authenticity. These individuals are from Puerto Rico so that’s the language they would be speaking. It adds a little spice to the play.

ALIVE: It will be interesting comparing this new version to the original.

Grisso: When people come they’re going to enjoy the revival. It’s the classic story that everyone loves, with classic songs that they’re familiar with, but this version is a little more honest, a little more gritty, a little more harsh, and so truthful about how love has to survive in a world of bigotry, violence and hatred. It’s relevant to different people and to different ages.

ALIVE: You’re about two months into an eight-month tour. How are you holding up?

Grisso: Good. It’s nice to have had a breather and to recharge for the holidays. You have to pay attention to your health, and I have to make sure my voice is healthy. Get lots of rest, lots of water, do a lot of vocal stretching, warming up and warming down, and it’s the same for dance—warm-ups and stretching and all that. It’s about keeping healthy and strong.

ALIVE: Maria is an iconic role in an iconic musical. Has landing this part affected your career?

Grisso: Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, I was in school, graduated in 2011, moved to the city and I was auditioning as much as possible. I would get little things here and there but I just did not find the right show or the right role. Then I was fortunate to do a show in Nashville that took me out of the city for a little bit, and when I returned to the city, I said, “You know what? I’m going to audition non-stop. I’m going to quit my day job and I’m going to give it one month.” At the end of that month, “West Side Story” came up. I auditioned and got it. It pushed me into the real performing world with touring and such. A lot of performers will tell you if you can tour you can pretty much do anything. You travel from city to city and you do eight shows a week. You have to keep going. I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many wonderful people who are teaching and guiding us. Working with them at this age and at the start of my career has just been an incredible experience.

ALIVE: What actresses to you admire?

Grisso: Of people who are on Broadway, I love Kelli O’Hara. I love Audra McDonald. I love some of the classic older actresses. Audrey Hepburn has always been an icon for me. Meryl Streep is one of my favorites. There are so many talented people out there you can always learn something when you watch other people perform.

ALIVE: What are your plans after the tour is over?

Grisso: Right now I’m just focusing on the play. Who knows what will come, but that’s what’s on the horizon for right now. I’m pouring all my energy into “West Side Story.”

“West Side Story” plays at the Fox Theatre Friday, Jan. 3 through Sunday, Jan. 5. For tickets and information, visit the Fox Theatre website.

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