Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of West Side Story shines a light on the artistic and social relevance of Arthur Laurents work. The apex of art is to portray the spectrum of a society while making a statement in a way that lasts generations. The music of Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, coupled with Laurent’s mid last century reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet created a production whose creativity has endured alongside the struggles of America (and other parts of the world) itself. The story is relevant regardless of location. No character in the story is quite as memorable as that of Maria; the songs about her are perhaps the most iconic of all. Perhaps the centerpiece of both love and conflict in the story, playing the role of Maria requires an immensely talented and versatile actress. Initially meant for the live stage, Maria has been inhabited by many an accomplished actresses. Canada’s Citadel Theatre won awards for its production of this iconic musical, as did the actress who portrayed Maria, Eva Tavares. Her experience as this character reinforces the artistic and cultural contributions it offers.
Maria is one of the most iconic of all roles for a female lead. A fountain of love and strength in turbulent times, she’s been portrayed by such legendary names as Carol Lawrence (in the original 1957 Broadway production), Natalie Wood (in the 1961 film), and many others. Eva Tavares finds the lineage of great actresses who preceded her to be freeing rather than restricting. She felt that the best possible way to pay respect to the character and other actresses was to draw upon her own unique life experiences. She relates, “I love Maria. She is gutsy, smart, and vulnerable. My biggest lesson with her was to find my strength. Bob Baker at the Citadel directed me in this production and that was the one thing he kept reinforcing. At that point in my life, I had issues embracing my inner anger and power. Actors are often taught to be people pleasers rather than speaking out. He knew I had it in me and knew how to bring it out.” The strategy obviously worked, as evidenced by the production’s Sterling award for Outstanding Production of a Musical and Eva’s recognition as a soloist.
As with all great artists, delivering a truly magnificent performance requires finding something of yourself in a character or song. The same fire that drove Tavares in her formative years to spend twenty hours a week dancing and participating in multiple choirs also exists in the passionate Maria. The once protected sister evolves into a woman who demands change from two groups who had thus far been incapable of it. Experiencing the story night after night taught Eva a great deal about conflict in real life. The actress relates, “The gangs in WSS are protecting what they deem to be theirs. As immigrants, they are both outsiders. The Jets were also immigrants at one time and the conflict they have with the Sharks really boils down to ownership; safety and love. Neither group is inherently bad or wrong. They are just trying to do what’s best for their chosen family, even if their actions are misguided. The result is clearly meaningless bloodshed and heartbreak. We see examples of this throughout our global community. This story gives me empathy for all involved and the hope that mediated conflict resolution can be reached in all circumstances.”
For the past two years, Eva Tavares has toured in the central role of Christine of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.” It’s yet another legendary role which has exacerbated the attention this Canadian actress/singer/dancer has received. While she’s overjoyed about the opportunities she’s had in these roles, she admits, “My next dream challenge would be to originate a role. Hopefully it would be something that would utilize all my training in all areas to its fullest. There is something terrifying and magical about creating a role; you are not only traveling the path with this character, you are trailblazing. You get to have ownership on a new level as you are actively creating a person alongside the writers and creators. It is exhilarating.”