Meet Jeff Lawless, who plays Riff!
What is your background in theater?
Although I’ve seen a couple musicals prior, (West Side being one of the few I remember as a kid), it wasn’t until freshman year of high school when I was really exposed to theatre. My older sister was a senior and she was assistant directing the school shows — and since she was my ride home after school, I was kind of forced into involvement. I actually started as a stagehand. However, I loved the theatre crowd and wanted to explore the theatre world that was so new to me. The following year, I started auditioning for shows inside and out of school, and sort of worked my way up toward fun and intriguing roles. The first show I ever did was a comedic play called “The Iliad, The Odyssey, and All of Greek Mythology in 99 Minutes or Less.” (It’s a mouthful)… However, my time working backstage has given me such an appreciation toward all the hard work that gets done behind-the-scenes.
How did you hear about the auditions for MPAC’s West Side Story?
I actually heard about this production through backstage.com. I was trying to find something to do over summer!
Why is this show and/or role important to you?
I was in a production of WSS in 2014 at my local community theater back in California. It was one of my first musicals, and an amazing experience! I actually played a shark in the ensemble believe it or not. Anyways the thing about WSS is that the Sharks as a whole are tremendously underrated. They don’t get all those cool, flashy numbers that the Jets have, and are often seen as the villains of the story. I feel that this sometimes sets up a sort of racist complex. The “all-white” Jets are seen as fun, loveable characters when compared to the “all-dark” Sharks who don’t get highlighted nearly as much. That’s why I think that it’s so significant that I’m only a half-white Riff. It makes the show feel more about immigration relations. It shows that the Jets and the Sharks are actually more similar than they think. The only thing separating them is time. The Jets’ parents were once in the Sharks’ shoes – immigrants to America. I mean, America was built on immigration. That’s why this show is so timeless… Especially today.
What do you and Riff have in common? How are you different?
Riff is an incredibly ambitious character. I love his spunk and attitude. I think he speaks to that little rebellious part of everyone. He knows when to joke around and when to be serious. But most importantly, he’s loyal to his Jets — who are really his family. Constantly, I’m feeling like a big brother in this show, which is fun because I actually am an older brother in real life. Being one of the older Jets, he is kind of like the balance between being an adult, and being a kid. Tony has moved on from his “boyish shenanigans,” but Riff wants to hold on to those pleasant past times, and that is super interesting to play with. Riff keeps his cool by being optimistic. I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily overly confident. He tries to make the most of every grim situation because he knows to keep moving forward. He cares about his Jets to the extent that he wouldn’t let them intervene at The Rumble, because he didn’t want any of them to get hurt at the hands of Bernardo. He ends up paying the ultimate price in doing so. A Jet til his “last dying day.”
What is your favorite scene or song in the show?
Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I think every scene is so great! But the Dance at the Gym is so fun because it’s the only time in the whole show that literally EVERYONE is on stage at the same time. All like 500 of us!
Now, the actor playing Tony is a professional seasoned actor. As a young actor getting his start, please tell us about your experience working alongside professional Equity actors like him?
It was honestly super intimidating at first. Scott is such a diva! Just kidding 🙂 It’s actually a blast because I think working with him actually has pushed me to do better. The mere presence of having equity actors in the cast, and a Rockette dance partner has motivated me to really challenge myself with this show. Scott and I have been working together to try different things for our scenes, which I think has given a deeper insight to the relation of our characters, and I hope it shows onstage.
If you could be any other role in the show, who would you be?
If I could be any other role in the show, I’d probably want to be either Action or Anybodys. I LOVE character roles, and there are so many opportunities with Action and Anybodys. They have very specific passions, and I think that’s incredibly juicy for a character.
Why should people come see this production of West Side Story?
Like I said, WSS is a timeless musical. What this team has done with it has been extraordinary! And you don’t want to miss all these fresh personalities in these age-old roles. It’s also sad to say that many of these problems with racial and immigration relations still persist today, and it’s important to see such a diverse group of artists come together like this to create something special.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
When I was like ten or eleven years old, I had no desire to be a performer at all. I remember my mom wanted to take me to see a musical, and I thought she was crazy because I thought musicals were weird. Then she told be that there were knives and guns, and fighting, so the little boy in me of course ended up going… And I ended up loving it! I thought it was so cool and so fun, and so moving! Years later, here I am in a production of it… Who knows, maybe a little boy out there will be inspired by this show like I was.