THE two young stars tasked with bringing one of the most popular musicals of all time to Manchester are under no illusions about the task ahead of them.

But Andy Coxon and Gabriela Garcia are equally determined to enjoy every second they are on stage.

“We are going to live and breathe every performance,” said Gabriela, who plays Maria.

“This is such a good story, honestly it’s a blessing to be part of the show, particularly here at the Royal Exchange,” said Andy, who plays Tony.

A story of star-crossed lovers, rival gangs and Leonard Bernstein’s famous score featuring songs including Somewhere, Tonight and America, West Side Story is one of the most popular shows of all time.

But audiences heading to Manchester for its seven-week run are in for a number of surprises.

Andy said: “It is a very different production. It is sparse and it features new choreography for the first time which is just so exciting.

“The audience will be really immersed into the world of the Sharks and the Jets.”

Gabriela added: “We all feel as though the whole thing has been approached as a play first rather than a musical which has made it so interesting. It is so relevant to today. There is knife crime and prejudice and gangs. They are all in the news now.”

The production is directed by Sarah Frankom, the Royal Exchange’s artistic director.

Andy said: “Because this is Sarah’s first musical it has been amazing for us from a musical background to work with a play director and see how they approach the material. It feels like the priorities are in a different place which I really like.”

Both Andy and Gabriela are revelling in the creative freedom they have been given to create their characters.

Andy added: “Anything I play, I want it to be an extension of myself so that people believe it and care about that character. It’s very hard not to play Tony as being a bit wet but I didn’t want that. He’s a complex character. He founded the Jets but when we meet him he has stepped away from the gang but we don’t really know why. It’s all about finding those different layers.

“You want the audience to connect with him, care about him and understand why he goes the way he does. There’s a lot to play in two hours.”

Gabriela added: “The music is so iconic but we feel like we have the liberty to be different. You expect the songs to be done in a certain way but we’ve been allowed to come at them with a fresh approach.”

For Mexican-born Gabriela, Maria is a very special role.

“It’s great to be able to play a Latina role that I grew up with,” she said. “I’m making a big effort to make it as realistic as possible and get the Puerto Rican accent as realistic as possible.

“When I watched Natalie Wood play Maria in the film it was a bit like many people’s reaction to Dick van Dyke’s cockney chimney sweep in Mary Poppins – the accent just didn’t sound right

“There is a big Latin American community in Manchester and I was those people to be able to go and see the show and think ‘finally we’re represented’.”

Both Andy and Gabriela will be performing at the Royal Exchange for the first time.

Andy said: “Since we got the roles we have both seen The Producers and Death of a Salesman at the theatre. They were two very different productions in the same space – you can do so much with it. It is a very special place.”

Andy has worked on a number of successful musicals including Hair, Sister Act and Beautiful, the Carole King musical in London’s West End and Gabriela has appeared in Strictly Ballroom.

Andy added: “We had worked together briefly at a workshop so it was nice to see a familiar face when we got to the final auditions.

“I made such a mess of my first audition I actually rang my agent to say that avenue wouldn’t be going any further.

“It just shows, you never know what they are looking for. Now I just feel blessed, this is the show everyone wants on their CV.”

West Side Story is at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, until May 25. For tickets call 0161 833 9833 or visit