by Edward Medina
West Side Story is one of the crown jewels of American Musical Theatre. Carousel, Music Man, Hello Dolly, and Oklahoma are among the glittering baubles that can rightfully stake that same claim to fame, but West Side Story holds its own unique place. Produced by Harold Prince with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim in his Broadway debut, a book by Arthur Laurents based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and with choreography by Jerome Robbins the original production’s gravitas is etched in granite. Its boy meets girl, mixed race love story, set in New York’s 1950’s racially segregated gang populated working class West Side neighborhood is the stuff of legend on both stage and screen.
Premiering at the Winter Garden in 1957, the musical took a bold stance on race relations just as the melting pot in America began to simmer and boil over yet again. The original West Side Story broke ground in all creative departments and had an impact not only on the direction of musical theatre but on the discussion of racial prejudice presented in the dramatic arts that can still be felt to this day. It would be nice to say that this new version has met the same goals for a new generation but it has not. In fact, given the current state of race relations in this country, it’s sad to report that creative vanity has rolled over rational thought and common sense.
The original book and score of this modern interpretation, produced by Scott Rudin and under the direction of Ivo van Hove, have been altered by them to accommodate a one act format at a ninety-five minute runtime. This was all done to add an immediacy to the action and to increase the impact of the violent ending. While it does achieve these goals it also removes the heart of the creation. West Side Story is designed to be a tragedy in two acts. The pacing of the original and where the musical numbers were placed gave the audience a chance to fall in love with these characters just as they fell in love with each other. The timing gave the audience the opportunity to fully invest themselves in this world and understand the motives that drove the violence that eventually occurs. For the sake of speed, this is all lost. What remains is a soulless adaptation lacking in empathy. Whatever empathy the audience might now be feeling most likely comes from remembrances of what West Side Story once was.
The decision was also made to replace Jerome Robbins significant contribution with new work by avant-garde choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. This was a monumental risk because Robbins original choreography is inexorably connected to Bernstein’s music. The two exist in a tightly meshed symbiotic relationship. De Keersmaeker is celebrated around the world for her abstract work but in her first creation for Broadway her contribution feels misguided. The choreography doesn’t read as connected to the score. It seems to exist on its own, separate and apart from the source. This, along with odd choices like including the female dancers in the male angst and testosterone driven “Cool,” just don’t seem to make any sense.
A record breaking thirty-two Broadway first timers are making their debuts in this production. That in and of its self is to be lauded. The difficulty here is that these gifted actors, singers, and dancers are doing their level best at delivering what they were directed to deliver but it’s not hitting the mark. No matter how good they are ultimately, they cannot succeed because of circumstances that are separate and apart from their innate gifts. Shereen Pimentel as Maria gives a lovely performance but the elimination of her “I Feel Pretty” solo takes away part of her characters foundation. Tony, the Romeo to her Juliet, played by Isaac Powell, can certainly sing but his modern Broadway vocal style just doesn’t resonate with the score. His singing of “Maria” ends up falling flat. The two strongest performances belong to Yesenia Ayala as Anita and Amar Ramasar as Bernardo.
In general, there was so much that was so badly executed that it’s easy to lose track of what offends most. Both the Jets and the Sharks are now multiracial groups which confuses the core conflict. There’s an attempt at saying its Americans versus immigrants but Puerto Ricans are American citizens so that doesn’t fly at all. The critical rumble between the two gangs takes place under a drenching rain which not only caused several microphones to malfunction at this particular performance but it also soaks the cast members for the rest of the show which makes no sense given the timeline of the remainder of the drama.
A great deal of the action occurring onstage is also being projected onto the back wall of the stage at the same time. Some of that action takes place in the neighborhood drugstore and the sweatshop where Maria and her girlfriend Anita work. All of this happens offstage because both locations are individual set pieces built deeply into the same back wall. In order to cover the drama in these locations, cameras both set in place and hand held are used. This leads to shots of actors and camera operators milling about in the same tight spaces. There’s also the issue of extreme close ups of actors being projected onto the forty-foot wall and, while their constant sweating can be understood, it’s the equally extreme closeups of what is normally seen from a distance and almost imperceptible microphones that now loom large in the picture. That also includes the body tape barely holding them in place that keeps curling up because of all the sweat.
If you’re going to introduce new technology onto the stage to help tell your version of a classic then you need to improve the other technology around it. If you’re going to use cameras, find a better way to use and hide them then to have camera operators running around on stage and throwing themselves onto the floor. They’re not characters. They’re just distractions – – as are the eventual shots of the audience seated in the Broadway Theatre suddenly being projected onto the wall as if they are all a well-organized mass of bystanders that just happen to be hanging out in an alley or under a bridge. This isn’t just breaking the fourth wall, it’s blasting it into obliteration at the cost of the world building that came before it.
The overwhelming message here to the production team is just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Decide if you’re making a musical or a movie because at this point you’re doing both things badly in a world where we already have separate masterpieces of the same brilliant subject in both mediums. This is also not a question of whether or not West Side Story should be revived or even reinterpreted. All great art of this sort should be subject to creative interpretation by other artists. It’s almost an obligation that other musicals and plays of merit and legend have already been subjected to. The problem here is that this incarnation of West Side Story is just terribly ill-conceived and badly executed at the cost of the important themes it was meant to deliver in the first place.
Photos: Jan Versweyveld
West Side Story, Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, NYC Run time: 1 hr, 45 min.