It can be a muffling word, “classic”—as West Side Story is often described. Yes, it has been around a while, is influential, and much-loved. But it is not a “classic” as in safe object set in aspic. The original 1957 Broadway musical—a redo of Romeo and Juliet set on New York’s streets, featuring two racially opposed gangs, the whites-only Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks—was a bomb to tradition.
A director as radical as Ivo van Hove seems, on paper at least, a wise choice to direct the Broadway revival set in the present day, which opens tonight at the Broadway Theatre. (One of the show’s producers is Barry Diller, the owner of Daily Beast’s parent company IAC.)
West Side Story is a template for artistic radicalism. From the first moments of the 1961 movie, the directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ innovative vision is clear, even emphatic. The screen is peppered with a series of lines, which eventually reveal the familiar shape of Manhattan. The movie’s alignment with abstraction and non-convention persists throughout with block colors, the dancers looking direct into the camera at moments such as singing “Cool,” its joy in ballet, its almost blasé staginess and musical invention, and its typographically stunning graphics by Saul Bass with Elaine Makatura Bass.
The film slinks like a cat—think about all the clicking of fingers, the edging down streets, the gorgeous score of lush arias and loopy percussion. The streets of gangland New York are not made to look gritty and real in the movie, but are an extension of the stage of the original Broadway musical, which Robbins had conceived, and Arthur Laurents had written the book for, with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim crafting the stunning music and lyrics.
This “classic” invites reinvention; indeed, it set the template for it. And so, bring it on van Hove—king of extravagant and bizarre staging, with his fondness for big TV screens and misty deluges of water. (The stage becomes a giant, sodden, steaming puddle in this West Side Story revival, too.)
However, most shockingly, van Hove’s West Side Story is not shocking; it is tame and impatiently brisk, having ejected songs like “I Feel Pretty.” It is also a strange mélange of the good, bad, and baffling—especially in what it seeks to coherently say (or sing, when it comes to “Gee, Officer Krupke”) about the hot-button issues of 2020 it zeroes in on, like racism, immigration, and police brutality. Its engagement with those issues—more on this below—comes to feel lazy and manipulative, rather than shocking or shattering.
The production also comes with its own off-stage controversy, having decided to stand by Amar Ramasar—who plays Bernardo, leader of the Sharks—who was fired from New York City Ballet in 2018 (and later reinstated), after receiving and sharing explicit images of female dancers without their consent. Sporadic protests outside the theater have called for his removal from West Side Story.
On stage, the first puzzles are right in front of us. There is, bluntly, a lot of stage and not much happening on it, barring the odd, big dance sequence which come to feel far too rare and far too welcome. Otherwise, the sets (designed by van Hove’s partner and longtime collaborator Jan Versweyveld) are hidden at the back of the stage, like little jewel boxes which occasionally open their doors to us, the action within projected on to a giant screen on the back of the stage.
Here, the recessed rooms are Doc’s, the drugstore where Tony (the excellent Isaac Powell) works, and the bridal shop where friends Maria (Shereen Pimentel) and Anita (a standout Yesenia Ayala) work. We see little explosions of light and activity on stage from both locations, but nothing else. And so, our eyes drift up to the screen, where the best videos we watch come from a camera slowly roving over dark streets and alleyways.
Screens are now well used in theater; we are used to them. But we are also used to them all day in workplaces, cinemas, and in our homes. Our eyes feel comfortable with screens, and they drift to them easier than they do to stages, which are generally not part of our day. This is why theater is such a treat; the stage is different to what we know.
What a waste of money it feels—the production’s, the theater’s, the audience’s—not to use a Broadway stage for all its worth, particularly if you are reviving West Side Story. Nothing is revealed anew via the use of the big screen in West Side Story; it merely serves as a visual channel of entertainment that we are used to. Yes, it is arresting, but it makes us lazy.
This screen-reliance is a shame, because when the stage is used by the performers it feels used as it should be, and our eyes rest on what is happening on stage more actively (as they should be).
When Tony and Maria and the dancing gang members are on stage, we watch them keenly because—just as in the film—West Side Story is an entertainment fundamentally about movement, and in this regard the musical revival succeeds. Tony and Maria’s courtship is beautifully sung and choreographed. So much of West Side Story is about freedom of movement—literal and symbolic. The gangs patrol and fill the streets they aspire to own beyond the constraints of the law. Van Hove has Tony and Maria chasing after one another. They run around the expanse of the stage.
Powell plays Tony as the archetypal doe-eyed dreamer, and is especially charming. His smile makes us smile—briefly. This is a determinedly dour production; “I Feel Pretty” was likely cut for encouraging too much levity.
The orchestra itself (led by Alexander Gemignani, with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick) is the unseen scene-ruler and hero of the evening, playing every single song richly. Tony sings “Maria,” toying with her name as if it’s the most beautiful, unexpected thing that has come into his life. Their songs together, “Tonight,” and “Somewhere,” are as anticipatory and aching as they should be.
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreography is more combative in design than Robbins’, but it is not such a volcanic departure from his vision. When the Sharks and Jets go at it, they do so as physical ballet, at one point stripped off, water showering down, soaked to their skins, tumbling over one another angrily. It looks less like gang warfare, and more as if a group of muscle boys have suddenly stopped feeling horny, and started arguing about the merits of Pete Buttigieg as an out-gay candidate.
Maybe it is in the brisk storytelling or in the performances, but the stakes for Maria and Tony as a couple do not feel as acute as they come to do between Maria and Anita (Pimentel and Ayala play their warmth and anger with one another movingly). Pimentel also evokes Maria’s moment of anger and fury at the end with raw precision.
The most significant flaw of this West Side Story is around its new adopted era and cultural politics. It is set now, 2020; we see that in what most of the characters are wearing and the videos playing during some of the songs. Two of these video moments stand out in terms of political intent. During “America,” performed with an apparent tentativeness and restraint, we observe videos of border walls.
There is no added context in the story, and the words of “America”—contrasting the dreams and realities of Puerto Rican immigrants around their country of origin and the country they have moved to—neither match the severity of the visuals, nor underline the more profound theme the video implies.
Playful as the lyrics of “America” are, they advertise the American dream as the answer to all the dysfunctions of living in the supposed nightmare of Puerto Rico (including hurricanes), with the added barb that the American dream is symbolized by acquiring stuff.
But if this musical is set in 2020, should there be not a more overt acknowledgment of what Puerto Rico and its people have gone through, from natural disaster to government upheaval? The revival of West Side Story’s engagement with Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican culture feels as gestural and performative as its engagement with the wider issues of immigration and the Trump administration’s racism.
The musical’s approach to race becomes even more confusing with the gangs’ compositions. On one side, just as in the original West Side Story, there are Puerto Ricans (again, apparently not experiencing anything that Puerto Ricans in 2020 are actually experiencing), and on the other is now not an all-white gang, but a gang of many ethnicities—who are apparently (it isn’t explained why) all joined in their hatred of Puerto Ricans.
The Jets’ leader, Riff, is played by black actor Dharon E. Jones. How does the racism of the white gang members of the Jets not extend to the people of color in their own gang? How do the people of color in the Jets experience racism themselves in 2020 (especially from the police), and where does their racial animus against the Puerto Ricans come from? Nothing is explained.
In this context, where race remains central to West Side Story’s canvas in 2020, color-embracing casting works against the musical and its material. The faces on stage have changed to reflect modern times, but the musical’s book has not. Result: gaping holes. Would it have been more radical in this Trump era to make the Jets all-white as they were in 1957, to highlight the increasing presence and volubility of white supremacy in recent years?
Van Hove’s approach becomes even more unstuck in his take on “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which Sondheim described as vaudeville, and a “sustained comic sneer.” Here, the accompanying video shows police racism, and the racist mechanics of the legal system more generally.
But the knockabout, sarcastic lyrics of “Gee, Officer Krupke” in no way match or echo these stark images, even if the performers snarl and stomp as angrily as possible to give the words the most damning interpretation as they do here.
More problematically, given the song’s video accompaniment, Officer Krupke (Danny Wolohan) and Police Lieutenant Schrank (Thomas J. Ryan) seem to have teleported from the 1950s, along with Doc (Daniel Oreskes), both in clothes and manner. Just as in the original version, they are brusque, hard-boiled, dismissive, and Doc kind, liberal, and almost mute. Krupke is barely on stage long enough to form an opinion of him. We perceive the cops’ racism and laziness to fully engage with all the youths in front of them, but in the revival it is not expressed by a fresh, added 2020-sense of brutality or vicious bent for discrimination.
The Krupke video feels like over-reach to make a 2020 theater audience feel easily outraged. Just as in The Inheritance, when characters spouted hot-button LGBTQ issues at the audience as a list, so in West Side Story you feel a production straining for contemporary relevance that its source material does not contain—and which has not been freshly adapted, set here in the present day, to embrace.
West Side Story, we are told, has been updated here for modern times. It hasn’t. It has been accessorized by contemporary documentary footage to provide a sheen of relevance. But it is lazy theater, and even lazier cultural virtue signaling, simply to pump provocative images at an audience for effect, when the material around those visuals does not echo, illuminate, or build on that provocation.
West Side Story cares about racism in 2020 because it knows it should, not because it sketches it on stage thoughtfully or deeply. Its brooding videos want to provoke us to be rightfully angry about police brutality, racism, and the viciousness of this current administration around immigration, but its relationship with these issues is surface at best—a battery of images to sigh at and be infuriated by, rather than anchored in a script or narrative that directly addresses such themes head-on.
The end of West Side Story the movie shows an empty lot; the two sides exiting together in shared grief at the needless deaths of three of their number. At the end of this revival, van Hove first conceives a biblical-seeming image derived from the Crucifixion, and then the final image—in accordance with his contemporary aspirations—is collective and confronting.
It makes modern sense certainly, even if it caps a musical that doesn’t meaningfully confront the racism and bigotry it aspires to skewer. The final on-stage tableau becomes another visual, just like those videos, that feels too easy—and too calculated for an audience to have its liberal anguish safely nourished.