Arts Review

West Side Revolution

The cast of West Side Story. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Usually, West Side Story opens with members of the Jets street gang hanging out in their neighborhood, engaging in everyday movements—strutting, showing off—which slowly blossom into structured, balletic dance. Members of a rival gang, the Sharks, enter and skirmishes break out, all dynamically choreographed. In the new Ivo van Hove-directed revival of West Side Story, which opened at the Broadway Theater in February (and is, as of this writing, on hiatus due to the COVID-19 theater closure), the prologue begins with the Jets entering a bare stage single file, facing the audience as if lined up for inspection. Suddenly, massive close-ups of their faces, in stunning clarity and resolution, fill a giant screen that spans the back of the stage. The camera pans down the line, interrogating each face with brutal intimacy. We see neck tattoos, piercings, hoodies. We also see anger, fear, arrogance, preening, boredom. The Jets move to one side, and the Sharks enter. While we recognize the attitudes from hip-hop videos, the tough expressions cannot hide the fact that these are teenage kids. Within minutes, I was choked with emotion, captivated by the camera’s inexorable revelation of even the most hard-bitten face’s vulnerability. Gradually, the two groups coalesce and begin to interact, a confrontation of attitude that slowly expands into movement which then turns into choreography. And from here, this revival of West Side Story goes on to subvert one expectation after another, from setting to characterization to the very vocabulary of theatrical language. European-style “Regietheater” has finally come to the Broadway musical.

Regietheater (a German term meaning “Director-Theater”) refers to the postmodern practice wherein a director adjusts, subverts or ignores some or all of the original authorial intentions of a theatrical work. The changes can include everything from geographical and historical setting to casting specifications to stage directions to actual meaning. These changes may be done in a holistic fashion, creating a new theatrical construct that abides by its own rules and makes coherent sense in its new context. Or they may be done in a fragmented fashion, with different settings, contexts and meanings co-existing in a purposefully incoherent (or, at least, more complexly coherent) state. Often, the director’s intention is to highlight—or even create—modern resonance. The director may also want to critique a work’s original connotation. And, in some cases, the director may use the original text as a springboard for a parallel or even different artistic statement. In every case, the director is not so much responding to the work’s relation to reality, but rather to his (and the audience’s) previous relationship to the work. The goal is to disrupt that relationship in some way, a manifestation of the postmodern notion, in which every text is a reaction to a previous text.

There is an incendiary phrase in the paragraph above, namely “original authorial intentions.” Many artists would argue that it is difficult to understand what an author truly intended with any particular work. That difficulty of course increases the further back in time we go. Even when we think we grasp an author’s intention, we may now—for any number of reasons—disagree with it or find it irrelevant. The context around a particular work might have changed so much that “original intention” becomes a moot point. And further, many would argue that while “original intention” may certainly be worth analyzing, it is by no means a required road map when creating a work of theater. Living authors (and their estates) may have some legal protection over how productions interpret their work, but that is a construct of law, not of art. I hold that there is no creative rule which states that a director must follow an author’s intention—a sentiment that I acknowledge prompts virulent disagreement. Many loathe updated and reinterpreted productions, while others consider new theatrical approaches essential to keeping the art form alive.

Although adventurous theatergoers are used to seeing highly interpreted productions of classic plays, mass Broadway audiences have had very little exposure to Regietheater stylistics. Most new plays and musicals take a straightforward approach to staging, and revivals are generally built around big stars or elaborate productions, not around directorial vision. Musicals in general have been oddly resistant to intervention in the Regietheater sense. The great directors in the art form’s history—Jerome Robbins, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse—created dazzling theater, but they did so hand-in-hand with authors who shared their vision. (Fosse’s well-publicized disagreements with the authors of Pippin are the exception that proves the rule.) When it comes to musicals, the kind of directorial approach that tears apart a work’s original setting, style, and intended meaning has generally been relegated to college black box theaters and the occasional scandalous regional staging. A major exception was the recent Broadway transfer of Daniel Fish’s radical production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!—a harbinger of a newly accepting attitude on the part of producers and audiences. Part of this novel openness is certainly due to the aging of the classic musical repertory. Few are around now who remember the original production of Oklahoma! and fewer still with a personal creative investment in the show.

Belgian-born Ivo van Hove, a Regietheater mainstay, is arguably the leading stage director in the world today, an artist equally at home in small fringe playhouses and large commercial auditoriums, not to mention opera houses. His base of operations for the last two decades has been Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ principal repertory company. At the same time, he has established himself in every Western theater capital, via local and touring productions. In New York, he directed a landmark series of revivals at New York Theatre Workshop—Hedda Gabler, The Little Foxes, The Misanthrope, More Stately Mansions—which were noted for digging deep into those works’ subtexts and encouraging the actors to foreground the findings. He has brought multiple productions to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, including massive, epic-length stagings of Shakespeare cycles, and has also become known for elaborate theatricalizations of classic films by Bergman, Cassavetes, Pasolini and Visconti, among others. His highly precise, extremely determined, technologically sophisticated, often grimly violent and explicitly sexual style has become hugely influential.

Amazingly, given the rigorous and often polarizing nature of his work, van Hove has, in the last several years, become mainstream—ubiquitous in London’s West End and, of all places, on Broadway. He even won a Tony Award in 2016 for his acclaimed production of A View from the Bridge and has since returned with The Crucible and, in another film-to-stage adaptation, Network. As a consequence, regular theatergoers have now seen many van Hove productions and have learned to identify his characteristic theatrical devices, many of which are straight out of the Regietheater playbook: updatings, resettings, reconceived interpretations of character motive and narrative meaning, abandonment of organic realism. Has van Hove’s approach calcified into a bag of tricks, as some claim? Or is a rigorous adherence to a highly recognizable style the sign of a true auteur? Regardless, the producers of this West Side Story revival, led by Scott Rudin, certainly knew what they were getting when they hired van Hove. He directs the show as if he’d never seen it before, an approach that is bracing, unnerving and exciting.

West Side Story has become a core work in the musical repertory, but it was not always so. Conceived by director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, the work is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, set in 1950s New York. The four creators—Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, librettist Arthur Laurents, and neophyte lyricist Stephen Sondheim—were all Jewish and gay or bisexual, and this experience of outsiderism fueled the work’s depiction of economically disadvantaged white and Puerto Rican youth. The show premiered on Broadway in 1957 and was a success, but not immediately a phenomenon. Bernstein’s music was deemed ambitious but esoteric, and many felt that the work’s depiction of violence was too grim for the musical form. It wasn’t until the 1961 film, directed by Robbins and Robert Wise—a box office smash and multiple Academy Award winner—that the work became universally beloved, a staple in high schools, on record shelves, and in pop culture (just google the words “Cher West Side Story” for an eye-popping video). A new film directed by Steven Spielberg is, as of this writing, scheduled to be released in December 2020.

Over 60 years after its premiere, West Side Story has little left to prove, but that doesn’t mean the work is perfect. Laurents’ book has always been the weak link. It’s short and well constructed, but it relies too much on a dated mix of arch poetry and made-up slang (the much-mocked “Daddy-O,” “Buddy-Boy” and “Mother-Lovin’”—used because Broadway was not ready for profanity in 1957). Similarly, Sondheim has long been self-critical of some of his lyrics, noting for example that the heroine’s exultant “It’s alarming how charming I feel” sounds more like Noel Coward than a teenage girl. In retrospect, it is Bernstein’s work that is most lasting, for West Side Story has one of the four or five greatest scores ever written for a Broadway musical. Unlike the words, his musical ambition has not dated, and the dazzling mix of quasi-operatic lyricism, contemporary dance rhythms and jazz-tinged dissonance is what lifts the show into true greatness.

Still, if Bernstein’s unsurpassed score is what keeps West Side Story in the pantheon, Robbins was undoubtedly the show’s primary mover and, in many ways, its central author. His staging was recognized as breakthrough even in its day, so important to the overall feel and flow of the work that it was minutely notated. Most professional revivals, until this new one, have been required to re-create it as closely as possible. Robbins’ central contributions are the indelible dance numbers, which harnessed balletic precision and virtuosity in the service of contemporary narrative. The finger snaps, the crouched leaps, the battement on half-toe: these iconic moves are recognizable to millions, not only for their beautiful, visceral thrill, but also because they powerfully convey meaning and characterization. Indeed, Robbins’ work is just as much a part of West Side Story’s original text as any of the other contributors’. And yet it is also the most ephemeral—staging notes and video records aside. Theatrical stagings date quickly, due to technological advances and changing audience expectations. Few revivals aim to re-create an original staging, but the unique genius of Robbins’ work for West Side Story has always made it an exception. The fact that the new revival has moved on from his work, and in such a substantial manner, is a milestone.

The first thing to note about van Hove’s staging, which is set firmly in the present day, is the dominance of that stage-spanning screen, which displays video for about three-fourths of the running time. In some instances, cameras from the flies, wings or auditorium blow up what is happening live onstage. Sometimes the images come from phone cameras held by cast members. At other times, pre-filmed video appears (the video design was by Luke Halls). The space in front of the screens is open and abstract, with no representation of the original’s West 60s neighborhood. The only concrete sense of place, in fact, comes from the pre-filmed video backdrops and also from two specific locations: Doc’s drugstore and Anita’s dress shop, both of which are hyper-naturalistically designed by van Hove’s regular collaborator (and life partner) Jan Versweyveld. Both locations are also far upstage, with sections hidden from audience view. In these instances, the screens depict the live action that would otherwise not be wholly visible in the theater. These settings, which in typical productions can seem unusually spacious, now feel properly claustrophobic, and the video captured in the corners and behind shelves has the authentic feeling of teenage self-filmed, socially-shared content.

Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel as Tony and Maria. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The screens reveal not just spaces that we could not otherwise see, but also angles that multiply our immersion in the work. In the transition from the dress shop to the dance at the gymnasium, the cast swirls in a circular pattern around the stage, with Maria twirling in place in their center. An overhead camera picks up the geometric beauty of the moment, amplified by the contrast between Maria’s white dress and the other colorful garments. In the dance sequences, the screen adds a fourth dimension to the movements and patterns, selecting specific points of view and refracting the sense of space and linearity. The result is chaotic but visceral and exciting. The screens also allow us to see phenomena that would simply be lost otherwise. At the end of “One Hand, One Heart,” Tony and Maria lean together against a full-length mirror in the dress shop, and the camera picks up their breath steaming up the glass—an image both poetic and erotic. The video helps foreground van Hove’s focus on realistic violence as well: stage blood is much more disturbing when blown up to theater-filling proportions. The rape of Anita, always an upsetting scene, is almost unwatchably horrific when seen through the phone lenses of the gaping Jet bystanders.

Much of the live video is more exciting, rawer, more beautiful, even better edited (and in real time!) than the images captured in the 1961 film, but the use of the screen—and especially the depiction of action that is hidden from the audience’s actual view—has been much debated. “I felt like I was watching a movie, not a play,” said more than one commenter. But a multimedia approach is not in itself inherently wrong; no rule requires a separation of art forms. Beyond that, the use of video is indicative of something deeper, a generational shift that will, I think, have profound implications for theater’s future. Younger people are simply more used to receiving their information from screens—and from close-up, constantly changing viewpoints. I know more than a few millennials who complain that traditional proscenium theater feels too “distanced” and too “static” to them. The actors are too far away for them to feel invested, and there is not enough variety of perspective, not enough of a sense of movement through the theatrical space. The screens in van Hove’s work solve that, and the shift from live action to video does not feel remarkable to younger audiences. Like it or not, an increased use of screens is probably inevitable; European theater is already there.

This is not to say that van Hove ignores what is happening in front of the screen. In fact, he is a master at creating gripping theatrical tableaux. Stills from this production would make an extraordinary coffee-table book. The rumble that ends the first act is performed in a pouring rainstorm with all the actors stripped to their waists, a sequence that looks like an animated Greek vase. The entire “balcony” scene, typically set on a fire escape with Tony and Maria in romantic solitude, is here performed on a bare stage, with the rest of the cast lurking on the sides. As the glorious duet “Tonight” comes to its climax, the lovers’ compatriots come forward and attempt to pull them apart, a manifestation of the tribal chains that the soaring music is attempting to escape. The result is breathtaking, an image as fully realized and resonant as any moment in Robbins’ original.

Van Hove’s radical innovations are not surprising, given our current theatrical culture, but the complete reworking of Robbins’ choreography is equally important, as West Side Story has always been a dance show—perhaps the great dance musical. The unenviable task fell to choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the director of Rosas, a celebrated Belgian modern dance company. Upon first viewing, I was inevitably disappointed that her work was not at the level of Robbins’—an admittedly unfair standard. While De Keersmaeker’s movement is fluid and beguiling, and while it is generally theatrical from a visual perspective, it is much less narrative than Robbins’ work, much less individualistic in expressing character and emotion. What Robbins does with “Cool,” essentially a “killing time” number, is masterful—a transfixing vocabulary of tense, instantly unforgettable steps that elevate teenage nervousness to high art. De Keersmaeker’s “Cool” is simply a good number. And while her work respects the popular dances referenced in the music, like the mambo and the cha cha, I was surprised at the lack of influence from contemporary street choreography, such as breakdancing or krumping. At a certain point in the rehearsal process, according to several advance feature stories, the actors questioned the lack of authentic Latinx style in De Keersmaeker’s work, and so the producers brought in two experts, Patricia Delgado and Sergio Trujillo, to advise and contribute. I wish they had gone further and allowed the young dancers to incorporate their own personal vocabulary. Upon second viewing, my appreciation for De Keersmaeker’s work increased, and I found more idiosyncrasy and more character specificity. But this is a director’s West Side Story, not a choreographer’s.

One aspect of the 1961 film that has not dated well is the casting: most of the actors are clearly in their 20s or even early 30s, and the close-ups do them no favors. The heavy makeup typical in films of the time doesn’t help, especially as worn by the actors playing Sharks in a benighted attempt to darken their skins. In casting, van Hove and his team made a deliberate choice to emphasize the youthfulness of the characters. This revival features an unusually large cast, many of whom are making their Broadway debuts, and their striking youth is a key factor in the work’s raw energy. Isaac Powell, in particular, is easily the most convincing Tony I’ve ever seen. His line delivery is reckless, spontaneous, as if he was discovering each word and each moment as it happened. His exuberant repetition of the name “Maria,” in the moments leading up to the song of the same name, has a goofy joy; this is not a Broadway tenor preparing for his big solo, but rather a teenage boy exploding with hormonal bravado, a display of energy that makes the launch of the song absolutely inevitable. Powell pulls off something with the vocal interpretation that I’ve almost never seen before: namely, a sense of believable modernity within the context of classical Broadway music, much in the way that great actors can make you feel that Shakespeare’s dialogue is completely contemporary.

Shereen Pimentel’s Maria is less revelatory than Powell, but she has a pleasant voice, a dynamic spirit, and a fierce authenticity. Typically, Tony and Maria’s love duet “One Hand, One Heart” is performed solemnly, as an almost religious ritual. Van Hove has Powell and Pimentel giggling throughout, chasing each other around the shop, silly-drunk on their own callow passion. At a preview performance, I felt that van Hove was tamping down Pimentel’s performance, perhaps to avoid a sense of cast hierarchy, but by the time I revisited the production after it opened, she had come into her own. Still, there is no question that van Hove is more interested in ensemble than in star performances. In most productions, West Side Story is stolen by the Anita. Here, Yesenia Ayala is generally excellent (except in some of her singing), but she is less of a standout than usual. Similarly, Dharon E. Jones, a powerful Riff, does not dominate the Jet gang. And many of the vivid supporting characters, like Anybodys and Baby John, do not register with their usual clarity. Only Amar Ramasar, whose last Broadway outing in Carousel was dire, pops out of the ensemble with the same flair as Powell. His Bernardo is sensationally dark and dangerous, his dancing electrifying.

As is increasingly common, van Hove cast for diversity, a potentially problematic approach in a show that is so much about race. Here the Sharks are clearly Latinx, but the Jets are a mix of various groups, including African Americans. This pivots the argument of the show from race to immigration status, but the text of the play complicates this approach. Laurents and Sondheim frequently make the point that Puerto Ricans are natural American citizens, not immigrants. Similarly, the line “Why don’t you go back where you came from” has different resonances when spoken by an African American. Some argue that the diverse casting indicates that race is a social construct, meaningless in the long run. For me, van Hove’s casting is an attempt to dig deeply into the pathology of race hatred, blurring traditional representation in an attempt to convey the untrustworthy, politically motivated fabrication of all such divisions.

The staging and accompanying video projections in two of the numbers further speak to the questions of race and immigration. In “America,” the showstopping musical look at life in New York and San Juan, the video initially shows footage from Puerto Rico but, by the end of the song, has shifted to drone footage of the U.S./Mexico border wall and to images of immigrants crossing the Rio Grande. The point about American fear of Latinx immigration (whether internally or from other countries) is clear—and over-determined. Here van Hove descends to didacticism, a sporadic failing. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the vaudevillian riff by the Jets against the system that is rigged against them, similarly accompanies its climax with images of police violence against young men, especially young men of color. And here, the images, while still didactic, feel connected to the song and especially to the significant rethinking of the number on van Hove’s part. What is usually a goofy, savagely funny romp becomes a stunning cry of fury, abetted by the cast’s ferocious performances.

“Gee, Officer Krupke” was properly placed in the second half of the show, rather than in the first half, where the 1961 film timidly relocates it, but the revival does borrow some other alterations from the movie. In the original stage version, “America” is sung by Anita and the Shark girls; the movie turns this into a challenge number between the Shark boys and girls, and this was the version performed here. The film also transforms “Somewhere” from an extended ballet, accompanied by an unidentified soprano soloist, to a simple duet for Tony and Maria. The new production essentially makes the same change. The already short libretto was also trimmed—mercifully in several cases, as the sleek staging and modern acting style conspire to lay bare the book’s weaknesses. The intermission is eliminated, making for a tight 105-minute running time. Dates and times are announced on the screen, making it clear that the entire story encompasses only 48 hours. The production indeed moves at lightning speed, heightening the compressed nature of the events.

A casualty of this approach is the entire elimination of the song “I Feel Pretty,” which usually opens the second act, providing a moment of ironically light repose after the tragic deaths at the end of the first act. With the elimination of the intermission, and in the context of the inexorable drive toward the finale, the song would have felt out of place, silly even. I understand why it was cut, but missed it, not least because it is Maria’s only solo. Another more troubling casualty is any sense of deep romance between Tony and Maria. The compression and the sprightly playing of their early scenes together make their affair seem adolescent, hormonal at best. I certainly appreciated the sense that all of this happens in just a few heartbeats but couldn’t help feeling that the anguish of the climax was slightly shorted. Would Maria really experience such bone-deep grief over a two-day fling?

Van Hove is certainly more interested in a large cultural statement than in an individual love story. This production has a different raison d’être than traditional revivals, and while not all of the choices were ones I would make, they were mostly strong and powerful. Van Hove is a director with a strong guiding hand, controlling every moment with precision. This clarity of vision makes him both great and challenging. You may not always like what ends up happening to a work that you love when it is in his hands, but it is never dull, which the last Broadway revival, directed by Laurents himself in 2009, shortly before he died, sadly was. For me, succumbing to van Hove’s vision is an exciting pleasure, and I would even argue that you absolutely get the core story and ideas of West Side Story as intended by its authors, just in a very different guise. What’s more, the unmatchable Robbins’ staging still exists on film and will certainly be seen again in the theater. This is just something different—and it’s about time.