Is it possible to revive a staple of the Broadway repertoire while staying true to the original production? And if not, should revivals instead strive to forge new ground? Is there a point at which a revival is too groundbreaking to be a revival, at which the revival must be understood as an entirely new creative product?
Over the past month, reviews of the current Broadway revival of “West Side Story” have fractured along these lines. Some have questioned the video projections, atypical staging and musical omissions that form much of this new work; others have spoken of the story’s revitalization thanks to these new creative decisions.
The recent production has also faced controversy over the casting of Amar Ramasar, who was removed and reinstated at the New York City Ballet over allegations of sexual misconduct. Protesters had been outside the theater during early performances of the work, which opened on Feb. 6. I saw no protesters at a performance that I attended this past Saturday.
This was not the first revival in recent years to take great liberties in reinterpreting a previous classic. 2019 saw a critically successful revival of “Oklahoma!,” a revival also dependent on limited scenery, wildly different orchestrations and live video projection.
Yet in the “West Side Story” revival, I couldn’t help but feel that the projections and set design distracted from the Romeo and Juliet aspect of the story. The fantastical choreography that constituted much of the violence in the movie was instead presented literally and graphically magnified by the projections.
The different openings to these two versions of the show highlight the basic premises that have changed. In the movie, the battle between the Jets and the Sharks takes place against a light musical backdrop — the famous snapping at the beginning of the movie turning into precise underscoring, specific musical hits timed to match with the opening and closing of fists in an unbelievable, overly-choreographed manner.
In this revival, the Jets and Sharks stand motionless at the front of the stage throughout the opening number. The only thing that moves is the camera, as the barely suppressed rage of the Jets and Sharks is projected on the back wall at fifty-foot dimensions. There was nothing light or remotely unbelievable about this scene.
This is not to say that director Ivan van Hove hasn’t added much to the audience’s understanding of the story. And this is not to say that the original “West Side Story” was not problematic in its own right.
The movie’s casting of Latinx characters, for example, is frequently cited as an example of exactly what was wrong with 20th-century Hollywood. And questions over the show’s reliance on racial and gender stereotypes have long surrounded critical commentary on the work.
But despite its controversies, the original “West Side Story” aspires to be little more than a 20th-century “Romeo and Juliet.” It is a fragile love story in the midst of a race-defined feud, a story of a beautiful love-turned-tragedy.
However, as I watched the revival, I couldn’t help but question whether this fundamental premise had been altered. Van Hove has spoken about how this revival was meant to reflect our current cultural and political divisions, to draw out the conflicts that have always existed under the work’s surface.
Van Hove reaches for such large concepts — police brutality, sexual violence, racial conflict — that it feels as though Tony and Maria’s demise is merely a side story. I entered the theater knowing that (spoiler alert) they were going to fall in love and Tony was going to be killed. There was no suspension of disbelief, no suggestion that perhaps Tony and Maria might elope unscathed.
When asked about the show’s originality, Scott Rudin, one of the show’s producers, said Van Hove “doesn’t direct revivals like they’re revivals. Because to him, they’re not… They’re brand-new to him.” And this led me back to my original question about originality. At what point could this no longer be considered a revival? Could it ever be understood as something new, a new work of theater based on source material called “West Side Story”?
It’s not as though the creativity of the work’s creators hasn’t already come under question. Many classical music aficionados have spoken of the resemblance between Bernstein’s “Somewhere” and the second movement of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 5” (the “Emperor” concerto) and/or Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” I’ve also found two quotes in the trumpet part of Bernstein’s “Cool” from Beethoven’s “Große Fuge” though little commentary on this exists.
Bernstein’s treatment of these musical quotes is not too dissimilar to van Hove’s treatment of the original score and script from “West Side Story.” The original show has been condensed to a mere 105 minutes. Its iconic Jerome Robbins choreography has been altered, sometimes dramatically. And “I Feel Pretty” has been omitted in its entirety.
I left feeling that Van Hove has distorted “West Side Story” to fit his artistic vision. I’m still not sure if I approve of Van Hove’s effort — portions of it were definitely thought provoking, I’ll admit, though the overall effect was mostly scattered and off-putting — but I am sure of its relation to the original.
It was no revival of 1957’s “West Side Story.” It is an entirely new “West Side Story,” Van Hove’s quotation of this source material for the 21st century.