Somewhere, sometime, there will be a place for a successfully revised revival of West Side Story, but sadly, not this time, not this place and not this Ivo van Hove revival.
Director van Hove has called the 1957 Jerome Robbins-Arthur Laurents-Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, "an American masterpiece.” What van Hove has created onstage at the Broadway Theater, in his attempt to reimagine the classic show for a 2020 audience, almost shreds the 63-year-old masterpiece to pieces. Classics aren't meant to be untouchable, but you need ideas, not just gimmicks, and especially not a well-worn and inappropriate gimmick.
When this West Side Story was announced – its fifth Broadway revival, counting its return engagement in 1960 – it was clear that it would be either a great success or a dismal disaster, nothing in between. Would van Hove match the dramatic tension and creativity of his Tony-winning 2015 revival of A View from the Bridge, for which he also won the Best Director Tony? Or would it be more like his mysterious 2016 revival of Miller’s The Crucible, with its weird, yet charismatic, wolf roaming the stage?
As it turned out, he went more for his 2018 Network, with its reliance and emphasis on video to complement the stage production. Video made sense for Network, because the drama was about the world of television. But for West Side Story? Van Hove has turned the musical into a movie of the week, or perhaps even a soap opera. A huge screen at the back of the stage shows the actors in giant size, sometimes while they perform downstage, sometimes while they are upstage and barely visible. Sometimes the video itself advances the plot, or provides dismal-dark-street or seemingly-deserted-industrial-lot scenery. The live action and the onscreen video fight for attention rather than complement each other, and the videos diminish, if not cancel, the impact that live theater should have.
As a result, the actors onstage often appear insignificant, tiny puppets compared to their screen image. You have to remember that this is theater, not film, and look at the actors, not the pixels. But even when you do, the screen images interfere with perception. It’s confusing and ultimately unrewarding.
Did van Hove decide to rely on video because he didn't trust his actors? Or did he feel he didn't need to rely on his actors because he could trust the magic of the cinema? There might be reason to have those thoughts, because the performers leave much to be desired – as actors, singers or dancers. While watching them, it was at times wistful to recall some of the great performers who masterfully filled that same theater’s large stage with their presence, their personas, without the aid of video – Colm Wilkinson and Patti LuPone in Les Miserables, Lea Salonga and Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon. And regretting that with such great acting talent available in this city and throughout the country, van Hove wasn't able to find a more exciting cast, especially after auditioning more than 1,500 performers for his complement of 50.
Or is it because van Hove has decided that theater by itself is a thing of the past, and without the aid of a video camera it is no longer relevant? How unfortunate, if true.
The Belgian director hired the avant-garde Belgian contemporary dance choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to create new choreography to replace the tough, dynamic intensity of Robbins' brilliant Tony-winning work. There’s nothing wrong with being adventuresome and trying something new. But if you’re going to do that you need to come up with something more than the bland, repetitive, unimaginative and passionless movement that barely fills the Broadway Theater’s generous stage. It’s all cliché, with dancers like automatons who project no soul, no feeling. Keersmaeker has been quoted as saying that she sought to create movement between “dancing, fighting and screaming.” She hasn't succeeded.
Small changes were made in Arthur Laurents' libretto, including emphasizing police brutality, perhaps in the director’s attempt to be politically correct. But somehow flashing large-scale images of the police treating minorities badly while the gang members sing the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” was, rather than offering a meaningful juxtaposition, merely out of place and jarring. A recent New York Times article noted that the creative team wanted to show how contemporary the 1957 musical remains in terms of issues like immigration, poverty, racism and sexual violence. But in trying to highlight what was implicit, they at times turned drama into political tract.
Then there’s the magnificent Bernstein-Sondheim score. It has been widely noted that van Hove cut “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet to make the musical fit in his planned no-intermission hour-and-45-minute time slot, to rush the tragedy to its terrible conclusion, to make it, as van Hove has said, a “juggernaut.” Sondheim himself has said he regrets the lyrics of “I Feel Pretty” as being too clever and out of character, for example with its internal rhymes, "It’s alarming how charming I feel.” So perhaps no great loss there.
But the score feels slighted by the unremarkable singing voices of the cast. “America,” for instance, is sung with bare and failed attempts at humor, and with no conviction – all while video images of Puerto Rico and New York appear on the large screen and interfere with the action and the lyrics. "Tonight,” instead of being staged by a fire escape to echo Shakespeare’s balcony, with Tony and Maria by themselves, is performed downstage with multiple gang members trying to pull them apart in an apparent tug of war. It seemed ridiculous as well as counterintuitive to both the musical and the play.
And then there was the onstage rain – lots of it – in the gang war scene and the finale. Why? Maybe the heavens were crying.
It has been widely noted that when West Side Story opened in 1957, its tragic denouement was considered shocking and experimental. Despite mostly excellent reviews, it won only two Tony Awards, for Oliver Smith’s scenic design and Robbins’ choreography, and was topped by The Music Man, a more typical Broadway specimen, as Best Musical. So it’s certainly an appropriate subject for 21st-century theatrical experimentation. Yet after this unfortunate attempt, it may be some time before someone else tries to update West Side Story. Maybe for the 22nd century?