By Misha Berson
Special to The Seattle Times
At age 62, “West Side Story” is the granddaddy of musicals about crazy mixed-up kids. And yet, as a new run of the show at the 5th Avenue Theatre approaches, this Broadway classic based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” remains popular and current across generations.
But why so? Certainly today’s gun-violent street warfare is more lethal and drug-related than the fisticuffs-heavy rumbling between the show’s Jets and Sharks gangs. ...The midtown Manhattan landscape where the opus of tender romance and bloody vengeance unfolds is no longer the turf of poor and working-class families clustered in crowded, dingy tenements. (Formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen, it is now the long-gentrified, upscale Clinton district.)
Teenage fashions, music and slang have changed many times over. And yet there is a timeless quality to “West Side Story” that has kept it very much alive and kicking all over the world. This year, in addition to the 5th Avenue stand (which runs May 31-June 23) there are major revivals in Chicago; in Sydney, Australia; and in Tokyo. In 2020, the experimental Dutch director Ivo van Hove will guide the show’s fifth Broadway revival, in what promises to be a radical remounting with dances by acclaimed Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Moreover, a big-budget new film of “West Side Story” helmed by Steven Spielberg (with a new script by Oscar-nominated playwright-screenwriter Tony Kushner) is set to go into production this year, with a potential release date of 2020. It will co-star Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “Baby Driver”) and screen newcomer Rachel Zegler, who was one of tens of thousands of young actors to audition for Spielberg via video.
So why is “West Side Story” still so admired, so eagerly anticipated, so of the moment? Here are some factors:
Young Love, Young Death. We can thank Shakespeare for this one, but in theater, the fascination goes back even farther. In “Romeo and Juliet” a forbidden romance between members of two Verona, Italy, clans (the Capulets and the Montagues) leads to wrenching acts of teen murder and suicide. So in the musical, does the instantaneous love connection between Jets gang member Tony (William Branner at 5th Avenue) and guileless Maria (Rebbekah Vega-Romero), sister of the Sharks gang captain Bernardo (Alexander Gil Cruz), trigger exhilarating love scenes, exciting brawls and a tragic ending with an underlying message: Violence breeds violence, so make peace and learn to share turf.
Enduring Social Themes. By pitting two street posses against one another — the Euro-American Jets versus the Puerto Rican Sharks — the show’s libretto by Arthur Laurents confronts issues of bigotry, cultural misunderstanding and the social failure to fully integrate and empower young people in constructive ways. These remain acute and mostly unresolved societal challenges, which young Americans, and their elders, still grapple with.
The focus on bigotry in the show comes into even sharper focus now, due to renewed civil-rights tensions and more inclusive casting. Originally, Robbins searched for but failed to recruit enough Hispanic performers to portray most of the Puerto Rican characters. Thanks to more equity awareness, artistic training and work opportunities, the imbalance is being rectified. At the 5th Avenue, the 44-member onstage ensemble (backed by a 25-piece orchestra) will feature many Latinx performers, as will the upcoming Spielberg film.
The Music! The Dancing! This show erupted when the Broadway musical still featured spinoff hit tunes — and none more so than “West Side Story.”
Leonard Bernstein’s score uniquely blended jazz, Latin rhythms, symphonic sweep and musical-comedy conventions in groundbreaking ways for Broadway. And with Stephen Sondheim’s sardonic and sincere lyrics attached, several songs became part of the Great American Songbook — i.e. “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty” and the soaring anthem, “Somewhere.”
The dances devised by director-choreographer Jerome Robbins also jolted the American musical forward. Both balletic and modern, vibrant numbers performed by dexterous movers in jeans and tennis shoes were used to convey aspects of the plot through kinesthetic dynamism. (At the 5th Avenue, the agile members of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater will handle the Robbins moves.)
The 1961 Movie “West Side Story.” Four years after the Broadway premiere, a cinematic version of the musical came out to glowing reviews and box office triumph. Co-directed by Robbins and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, the Technicolor feature was partly filmed on Manhattan streets undergoing redevelopment, giving the story added atmospheric grit and credibility — though the casting (including heavily bronzed white actors as some of the Sharks, and a pair of lovers with dubbed singing voices in Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) was not ideal.
However, the spectacular dance sequences won Robbins an honorary 1961 Oscar (for his achievements in the art of choreography on film), and he also shared a “best director” Oscar with Wise. (The film won an additional nine Academy Awards.)
Ironically, Robbins was fired before shooting ended, due to his time and cost overruns. But he continued to supervise the dance numbers (off the set). And though budget swelled to $6 million (a fortune in those days), the movie eventually took in $44 million at the box office. VCR, DVD and streaming versions earned more, and kept it in the public eye, worldwide.
High School Cool, Daddy-o. Lighter fare like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Annie” get performed more by teens, but “West Side Story” also remains a popular choice in high schools for successive generations. It’s a demanding undertaking, expecting youths to sing and play complex music, dance well and emote convincingly. The serious subject matter can also give schools cold feet.
In response to some production challenges, Music Theatre International (which licenses the school version) launched a new educational edition of “West Side Story” last year, designed to overcome obstacles “in part by providing an official Choreography Manual and videos featuring step-by-step instructions for all of the show’s iconic dance numbers.” http://www.playbill.com/article/music-theatre-international-releases-new-version-of-west-side-story-tailored-to-high-schools
But full-throttle professional presentations in Seattle are infrequent, and (when they fire on all cylinders) precious. The last time the 5th Avenue performed “West Side Story”? 2007. So get hip to that Seattle, and dig it.
“West Side Story,” music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins; May 31-June 23; 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $29; 206-625-1900; 5thavenue.org
Misha Berson is the author of “Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination” (Applause Books). firstname.lastname@example.org
Which btw, is an excellent book. I own a copy