Inside the wildly ambitious effort to reimagine the classic musical for 2020.
By Sasha Weiss
The new “West Side Story” begins with nothingness: a huge black brick wall rising behind a cavernous blank stage. A group of young people enter, walking slowly, surveying the territory. They form a line at the lip of the stage and stare at the audience.
As the orchestra strikes up its first clanging notes, they start moving, but minimally, leaning from left to right. Suddenly their faces are projected behind them on the back wall — which is not a wall at all but a giant screen. A camera placed somewhere in the audience pans slowly across their faces and shoulders — you can see scars, tattoos, piercings, sprays of acne. One boy has a linebacker’s physique and wears a wool cap; another is compact, bare-chested underneath a blue satin bomber jacket; a third has stubble above his lip and is dressed in a leather jacket and sweatpants. Their expressions are hard, their eyes bright.
From the right side, a new pack of people enters, stalking the stage with the same contained aggression. They are also dressed in modern streetwear, in shades of red and maroon. One of them approaches someone from the first group and stares him down. The first group, silently, mockingly, turns on its heels, and the new group takes over the edge of the stage. Now their faces appear on the big screen — they, too, are tough and sad, prematurely worn down by life.
These first three minutes announce that if you have any expectations for “West Side Story,” they should immediately be discarded. In the original 1957 production, the choreographer Jerome Robbins, who first conceptualized the musical, created a revolutionary prologue. The Jets and the Sharks — the two New York gangs who try to destroy each other — were introduced exclusively through movement. They started with unified finger snaps and then burst into dance: They ran, leapt, kicked, charged, evaded and overtook one another, evoking not only masculine aggression but also the architecture of New York City, its alleys, underpasses, scaffolding, empty lots. They covered the stage with dance like human graffiti.
Here, Robbins’s bounding, almost joyful sense of menace has been replaced by something more inward. There’s no snapping — instead there’s swaying, slow walking. The complexions of the groups are different, too. The Jets, who consider themselves the true masters of their neighborhood, are not, as they were in the original production and its 1961 film version, all white. The Sharks are of Latino descent (in the movie, many of them were white, and all wore brown makeup). It’s not the 1950s anymore but a world, like our own, of images — a place where a face instantly becomes a photograph projected on a screen, an assertion of selfhood. And we are not being entertained — at least not yet. We are being prodded, maybe provoked. What are these people capable of?
This new staging originated several years ago in the mind of the director Ivo van Hove, who runs a major theater in Amsterdam and who has become, in recent years, a Broadway brand name, known for his bloody, irreverent interpretations of classics: “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible.” His work has been called merciless, brutal and gimmicky but also ingenious, imaginative and true — and he welcomes this divided response. Van Hove had admired “West Side Story” since he saw the movie as a teenager growing up in rural Belgium. In recent years, the play’s portrayal of a divided society acquired a new urgency for him, and he decided he wanted to offer his own vision of the classic show.
But a 21st-century production demanded a more complete renovation than had ever been attempted. He had in mind some drastic cuts and the jettisoning of Robbins’s beloved choreography. It took some persuading to secure permission from the estates of the original creators (with the exception of Stephen Sondheim, the only one living, who knew van Hove’s work and embraced the concept from the beginning). When they finally agreed, van Hove enlisted the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker — a rigorous formalist who directs Rosas, a celebrated dance company, but had never made movement for musical theater.
The show I saw in January was the product of more than three years of collaboration, during which “West Side Story” was dismantled and put back together again — a process that was intricate, physically demanding and sometimes maniacally ambitious. The production cost more than $15 million. The two months of previews that originally were planned — far more than for most shows — were extended by three more weeks when a lead actor was injured onstage (it is scheduled to open Feb. 20). The dancing is visceral and sharp; the play’s inherent violence graphic; the staging, with the video elements, dizzyingly active. Some people have walked out, but on the four nights I was there during previews, the house was full and the applause enthusiastic. Still, the show wasn’t finished yet — each day, video was being reshot, numbers were being restaged, new meaning was being discovered in the text.
As opening night drew near, van Hove projected a wry calm. He and De Keersmaeker knew that their task was delicate, even perilous — an update of a beloved 20th-century work of popular art, one that had its own risks in 1957. They wanted to reveal just how risky and politically fraught it remains. So many of the contentious issues of contemporary life — poverty, immigration, racism, gender discrimination and dysphoria, sexual violence, police brutality — are written into the play from the very first scene. “You shouldn’t overdo it,” van Hove told me, “but it’s all there.”
At 10 a.m. on a chilly morning in early October, Stephen Sondheim, wearing a patient smile, took his seat in a large Flatiron studio amid the cast members of “West Side Story” on the first day of rehearsal. The oldest of the gang members was 25, the youngest was 17, and they were all — in their own particular and mesmerizing ways — beautiful.
Casting “West Side Story” has always been a challenge. You need actors who can handle the high-level dancing and singing but also convincingly play teenagers. Van Hove and De Keersmaeker auditioned more than 1,500 people during 2018 and 2019 in New York, Los Angeles and Miami before they found their 50 cast members, 33 of whom will be making their Broadway debuts. For De Keersmaeker, casting the right dancers was the solution to the temporal riddle she and van Hove had devised. Their production is set approximately now, but the music remains the music of the 1950s, or Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant reimagining of it. How could the new choreography be responsive to the music and still feel of-the-moment? De Keersmaeker’s answer was dancers who brought “edge and fire and sensibility,” people who “have really chosen a life of examining the world through dance.” Dancing, she said, is a way of thinking.
The dancers that they assembled — among them a gamin Latina woman with dark, sympathetic eyes and a confident stride (Yesenia Ayala, playing the role of Anita); a short, muscular black woman with a shaved head and a winning, defiant expression (Zuri Noelle Ford, a Jet); a swaggering, acrobatic black man who moved like lightning (Dharon E. Jones, also a Jet) — exuded vigor and raw assurance. They had chosen to cast people of different races to reflect America today. The diverse cast also heightened an absurdity built into the script: “West Side Story” is explicitly about a group of more settled immigrants, who believe themselves to be natives, battling a group of more recent ones.
The mood in the rehearsal room was jubilant, the din of voices punctuated by little whoops of greeting. It was unclear as they were settling down if any of the cast members noticed that one of the creators was sitting among them. Van Hove and De Keersmaeker, both of whom are accustomed to commanding a room, took turns approaching Sondheim, almost diffidently. “Are you having a good time?” Sondheim asked, with friendly, deflationary wit.
“Well,” De Keersmaeker said softly, “I just got here.”
As De Keersmaeker and van Hove took their places in front of the room, the crowd quieted. They were each dressed elegantly, van Hove in a navy blue dress shirt, his gray hair the fine texture of a boy’s; De Keersmaeker in loose blacks, her white hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. There was something comical in the contrast between their cool, inscrutable expressions and the boisterous young Americans who sat before them. Van Hove began to speak — so quietly that it was difficult to hear — and the cast was rapt. Van Hove wears authority lightly, almost as an afterthought; he appears to be communing with the visions in his head.
“West Side Story,” he explained, is “brutal, and very rough.” Crucially, it’s a world without parents. These young people are essentially orphans, forced to live by their wits, and defining their turf is the primary ratification of their existence. Cuts to the original production were being considered — no intermission, jettisoning “I Feel Pretty” (one of the show’s most charming songs) — precisely because van Hove wanted the play to move at the speed of adolescent instincts. These characters, he explained, have no time to think about what they’re doing. They live in the now: They kill, they suffer, they kill again.
“This is all very heavy,” he acknowledged. The script was “masterfully done, almost in a primitive way. It’s unpolished. Not refined, so it goes right to your heart and tells the exact story it wants to tell.” There were murmurs of assent.
The set (designed by Jan Versweyveld, one of van Hove’s main collaborators and his romantic partner) would be stark on its surface but would reveal, as the play went on, certain elaborate tricks, like the projection wall, which played video — sometimes recorded from the stage by the cast members themselves, sometimes sumptuous images shot on location in the Bronx, East Harlem and Puerto Rico. The stage would occasionally fill with fog. “It’s difficult to explain,” van Hove said softly. “But nature elements are important to me. That New York becomes a mythical city that could also be Shanghai or Buenos Aires. Nature elements will be onstage — it’s a little bit scary, but there will be rain.”
“Nah, that’s cool!” someone from the crowd called out.
Van Hove smiled, a little shyly, a little subversively. “It will be one big flood, like a Kurosawa film, where the earth splits open.”
De Keersmaeker spoke next, more tersely. “Needless to say, this is a huge challenge. What makes ‘West Side Story’ so strong is the way that theater, music and dance come together and fuse together.” She admitted to being nervous: “As a European, you feel a little bit like, I’m going to be roasted!”
Whereas van Hove’s manner is definite, De Keersmaeker’s is searching. When I first met her last summer, at the headquarters of her dance school and company in Brussels, she talked about the difference between their styles. “He’s really somebody who has an extremely articulated vision, and he knows how to embody that strategy from the beginning,” she explained, whereas for her, the “process itself indicates how the material is going to be developed. I very often start from people, how they are.”
When van Hove first approached her in 2016 about joining the project, she didn’t reply for three weeks. De Keersmaeker knew that an American audience might not be sympathetic to a revision of Jerome Robbins’s cherished choreography — by a Belgian woman, no less.
But she shared with Robbins an interest in stylized transformations of everyday movement: in showing the way human beings go from walking to fighting, moving through territory to defending it, how group animus can be contained or unleashed. Robbins observed kids at high school dances in Spanish Harlem in the ’50s, borrowing steps from the mambo and the jitterbug. Once De Keersmaeker decided to sign on, she watched YouTube videos of teenagers krumping on street corners in Los Angeles, break-dancing contests, circles of hip-hop dancers in clubs egging on central combatants. There’s a frantic energy to this movement, De Keersmaeker explained, a form of expression somewhere between “dancing, fighting and screaming.” It captures the way young people relate to the world, absorbing the onslaught of news, assimilating and rearranging the glut of digital imagery on social media, trying on multiple identities. In fall 2017, with five members of her company, she began marrying her geometric, highly formal dance to the conventions of contemporary movement.
But De Keersmaeker also wanted to make something that saluted Robbins’s classicism and captured the musical’s elemental themes of love and death. The new choreography would draw, as her work always does, on the universal laws of the body, which she started to demonstrate that summer day in her office. As she talked, she got up from her chair and started to move. We lie down when we’re vulnerable, wounded, dying, she explained, sinking to the floor, propping herself up on an arm to face me; we lie down when we are engaging in erotic intimacy. She was exploring ideas of the horizontal, rolling and falling and lying down, but also of defying gravity, rising, leaping, propelling the body with knifelike arms. The arms, she explained, are our most immediate tools of expressiveness. They reach and punch and caress, push and point. She extended her arm and finger and said: “Get out of my house!”
De Keersmaeker’s way of working is slow, collaborative and nonlinear. She invents a sequence of movements and then asks dancers to go away and improvise, using the basic grammar she has given them and elaborating on it. When they return, she watches them and begins to harvest details they bring her — reducing or adding — until the language becomes a shared one. When she works with her company, this exchange can go on for months, even years. She began this work with the cast in a series of labs the previous winter, and they would continue it throughout the fall. She was getting to know them, beginning to thread their ideas into the work — but the choreography was still revealing itself.
On Broadway, dancers are usually told exactly where to stand, how to space themselves, how to move. In the rehearsal room that first day, De Keersmaeker told the cast that this process would be different. “We’re going to start with basic material,” she said, modest yet also definitive, “and then make together new material — things we’re going to have to find out together.”
Van Hove and De Keersmaeker had never worked together before, but they anticipated the uncertainty of joining forces with characteristic composure. “I have to get out of my comfort zone to work with her,” van Hove told me. “She has to get out of her comfort zone to work with me.”
Their collaboration replicates an important aspect of the original “West Side Story,” which sprang from a group of ambitious, restless artists who recognized, in one another, forces of equal and opposite weight. For years, Robbins had been talking to the composer Leonard Bernstein and the playwright Arthur Laurents about a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” that would seamlessly combine dance, music and storytelling. Discussion of the project began in the late 1940s — they first toyed with a story about Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side. Over the next several years, as the three were diverted by other projects, none of them entirely lost sight of it. It was a shared fantasy — still inchoate but somehow powerful.
One day in 1955, according to most accounts, Bernstein and Laurents were lounging by a hotel pool in Los Angeles. Bernstein was in town conducting; Laurents was working on a screenplay. The subject turned to the headlines in that day’s paper about Chicano gang violence. The two fell to talking. What if they revised their original idea of an East Side story and made it about white and Latino teenagers? Bernstein, who was married to Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean, was immersed in Latin music, and he could immediately hear rhythms and melodies. When they told Robbins of their new idea, he seized on the dance possibilities. Getting away from their own experiences, as descendants of immigrant Jews, and mapping their sense of outsiderdom onto a different set of tribal animosities proved freeing. All three were gay men in various states of acceptance of their sexualities, and a story of forbidden love may have been a way to write clandestinely about their own lives. They set to work.
Soon after a pair of experienced lyricists turned down the project in 1955, Laurents ran into Stephen Sondheim, who was then only 25, at a party and remembered having heard him play a few songs from an unproduced musical shortly before. He invited him to audition for Bernstein. By that point, Bernstein had written lyrics to a number of songs, but he quickly understood that Sondheim was the superior lyricist and was eager to work with him.
All four men had uncompromisingly high standards but different strengths. Laurents, who honed his skills writing radio plays for the Army, was economical, tart and resistant to sentiment. Bernstein married emotional warmth to operatic bravura, and his capacious musical intelligence could synthesize Beethoven, bebop, mambo and Puerto Rican seis. Sondheim had a knack for embedding plot in lyrics and a playful, prickly sense of language. Robbins brought his fearsome perfectionism, his sense of search, his impeccable showman’s instinct for contrast and mood.
Working together was not always easy. During the rehearsal period, Bernstein would sometimes retreat across the street to a bar to avoid Robbins after a particularly unpleasant argument (though there are also stories of the two of them together, Robbins with his hand on Bernstein’s shoulder as he sat at the piano, revising music measure by measure, as if they shared one intelligence). Robbins was a fierce editor of the material until the very end, scrapping and reworking songs (“Something’s Coming” was written just a few weeks before the play debuted) and driving the actors to tears. The four collaborators gradually arrived at a shared vision, discovering what Sondheim later called “a wholeness” — a synthesis of dramatic language, music and dance.
Think of “Maria,” one of the most affecting love songs written for the stage. It’s so familiar now that it’s hard to hear its strangeness, the haunting tritone of the song’s first word, “Maria,” the very same notes that can be heard in the prologue (what has been called “the shofar”), establishing an atmosphere of threat. The tension in the music is softened by the lyric, which is reverent but also sensual, with Tony invoking Maria’s name over and over, as if the word could be made flesh. Or think of “Cool,” a song whose breezy slang (“Boy, boy, crazy boy, get cool, boy”) pulls against its thrashing melodic line — and also quotes that same tritone — evoking barely contained adolescent aggression that explodes into dance. Or the way “America,” an escalating argument between the Puerto Rican men and women about the humiliations and advantages of moving to the United States, culminates in a dance-off.
It’s hard to imagine now, when “West Side Story” is a staple of high school musicals, and its film version adored around the world, that it was once considered an artistic oddity, even unperformable. When Robbins and Bernstein first played a few songs for potential backers, the music was pronounced too difficult, the lyrics too verbose, the subject matter too dark. A major Broadway producer — one of the few willing to take it on — quit before the creators found the ones who saw it through. Carol Lawrence, who played Maria in the original production, reported that on opening night, there was an eerie silence in the theater for several seconds at curtain call. She assumed the show had bombed. Suddenly, the audience leapt to their feet, hooting and weeping. It was a musical dancing on a knife’s edge between rage and love, tension and release, realism and transcendence.
Throughout October and November, the cast occupied the Gibney rehearsal studios, just above Union Square — large, bare rooms that they filled with gray dance floors, wooden tables arrayed with Purell and breath mints and metal folding chairs that stood in for the set. The rooms hummed with activity. In Studio B, the show’s musical director, Alexander Gemignani (a disciple of Sondheim’s), would be instructing the cast members on the intricacies of the score, trying to strip them of any inherited notions about these familiar songs. He reminded them that the score is full of jaggedness and dissonance, intervals that make the hair on your neck stand on end. They shouldn’t be afraid to sound ugly. In Studio C, De Keersmaeker was teaching the dancers her highly detailed, precise language — “The most extreme external thing reflects the most internal,” she instructed a group of Shark women who were learning sequences from “America.” “You want to have expressive fingers. You want to have expressive feet so that you get a longer line.” They often moved without music, and the atmosphere was intensely focused, even solemn. Van Hove, meanwhile, was close-reading the text with the actors in the main studio space. His script, which was almost always in his hand, was annotated on nearly every line with spidery notes.
One day in mid-October, he was rehearsing the scene that is the audience’s first introduction to Tony, the show’s Romeo, just after we’ve met the Jet clan. The “West Side Story” book is famously lean — it’s one of the shortest books in Broadway history — and propulsive. There are almost no speeches or reveries (those happen in the song and dance); all the dialogue moves the action forward. The more van Hove read the script, the more it seemed to him dense with theatrical ideas. Van Hove, whose first language is Flemish, brings to English-language texts a guileless irreverence. Daniel Raggett, the production’s associate director, told me this quality arises, in part, from the act of translation. “When Ivo does Shakespeare, somehow taking it from the original text and translating it into Dutch, and then when you see it, it goes back to English, suddenly it has this incredible clarity that it doesn’t have elsewhere.” When native English speakers come to canonical texts, he explained, “there’s such a weight of staging ideas, or political significance, or previous productions.” There are so many layers to shed; van Hove, it seemed to Raggett, could see right down to the bare words. Scott Rudin, one of the show’s producers, also described how van Hove was unbeholden to convention. “He doesn’t direct revivals like they’re revivals. Because to him, they’re not. He has no iconic relationship to any of these shows. They’re brand-new to him.”
Tony — Isaac Powell, who is 25, dark-browed and lanky, with a carefully contained jitteriness — was standing up on a chair, fixing a sign on Doc’s drugstore, where he works. In the show, he has recently left the Jets, which he founded with Riff — then played by Ben Cook, who has curly blond hair, a square jaw, a powerful dancer’s back and supplicating blue eyes. Riff remains in charge of the gang and is standing below Tony, trying to persuade him to join the Jets that night at a dance, where they will confront the Sharks.
“Tony, this is important!” Riff says. Tony responds, “Very important. Acemen, rocketmen.” Powell was sarcastically referencing the argot of the Jets.
Van Hove approached them with the script, drawing Powell’s attention to the words Tony was mocking. Usually this scene is played as a jocular argument, but van Hove didn’t read it that way. Remember, van Hove told Powell, it could be that Tony “invented those words, because he was the boss. He’s now disavowing his own creation.” This would be shocking to Riff, seeing a world that they created together so casually discarded by Tony.
Riff’s next line, van Hove suggested, should be full of that disbelief: “What’s with you? Four and one-half years, I think I know a man’s character. Buddy boy, I am a victim of disappointment in you.” Van Hove fixated on that interval of time. It was a detail whose specificity couldn’t be accidental. The script is making clear that they are real friends, intimates: They’ve been living together for years. Riff is desperate to preserve that intimacy; Tony is just as desperate to move away from it.
Powell tried the next line casually, a little condescendingly: “End your suffering, little man. Why don’t you pack up your gear and clear out? Go play nice with the Jets.”
Van Hove asked him to try it again, much more angrily — exploding at Riff out of frustrated ambivalence. He loves Riff, but he’s also recognizing that he has outgrown him. Powell tried the line again, almost growling, and gave Cook a hostile little shove, which Cook answered with spontaneous earnestness: “The Jets are the greatest.”
“They were,” Tony says, petulant but a little softer now.
“Are,” Riff insists. “You found something better?”
Van Hove wanted it to be clear how divided Tony feels at this moment, right on the edge of change but still tempted by the comfort of the old friendship. As they went on, the scene moved between seduction, anger and the revelation of Riff’s neediness.
They kept running the scene, trying different approaches. Sometimes their faces were so close together they nearly kissed; sometimes the pressure of Tony’s ambivalence caused him to shove Riff so hard he almost knocked him off his feet. In the end, they found something subtler — not a homoerotic breakup or compensatory explosions of machismo but a prickly, tender document of a teenage parting, its own small tragedy.
Van Hove began the project with the idea that “West Side Story” was a series of fights — physical fights, ideological fights, gendered fights. But as the weeks of rehearsal went on and he and the actors began to live inside the play, it became clear that it was just as much about fantasies. There’s the harsh reality of their lives, which causes them to act impulsively, as if there’s no future; but at the same time, there are a lot of dreams. Van Hove told me this one morning in early November, just before he rushed off to rehearsal. “People are dreaming. And they’re dreaming to have a perspective in life. To have a love. To have something to care for. To have somebody to care for. To live with someone.”
Getting in touch with that oneiric quality helped van Hove arrive at an answer to a question he had been having for months: how to stage the climactic moment when Tony and Maria are finally alone together. The two meet earlier during the dance at the gym and instantly fall in love. The power and tone of their emotion overtake the atmosphere of the play for a while, altering the language of the dialogue and songs, which become sweetly surreal, full of non sequiturs and endearments and celestial metaphors. In the original Broadway production, and then in the movie, Maria is up on her fire escape, and Tony calls to her from below; it’s the balcony scene of “Romeo and Juliet,” symbolizing their distant worlds. But on this bare set, there could be no balcony. So how to show the obstacle between them? One day in November, van Hove, De Keersmaeker and the actors were experimenting with a solution.
In the center of the rehearsal room, Tony, kneeling, implored a standing Maria to join him, “just for a minute.” She warned him that her brother, Bernardo, the head of the Sharks, played by the New York City Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar, would be back soon. But then she succumbed (“A minute is not enough”), joining him on the floor.
Maria, played by Shereen Pimentel, is not an ingénue — she’s willful and is often leading Tony rather than the other way around. (“The text is full of traps,” van Hove told me. “Maria is in a white dress, a virgin,” but if you read the text carefully, he said, she always knows what she wants and expresses it clearly.)
On the ground, they began touching tenderly. Remember, van Hove told them, “they have touched already” — when they kissed at the dance before being thrust apart by the Jets and the Sharks — “so it can be a little more loose, a little more relaxed.” They explored each other’s hair and faces, lightly wrestled, pressed their bodies together.
They started singing “Tonight” with their lips a centimeter apart. A song about suns and moons and stars becomes earthly and lustful. Then their intimacy is punctured, though Tony and Maria can’t see it or feel it. Van Hove turned to the rest of the cast, who were massed on either side of the rehearsal room. “What you are going to do now is not realistic. This is operatic. I want to try. We’ll see if it works.”
Tony and Maria were disobeying the rules laid down for them by their communities, so van Hove and De Keersmaeker decided that the rules of reality onstage would change, too. They were discovering their own version of what Laurents in 1957 called “a lyrically and theatrically sharpened illusion of reality.” De Keersmaeker began arranging the Sharks in a group behind Maria, and the Jets assembled behind Tony. “The two communities are like walls,” De Keersmaeker instructed them. “Tony and Maria want to break the wall, but the community doesn’t want the wall to be broken.”
After the ecstasy of “Tonight,” Tony and Maria reluctantly began to part. But each time they started to leave, they turned back around, and their respective communal group clutched and pulled at them.
“Wait, when will I see you?” Maria asked Tony.
“Tomorrow,” he answered, trying to break out of a grip of a dozen pairs of hands.
De Keersmaeker went from body to body, pulling the group closer together, so that Tony’s and Maria’s heads, straining toward each other, seemed to emerge out of an abstract tangle. Van Hove and De Keersmaeker stood back to look, as if studying a painting on a wall. “This moment is an image,” van Hove said quietly to the group — a visceral expression of the forces keeping them apart. There was a rustling energy as the cast released Tony and Maria, a sense of having arrived at a new collective understanding.
In early November, I visited Sondheim. He sat on a couch on the ground floor of his large Midtown townhouse, nursing a glass of white wine. Two elderly black poodles were sprawled nearby, one of them gently wheezing. When I asked him how he was, he responded that he wasn’t so great. He was experiencing a bout of gout. Sondheim is 89, and his walk that day was slow and pained, but he retains a boyishness — a willingness to amuse and be amused.
At first, his answers to my questions were a little curt. How did “West Side Story” achieve its singular tone? “Oh, well, you can’t put it into words, really. That’s why it’s called tone!” How did it achieve such sublime yet accessible beauty? “Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There’s no accounting for why a piece has some kind of popular reach or takes a while to catch on. Art, as you know, has its own timetable.” Theorizing seemed to pain him, and he appeared relieved, and more responsive, when I began asking about specific lyrical choices.
Sondheim has said before that he isn’t fond of some of the lines he wrote. He regretted the showy internal rhymes in “I Feel Pretty” — “it’s alarming how charming I feel” — which he later came to see as not believable for Maria, a new immigrant who still doesn’t speak fluent English. Same for Tony’s line, in “Tonight,” “Today the world was just an address.” “Excuse me?” Sondheim said, self-mockingly. “That’s a writer. That ain’t Tony!” Occasionally, he and Bernstein had disagreements. While Bernstein’s theatrical instincts were “marvelous,” his lyrical ones were less so. Bernstein’s “idea of poetic lyric writing is written poetry, or what I call purple prose.” Sondheim’s own “idea of poetic lyric writing was conversational.” It was when he stuck to his guns that he produced his best lines.
It was a lesson he absorbed from the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, who was his mentor. He pointed to lyrics from Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”: “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day.” “When it’s set to music, that’s poetry,” he said. “When it’s on paper, it’s flat prose. That’s the difference. And that’s a crucial difference.” I asked him to tell me a line from “West Side Story” that satisfied him. He answered unhesitatingly: “I just met a girl named Maria.” This was lyrical restraint coupled with musical richness. He recalled playing it for Hammerstein and his wife, Dorothy, while he was at work on “West Side Story.” When he was finished, Dorothy got up off the couch and kissed him. Sondheim’s eyes became a little moist as he told me this. “And I knew why. That’s the kind of lyric that belongs in this show, for these characters. That’s poetry.”
“West Side Story” was Sondheim’s first Broadway show. He has written many more and received the theater’s highest honors. But it became clear, as we talked, that he was self-critical, still scrutinizing certain choices almost as if he was working them over in his mind. The qualities of beauty and wholeness in “West Side Story” were perhaps not so ineffable as they seemed. They emerged from a series of concrete, pragmatic details: the effect of a note in this measure, the solidity of a line in that song, rethinking and questioning and testing them.
I kept asking Sondheim, in different ways, to characterize why “West Side Story” has such a hold on us. Why does it work so well? Would it stand up to this radical restaging? A little wearied by my insistence, Sondheim finally said: “The thing that holds ‘West Side Story’ together is the story.” It’s the reason no revival, no matter how contemporary, can stray too far from the original. Sondheim was careful to make the distinction between story and plot, using the example of “Hamlet”: “Story is, this is about a man who can’t make up his mind. Plot is, this is a guy who thinks his uncle killed his father. And a good play combines the two.”
So what is the story of “West Side Story”? Sondheim thought for a moment. “Let me see if I can put this succinctly,” he said, taking a sip of his wine. “It’s about a young man who grows up by falling in love, and it kills him.”
I complimented him on his haiku-like formulation and asked if he had ever put it that way before.
It’s beautiful, I told him.
“O.K., good,” he said, clearing his throat a little peremptorily at my expression of sentiment. “If it’s clear, that’s great.”
I mentioned that the idea of clarity had been a leitmotif of our conversation. I was learning something about holding yourself to standards of simplicity and limpidity.
“You can learn about it, but it’s always beyond your reach. It’s: ‘I almost got it there. I almost got it there,’ ” he said, frowning.
“Yeah, well, you’re hard on yourself, obviously.”
“Yeah, aren’t you?” he answered sharply. Then, with a mirthful New York honk: “Hello? You know a writer who isn’t? Name one!”
Moving from the rehearsal studio to the theater is like moving from a cramped apartment to a spacious house. Ideas that work in an intimate room can become hard to decipher on the stage, and you have to recalibrate the acting, the staging, the choreography to fit the new space. When the production set up camp in the 1,700-seat Broadway Theater on Nov. 18, this challenge was compounded by the presence of the video screen that would loom behind the actors throughout the production. Sometimes the characters film one another, so that they are doubled, and the video has the raw, shaky quality of social media. Van Hove and Versweyveld, the set designer, wanted the video to give us intimate access to the characters’ lives — we can see, on the big screen, their tears and grimaces and sweat. Other times, the video comments on the lives of the gang members, almost like a documentary film.
This was the case with “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Originally conceived as the show’s only comic number, the song is performed by the Jets right after they’ve been hassled, yet again, by Sergeant Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank, two cops in their neighborhood. The music has a vaudeville quality, with horns and trombone zips, and the lyrics are antic, even though they describe being shunted between the justice system, therapists and social workers. In the original, the Jets act out each encounter, putting on ridiculous accents and bonking one another on the head.
Van Hove read the song’s comedy as dark truth, and he was staging it as an autobiography of kids who have been abused and neglected. The Jets and the Sharks, he observed, are products of an inhumane system — of immigration laws, of racism, of policing. “Krupke” would become an indictment.
It was van Hove’s most heretical revision, because it cut so sharply against the grain of the song’s vaudeville style. Van Hove encouraged the actors to sing it with simmering anger, and De Keersmaeker invented adrenalized movement to go with it. As the Jets talk about being judged and dehumanized, they start to move like zombies or animals. They shove one another, derange their faces, pump their fists and chests. They practically spit out the lyrics. Behind them, on the screen, is a video showing young men (not the characters onstage; we’re in the wider world) being violently handcuffed, stomped on and threatened with guns by the police.
In late November, they were still deciding about the song’s placement in the show. In the original, it was in the second act — and was specifically written as a release valve from the show’s tensions. In the film version, it takes place in the first act, before all the killing in the rumble, and in the new production it started off here, too. When Sondheim came to see an early run, he gave notes on “Krupke” to Rudin, who communicated them to van Hove. Sondheim recalled the original intent: It was like the drunk porter scene in “Macbeth,” unsparing but funny. If it stayed in the first half of the show, it didn’t make sense for it to be so grim.
Van Hove felt strongly that it could still honor Shakespeare and be shaded darkly — more Beckettian. He was open to moving it to later in the show. This would make his reading of it even more psychologically plausible. “Krupke” would now take place only minutes after the rumble. The Jets’ leader has just been killed; their friend Tony has just killed the leader of the Sharks. They are traumatized and numb. They are explaining to the audience, and to themselves, how they have become so despairing and nihilistic that they commit murder.
But van Hove was risking didacticism — and scrambling some issues. (The video seems to reference Black Lives Matter at certain moments; at another moment a victim of police brutality is white.) To be fair, “West Side Story” has always been grim; no musical had ever paused for intermission with two dead bodies onstage. But the violence was leavened with charm — “I Feel Pretty,” which was now definitively out — and Robbins’s seductive dancing. How dark was too dark? Could the song be engineered so that the audience would still laugh, but more out of a sense of shock than mirth?
Well into previews in January, they were still working on the scene: streamlining the video, trying to find the balance in the staging between black humor and confrontation. The music was being reorchestrated, digging further into the vaudeville honks and dongs and making the rhythms driven and aggressive. The actors, perhaps tellingly, embraced van Hove’s reading and were finding in the song a lacerating energy. When we spoke in early January, van Hove said that “Krupke” was getting one of the biggest reactions of any song in the show. I asked Sondheim what he thought of it, and he demurred. He hadn’t seen it in weeks — how could he comment on something that hadn’t yet taken its final form?
One late afternoon in late December, I sat in the Broadway Theater with Ricky Ubeda, who plays one of the Shark men. We were watching a group of Sharks rehearse a sequence from “Dance at the Gym,” a ferocious dance battle that involves the Sharks and Jets charging at one another, beating each other back through sheer force of virtuosic movement. They were in the process of making changes, which the cast members themselves had demanded. All through the fall and winter, they had been working to master De Keersmaeker’s technique, with its strict geometries, athleticism, speed, precision. The movement was forceful, energized, contemporary, but it didn’t feel, to the Sharks, as if it successfully captured contemporary Latino young people. Teenagers don’t all dance in the same way, and the Sharks should have a different style than the Jets.
Some members of the cast vocalized their unease to Rudin. It wasn’t enough to have Latino people onstage playing Latino characters. “You can’t just fill a quota,” Ubeda, a first-generation Cuban-American from Miami, told me. “You have to allow us to represent actually. If there’s any reason to do it again, it’s to get it right.” In the original script, the Sharks are drawn less sharply than the Jets — they have fewer songs as a group, and the people in the gang are less differentiated. The cast members worried that this imbalance was being repeated.
Two Latino dance consultants — Patricia Delgado, a ballet dancer originally from Miami, and Sergio Trujillo, a Tony Award-winning Broadway choreographer — were called in to help De Keersmaeker, together with the cast, find ways of incorporating more authentically Latino movement. In the theater world, reports about this were greeted with a derisive frisson (one website reported, inaccurately, that Trujillo was being brought in to clean up a mess and that Robbins’s choreography was being restored). But what was happening at the theater was at once more pedestrian and more complicated: Real identity politics had entered into the production’s theatrical identity politics, creating tensions that had to be resolved through dance.
I thought back to De Keersmaeker’s excitement during the first weeks of rehearsal, her certainty that the casting of these particular dancers was the trick to bringing the show into the present moment. But the temperament of the present moment — its focus on identity and representation — was causing the dancers to make demands. (The public felt emboldened to make its own demands. Some people on Twitter were calling for the boycott of the production because Amar Ramasar, who plays Bernardo, had been the subject of a sexual harassment inquiry at the New York City Ballet; he was fired by the ballet and subsequently reinstated.) Onstage, the dancers crossed the stage with a kind of salsa charge — their feet moving rapidly, their arms raised above their heads. “It needed to come alive in a way that felt less formal, more grounded in the hips and pelvis,” Ubeda told me. “Just as we had to learn all of her language, she also had to slowly open up to ours.”
Trujillo and Delgado became, in effect, translators, experimenting with the Sharks to propose movements — flourishes of the arms, the introduction of salsa and merengue steps and turns, shaking, active hips, a funky little chug to cross the floor. De Keersmaeker, in response, would take up the movements and make adjustments to bring them back into her vocabulary (the shoulders would be lowered slightly, a hip shake made tighter). It was the back-and-forth that she had envisioned. The two gangs’ movements became more distinct, with the Jets dancing on their backs and stomachs, manipulating their limbs like break dancers, then rising to attack. The Sharks were more upright, their arms more rounded, their bodies moving like water.
But the dancers’ insistence on ideas of “typical” Latino movement also raised troubling questions for her. When did a gesture become so recognizable that it was stereotypical? How to mediate between the demands of modern reality — movement that telegraphs an idea of young Latino people today — and a sense of timelessness? She had been trying, in the choreography, to answer questions that she felt went beyond ethnic particularities. What is essential to how a body relates to another body? What does love mean? What does friendship mean? What makes us human?
The dancers were clearly happier. You could see it on their faces onstage. But if one of the challenges of the new “West Side Story” was finding the right dosages of reality — preserving its heightened emotional tone while allowing contemporary politics to penetrate its imaginative world — there was always a chance that the mixture would be off. That there would be some disconnect between the two masterly, middle-aged European artists who conceived the project and the young white, black and brown American performers who were enacting their ideas. This group of dancers, Ubeda told me, is very strong, very opinionated, “ready to push things forward.” Perhaps the generation of Latino performers now onstage is the generation that will one day insist on staging “West Side Story” for themselves.
When I stopped by the theater on Jan. 8, the huge machine of the production whirred. Tiny tweaks (the cutting of lines in the script for pacing and clarity) and large ones (shooting new footage for the “Krupke” video with iPhones, to make it less polished) were narrowing the gap between ambition and its realization. But there were upheavals: Powell had torn his meniscus during a performance and had to have surgery. His understudy, Jordan Dobson, took up the role having rehearsed it only once on the stage. On Jan. 5, Ben Cook, who plays Riff, dislocated his shoulder and had to leave the production. Everyone seemed to be grieving for him. Dharon Jones, who played Action in the Jets, would have to rapidly learn the new role.
Onstage, the Jets were practicing “Krupke” while Gemignani made small changes with the orchestra — accentuating the attack on the refrain between the verses, making the dynamics more explosive, continuing to explore the line between comedy and aggression.
There was a lively debate about cow bells versus wood blocks for one of the sharp comedic accents. They tested out three different cow bells, and there was widespread enthusiasm for a medium-size one (“I’ve never heard so much love for the cow bell,” Gemignani said). The Jets were charged up by the new orchestration. They bobbed their heads and shouted: “Yes!” Leaning into the vaudeville quality was giving the song the acrid tone it needed: The answer had been inside the music all along.
The last time I talked to van Hove, he was more relaxed than usual. He had taken a few days off around Christmas, and he came back to the production fresh, with new ideas occurring to him all the time. I asked him which aspects of the show were finished. “Finished?” he said skeptically. “Nothing is finished yet.” Months earlier, he likened the process of staging a play to “developing a photograph the old fashioned way, in liquid chemicals” — the image takes time to become visible. It was only at the very end of the process that you could see it clearly. And even then, as they continued to perform it night after night, there would be “infinite variations.”
Van Hove once told me that his ambition in restaging “West Side Story” was to get people to really listen to it, to hear what else the text and the music have to tell us that we don’t know yet. There’s an audacity to this but a kind of awe and respect, too: the conviction that the greatest works of art have inside them many lives. The language and music and dance of “West Side Story” will keep vibrating on their unsettling tritone, generating new meaning, and people who try to stage it 50 years or 100 years from now will seize on it, wrestle with it, demand that it reveal itself again. This production was just one interpretive line in a whole Talmud of “West Side Story.” “Theater is a living thing,” van Hove said. “You never know what will happen.”