NEW YORK — He didn't think the show had a role for him. She didn't even have her Juilliard diploma. And yet, the budding careers of Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel converged when they were cast as benighted lovers in the latest Broadway revival of a seminal American musical — in a production by a Belgian auteur who has divided audiences for years.
It seems apt that the actors whom director Ivo van Hove picked to play Tony and Maria in his radically streamlined, choreographically renovated version of “West Side Story” wouldn’t consider themselves obvious choices. Little sounds obvious in van Hove’s potentially mad scheme in the Broadway Theatre, where his handiwork has been in previews since Dec. 10, with an official opening that had to be pushed to Feb. 20 because of actors’ injuries.
Replacing Jerome Robbins’s dances with the steps of Belgian postmodernist Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker? Stripping out “I Feel Pretty,” a song as identified with a character — and Pimentel’s audition song — as any in musical-theater history? Putting Doc’s sweet shop in a cubicle so far upstage that the audience has to watch the key sexual assault scene on a video screen?
Egad! Who does van Hove think he is?
Well, he’s an artist with a particular talent for brushing away the dust on the august American theatrical canon, as he did with his Broadway productions of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” set in a wrestling pit, and an eerily supernatural “The Crucible.” To some of the actors he is bringing into the limelight — in a production in which 33 are making their Broadway debuts — the Tony-winning van Hove is inspirational: a benign combination of serendipitous instigator and rehearsal-room contemplative.
“I was kind of scared of him at first,” said Powell, 25, sitting alongside the 21-year-old Pimentel in the mezzanine lobby of the theater recently.
“You’re like, ‘Who is he?’ ” Pimentel added, laughing.
“In the space, he’s so collaborative and so willing to let us do our own thing,” Powell said. “It was really fun. He never shut me down for doing something stupid.”
For this updated “West Side Story,” van Hove’s first foray into musical theater, he recruited a young, fresh-faced cast, filled with actors of color. Maybe it takes someone with little emotional attachment to the genre — he and De Keersmaeker knew the material from the 1961 Oscar-winning movie — to be able to size it up, rawly and vibrantly. And though the story is still set on New York City streets boiling with superheated rivalries, it no longer has the 1950s underpinnings of a white gang pitted against a Puerto Rican one. Now the animus occurs between gangs of color. (The musical was born in 1957 on the stage of Washington’s National Theatre.)
“I wanted a ‘West Side Story’ for the 21st century,” van Hove said last month during a public discussion at the Guggenheim Museum. That meant acknowledging the evolving ethnic makeup of the city as well as the technological changes in the ways we monitor one another: In van Hove’s “West Side Story,” the camera eye is as vital as the naked one. Audiences are therefore compelled to function as viewers as well as spectators. Indeed, some who have seen the show have confided that the stage competition is as much between the screen and the live action as between the Sharks and the Jets.
The elimination of the piquant “I Feel Pretty” — a song that Stephen Sondheim, the show’s lyricist and only surviving creator, has for years expressed reservations about — was in service of a harsher, bleaker story that gallops to a tragic end. With its intermission cut and other aspects trimmed, a show that ran, for instance, 2 hours and 40 minutes at Arlington’s Signature Theatre in 2015 now reportedly clocks in at a sleek 1 hour and 45 minutes.
But the nerviest alteration to “West Side Story” has to be extracting the choreography of Robbins, who dreamed up the musical with Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and book writer Arthur Laurents. Persuaded by van Hove to join him, De Keersmaeker had initial butterflies: “It was announced I was following God,” she joked at the Guggenheim event.
But De Keersmaeker, who runs Rosas, a dance company in Brussels, and who studied for a time at New York University, did not idolize Robbins. It was avant gardists such as Robert Wilson who beguiled her. For Robbins, of course, there was admiration, for his “simplicity and clarity” and “respect for ballet architecture,” she said. “But also, how he related daily movement into efficient choreographic flow. Very simple movement. Not so much sophisticated, but efficient.”
With the consent of Sondheim and the estates of the other originators, van Hove and De Keersmaeker pursued their own vision. The choreographer began work in Brussels, with dancers who helped her create a new movement regimen. “They learned the vocabulary,” she said, “and then we also made the steps that were developed with them.”
Powell, from Greensboro, N.C., and Pimentel, who grew up in Teaneck, N.J., bear much of the emotional weight of this enterprise; it is their job to bring the evening’s two most important characters into the 21st century. Whatever else van Hove conceives, “West Side Story” remains an account of impetuous love, a la “Romeo and Juliet,” about young people from warring camps. If their attraction doesn’t crackle, neither does the show.
To develop the spark, they first had to get to know one another. “They put us in a group chat and said, ‘Make friends,’ ” Pimentel recalled. They went on a date of sorts, and over ramen at one place and waffles at another, they laughed a lot. Powell, who says he “never saw myself in the story anywhere,” found that with Pimentel, he suddenly did.
Pimentel is a vocal performance major at Juilliard. She played young Nala in “The Lion King” for six months on Broadway and has sung opera in Europe. She has strong ideas about Maria, who this time around is not quite the radiant innocent the show has often made her. “She’s always played as an ingénue and a softer character,” the actress explained.
That wasn’t going to work for a more assertive young woman of the 2020s. “She’s not as unsure and naive. She’s more in the driver’s seat,” Pimentel said.
To illustrate the point, Pimentel mentioned “Tonight,” the love duet after the dance at the gym that launches the pair on a collision course with calamity. But not before Maria lays down what Pimentel sees as her terms with fate. “ ‘Oh moon, grow bright’ is not just a wish,” she said, quoting Sondheim’s lyrics. “It’s a demand to the moon, to do this thing.”
The creative team’s wish for the production, though, remains the one that has held for every production of “West Side Story” — that it won’t be just any night.
West Side Story, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Ivo van Hove. $39-$199. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.