Songs have been dropped, dance routines booted out and the street-fights look nasty. This is a West Side Story for the Trump era, says the avant-garde superstar director.
Ivo van Hove likes it in America. Broadway rarely warms to avant-garde Belgian directors, but it has embraced this one, first for his blood-drenched A View from the Bridge, then for his unorthodox Crucible, which starred a large dog, and then for his adaptation of Network, complete with a working onstage restaurant that audiences could eat at. Now he and Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are refashioning West Side Story, that quintessentially American dance musical – a rare story of juvenile delinquency and fatal love that you can hum along to. It will be, says Van Hove, “a West Side Story for the 21st century”.
The show is not one that either had seen on stage, though each had watched the 1961 movie version in the 70s or 80s. “I liked it,” De Keersmaeker says, seated in the mezzanine of the Broadway theatre before a preview performance of their new production, which opens later this week. “The dancing. The clarity and efficiency. The long lines.” She gets up from her chair to demonstrate.
Van Hove rarely stages musicals, 2015’s incomprehensible Lazarus – which had music and lyrics by David Bowie – being the rule-proving exception. But in 2016, just after Donald Trump won the US election, he saw America change into “a much rougher world”. West Side Story seemed to fit the times, since it “deals with this world where people don’t listen to each other’s arguments, but just react to each other, and blame each other for what they are missing in life”.
Preparations for the original West Side Story began in the late 1940s as the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and the playwright Arthur Laurents riffed on making a contemporary Romeo and Juliet, set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and centred on the conflict between Catholics and Jews.
After fallow years, false starts and the addition of Stephen Sondheim as a lyricist, the show went into rehearsals in the summer of 1957, having relocated its setting to the Upper West Side. The focus was now on recent and less recent immigrants, as the musical told the story of the tragic romance between Tony, a Polish-American boy, and Maria, a Puerto Rican girl.
The two rival street gangs were reconfigured: the Jets (ostensibly Polish and Italian) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican). Despite this, the initial production hired mostly Caucasian actors, making liberal use of bronzer. “I am going to hurt your feelings,” Robbins told his cast, “but that’s the way I am.” He asked each actor to develop a character back story and insisted on isolating the Jets from the Sharks, even during off hours.
The show opened in the autumn of 1957 to mostly positive reviews, though some critics, such as the highly influential Harold Clurman, thought that it soft-soaped prejudice and teen violence. Clurman accused it of abandoning “the pain of a real problem” for “popular showmanship”.
Van Hove took the idea for a revival to the producer Scott Rudin with certain stipulations. He wanted to portray “the America of today” – which meant casting Latinx actors for the Sharks and black and white actors for the Jets. He wanted to cast young actors to bring out “the raw energy that’s hidden within West Side Story”. He wanted to eliminate the intermission “so that you get into the abyss before you know it”. And he wanted new dance. Rudin agreed, obtaining the rights to stage the musical without Robbins’ choreography, a Broadway first. De Keersmaeker, who had never planned to work on Broadway, signed on. “Oh my God,” she says, “it was impossible to say no.”
Reinterpreting a classic generally courts controversy: some audiences prefer such a show to remain a museum piece. Although West Side Story has been criticised over the years – for its initial brownface, for certain lyrics, for the lack of specificity among many of the Puerto Rican characters – it remains beloved. Robbins’ choreography, which uses vertical leaps and finger snaps to cue emotion and drive narrative, doesn’t show its age.
Van Hove’s hot-cool, deconstructionist, revisionist aesthetic – with its screens, its mythos, its spare, moody sets, as well as its emphasis on physical and psychological violence – is by now familiar to Broadway. But, when it was rumoured that he would cut the song I Feel Pretty (true) and the Somewhere ballet (not quite true), message boards filled up with tetchy comments.
Those same boards lit up again when two actors sustained injuries (Isaac Powell, who plays Tony, has since returned to the show) and when it was reported that the choreographers Sergio Trujillo and Patricia Delgado had been brought in – at the request of cast members – to give some Sharks numbers a more Latinx feel. De Keersmaeker and Van Hove said they had always planned to use consultants and that Robbins had done the same. “I think this identity politics is an important thing,” says De Keersmaeker. “But I do think that both Jets and Sharks are young and are looking for identity. And it’s also about violence, poverty and exclusion.”
A further controversy emerged, one they should perhaps have anticipated. The production’s decision to cast the dancer Amar Ramasar as Sharks leader Bernardo triggered online petitions calling for his removal, as well as protests outside the theatre. Ramasar and another dancer were dismissed from New York City Ballet (NYCB) after women in the company made complaints and said they would be uncomfortable dancing with them, following allegations that they had texted each other nude photos of female dancers without permission. An arbitrator ordered Ramasar to be reinstated after he completed mandatory counselling. (The other dancer chose to move on.)
De Keersmaeker says Ramasar’s casting “was done completely legally, and I only can say good things about Amar. He has been the most respectful, hard-working person.” Van Hove echoes this, saying: “He was acquitted.” Actually, the decision of the arbitrator was that suspension was appropriate, expulsion too severe. The company released a statement last week saying that, while it respected the protestors, it stood 100% behind Ramasar and, as it was a “different workplace” from the NYCB, would not consider dropping him.
Van Hove approached West Side Story in a typically non-naturalistic style. Trump’s victory may have been the inspiration, but he built his production to transcend any particular historical context. The mist-shrouded set, built by his partner Jan Versweyveld, is equally timeless. “I’m hoping to make a world that’s universally readable,” says Van Hove, “and that universally communicates on an emotional level.” As in many of his productions, video features prominently, live and recorded. Depending on your seat, some scenes will be visible only on screen.
De Keersmaeker wanted to let Bernstein’s music suggest a new physical vocabulary that borrowed from modern, postmodern and occasionally street dance, rather than ballet, to reflect contemporary life. She first explored the piece with her own ensemble, Rosas, and then with a cast drawn from the 1,400 actors who had auditioned, incorporating their own movements while making sure that dance still told the story, from the subtle weight shifts of the prologue to the hectic footwork of Dance at the Gym (“Mambo!”).
Van Hove saw the musical as a series of fights. So where the original had dance-fighting, this has fight-fighting, or “organised chaos” as he calls it. “The violence,” he explains, “should be really tangible.” But the director also chastises me for not asking him about the central story. “Love is very important in this production. It’s a musical about war on stage, but also about real love on stage.”
Van Hove recalls a conversation he had with Sondheim, who told him he and his colleagues had tried to make “a wholeness” in their original production. For all his changes, Van Hove does not see his own vision as being so different. “With elements, methods, instruments and technical devices that are all around today,” he says, “that’s what I tried to do – create a new kind of wholeness.”
• West Side Story is at the Broadway theatre, New York, until 6 September.