The New “West Side Story” is a Convoluted Mess if You Don’t Know Better, “60 Minutes” and CBS’s Bill Whitaker Did an Accurate Report
by Roger Friedman
Tonight, CBS’s Bill Whitaker did an excellent report on the mess that is Ivo von Hove’s “West Side Story.” The musical revival opens this Thursday.
Whitaker spent four months behind the scenes at the show, where the lead actor, Isaac Powell was injured, forcing the show to postpone its opening by two weeks. Actor Ben Cook, who I saw at the second preview performance, dislocated his shoulder and left the show completely. Another actor, Amar Ramasar, who is the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit from his time at the New York City ballet, is the subject of protests. Producer Scott Rudin told Whitaker he doesn’t care.
Whitaker didn’t mention that that Rudin has joined forces with two Hollywood powerhouses, David Geffen and Barry Diller, to produce this show. The only living member of the triumvirate that created “West Side Story” in 1957, Stephen Sondheim, 85 and ailing from a fall, has been paying close attention to what’s going on. I can only imagine the money he was paid to allow the cutting of his song, “I Feel Pretty,” and the changing of Jerome Robbin’s choreography.
So, yes, I’ve seen “West Side Story.” I held my tongue because the show had a very long preview period anyway– two months, not including the extra two weeks– and I’d reported that Sergio Trujillo had come in to help cutting edge choreographer Anna deKeersmaecker try to make her work less abrasive to Robbins fans.
In his piece, Whitaker mentioned “two choreographers” came in to help DeKeersmaeker, without giving names. Trujillo is a Tony award winner. From the looks of Whitaker’s piece, he hasn’t had too much influence.
Whitaker said in his piece there is so “snapping” in the dances, and there’s no balcony– meaning a fire escape– for the singing of “Somewhere.” This is true. There are no sets, just a black brick unadorned stage. Cut into the back wall is a set that we can’t really see. It’s used by the videographers who go back there and transmit the action to the Drive in like back wall of the theater, now a massive projection. When I saw the show, sometimes no one was on stage, it was all taking place on video. It was annoying and depressing. von Hove, who used a lot of video projection for “Network,” has gone whole hog with it here.
The videos are more distressing than the changes in the choreography. The dances now are just underwhelming. They aren’t bad. They just lack Robbins’ passion. There is no snapping, Whitaker is correct. If you’re seeing “West Side Story” for the first time ever, you won’t know the difference. Later, if you see the movie, you’ll smack your forehead and wonder what the heck these people were thinking. But back to the videos: they are constant, and moving. I felt like I needed a Dramamine. Maybe that’s been changed. Also, they were supposed to be street shots of Hell’s Kitchen. They looked like Long Island City.
Powell was excellent in the show I saw, so were Shireen Pimentel, Ben Cook, Yesenia Ayala and Ramasar. Powell is not performing matinees from what I’ve been told. Cook is gone. Are they as good as the cast I saw a decade ago when co-author Arthur Laurents was still alive? No. Did I miss Karen Olivo as Anita? A lot. And the Robbins dancing? Yes. I remember that cast sailing through the air, they were wondrous. But you don’t miss what you don’t know. I thought the biggest mistake, aside from no ‘balcony,” was the Officer Krupke number now inflected with violence. What a shame.
How will “West Side Story” be received on Thursday? I’ll bet the New York Times loves it, for many reasons. They want to seem hip and cool. They will be hard pressed to go against Rudin, Diller, and Geffen. Plus, the show has been selling out since it previews began. Most audiences won’t know the difference. The good news is, “West Side Story” will survive this episode. We are the same age. We’ve survived up to this point. Our snap is still there, even if you don’t see it.