An ambitious revival of West Side Story on its 50th anniversary

The celebrated musical now playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre still has lots of the daring touches and extraordinary Jerome Robbins choreography, even if parts of it now look dated and cartoony. But it is the work of courageous outsiders in a conservative period of American history.
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The Sharks and Jets face off in <i>West Side Story</i> at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre. (Chris Bennion)

The celebrated musical now playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre still has lots of the daring touches and extraordinary Jerome Robbins choreography, even if parts of it now look dated and cartoony. But it is the work of courageous outsiders in a conservative period of American history.

In 1949, ballet and Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins, five years removed from his first musical hit On the Town, had an idea for a new show. Update Romeo and Juliet to contemporary New York City around the time of year celebrating both Passover and Easter, and turn the Montagues and Capulets into warring Jews and Catholics. The first working title – East Side Story. Robbins discussed the idea with several people, including his On the Town collaborator, Leonard Bernstein, but eventually abandoned it as too old-fashioned and reminiscent of a 1920s Broadway hit, the long-running Abie's Irish Rose, about intermarriage between a Jew and a Catholic. In 1954, Bernstein and writer Arthur Laurents, while in Los Angeles, noticed a newspaper story about Mexican-American gangs. It reminded them of Robbins' concept. This set in motion a series of events that led three years later to the Broadway premiere of the landmark musical West Side Story. The show's concept was no longer Jews and Catholics but two gangs, the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, and the Jets, ethnic whites whose turf is threatened by the Sharks, the newcomers to their neighborhood and to America. The doomed love affair is between young and innocent Puerto Rican Maria and idealistic Polish American Tony, a former leader of the Jets. West Side Story was a major success, running for 732 performances, a significant number in those pre-Cats and Phantom days on Broadway, though it was nosed out by The Music Man for that year's Tony for best musical. After closing, it enjoyed an extensive national tour. However, West Side Story left its largest imprint on American popular culture via the hugely successful film version released in 1961, and from performances over the years at seemingly every high school, college, and community theater in the country. Seattle's always-enterprising 5th Avenue Theatre, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of West Side Story, mounted a completely new production that opened on Thursday, May 31, and runs through June 19. The program revealed both the greatness of the show and a few of its shortcomings. Although Shakespeare had served as a jumping-off point for previous musicals, this was the first time that it was placed in such a contemporary environment, with themes about juvenile delinquency and racism. Bernstein's memorable score, with lyrics from a young Stephen Sondheim, ranges from near-show-tune kitsch to mid-European dissonance to operatic altitude, and it is now so familiar to us that songs like "Maria" and "Tonight" seem to have been around forever - and for most of us, maybe 50 years is forever. But more than the music, West Side achieved its highest artfulness and unique impact from its extraordinary dances by Robbins, whose superb technical skills at putting together movement, style, and character created choreography that reflected the nervous energy of alienated youth and the fidgety urban environment of the time. What was once original and unique about street toughs dancing has become almost clichéd and used to serve other masters. See Michael Jackson's Beat It video for one example. Faring less well and not served favorably by the passage of time is the book by Arthur Laurents. The tragic deaths and the resulting changing relationships of the characters seem a bit too rushed and pat, though still stirring the heart. Laurents takes the high concept of the story and too often reduces it to overdone dialogue, especially for the Jets in speaking the supposedly "cool" talk of young people of the day, or in making Tony and Maria sound more like children, rather than the teenagers they are assumed to be. 5th Avenue's production is a sumptuous one with a cast of 43 and a fine pit orchestra. The ingenious set composed of catwalks and ladders as the urban environment at times is a bit too overwhelming for the human dimensions of the show's characters. Bob Richards, who has previously staged several West Side productions, was brought in by 5th Avenue to recreate the original Robbins choreography. It is not easy to find actors who can also meet the demands of both Robbins' choreography and of the show's songs, and Richards did an excellent job of blending the various dance talents and abilities of the ensemble. It remains unclear just how much of the original 1957 choreography remains intact because Robbins, according to Richards, was in the habit of tinkering with his dances if given the chance, and over the years, with revivals of one kind or another, he had lots of chances. It also helped the production to have the participation of the skilled performers from Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theatre. Among the show's lead characters, the gem was Manoly Farrell who plays Anita, the girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo. Her ebullient stage presence and acting, sure dancing, and captivating singing were all showcased in the knock-out number, "America," which also featured excellent vocal support from Naomi R. Morgan as Rosalia. Among the others, Louis Hobson as Tony stood out for his mellifluous voice and sweet demeanor. At the time in New York that West Side Story was written, gang warfare and youth misbehavior was a hot topic in the city's dialogue. Racism toward Puerto Ricans, who had emigrated to New York in large numbers in the 1940s and '50s, was overt, and there still existed in the city a large core of working-class ethnic whites. West Side Story is, of course, a tragic romance, but more importantly it argues against racism and the fear of the "other," against the injustice of poverty and the subversion of hope in our democracy. The show's four creators, Robbins, Sondheim, Bernstein, and Laurents, each had reason to identify as outsiders. Besides being artists in a conservative period in American history, they were all Jews, and they were all gay. In the twisted politics of the time, Laurents and Robbins made odd collaborators. Laurents was blacklisted for supposed communist sympathies, but Robbins testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and sang like a bird. The show itself is also a creature of its era. Like good girls of the time, the Jets' girls hardly talk and are dismissed by the boys from the stage when no longer needed. The Sharks, with the exception of Bernardo every now and then, have hardly any dialogue. Unlike the Jets, they dress alike, and as they glower in a clump seem more sinister and mature than the almost nerdy white boys. We never get to know them or hear their voices. The Sharks girls, other than the virginal (at least for the first half of the show) Maria, are hot and loud Latina stereotypes. They are also smart, teasing, and funny, a counterpoint to the anger and hurt of their men. Perhaps this was the creators' intention – to show these stereotypes, to exaggerate, and then at the end to demystify and make plain to all a message of hope. After all, isn't that some of what Shakespeare intended? Also, Robbins and company might have known the limits of their predominantly affluent and white audience's ability to empathize and appreciate the more highly charged elements of the show. At least one main backer withdrew support, possibly believing that the message was just too strong for its time. Seen from 50 years out, it's hard for us to fully understand the impact the original West Side Story had on its public, especially young people. In its day it seemed much closer to reality than it now does, even though the issues presented are still very much with us. The show's identity with youth and its struggles, even in a campy way, still resonates. Other than the set, there are a few other concerns with this production. The sound of the orchestra occasionally drowned out the singing, and some of the dialogue and music was muddy to the ear. The show itself moved along very quickly, sometimes too much for its own good. There were moments when a little more breathing space, a silence, or a slow fade of light, a walk off stage rather than a dead run, might have better served the material. And then there were the Jets. They've always seemed a bit cartoony, not to be taken seriously as a threat to anyone, and the same held true for this production. Some of this is in the dialogue, some in the faux New York accents or the costuming, or direction that pushed the actors toward a physicality that emphasized a theatrical and almost goofy youthfulness, rather than a more naturalistic one with ominous overtones. Only at the moment of the near rape of Anita in Doc's Drugstore do we get some sense of the real anger and potential for violence in these young men. It is to the credit of 5th Avenue Theatre that they have poured so many resources into this 50th anniversary revival. They took the time and expense to do a series of community activities prior to the opening that helped to place the show within a historical context and make it more relevant to today's audiences. People should go and see it for themselves to understand what musical theatre said about our lives 50 years ago, and for what it still might be saying about us today.


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