We know that the musical, this theatrical genre so popular in English-speaking countries, reaches its maximum development on Broadway. Although most of the classics of the genre come from the London West End, the global diffusion of productions through the New York theater market has no comparison.
With the passage of time these two locations of the entertainment industry became the place where the great universal and extemporaneous dramatic pieces considered to be “High Culture” became popular shows for the general public. Some changed their name, like “Miss Saigon”, a theatrical version of the opera Madam Butterfly; others kept the name of the original, like “Les Miserables”.
Over the years, the mainly American authors needed to tell stories touching on current issues. We thus got to know works with a complexity that generally remained hidden behind the staging, only legible to experts (since show business “conveniently” supposes that the masses do not want to think). “Chicago” was thus released as a scathing criticism of the power of the image in our culture; “Hair” functioned as a manifesto against the Vietnam War; and “Rent” was a way to deal with the devastating effect of silence of the Reagan administration in the face of the HIV epidemic of the 80s.
But of all the great modern American musicals probably the most representative of the genre is “West Side Story.” Written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story” is freely based on “Romeo and Juliet”. The show places the action in the poorest parts of the New York Upper West Side in the mid-1950s. It develops the rivalry between two youth gangs of different ethnic groups: the Jets (white youths of European descent who speak English) and the Sharks (Latinos of Puerto Rican origin who speak “Spanglish”) Everything gets complicated when Tony, a former member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks. This is what gives the story its romantic side, which has been exploited in excess to the point that the Spanish version of the work was translated as “Amor sin barreras” (Love without barriers).
“West Side Story” debuted on Broadway in 1957. Its film version from 1961 won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. That is to say that this work was a success from the beginning, becoming a classic for its fans that go from Jorge Luis Borges to Michael Jackson. But with the passage of time it was superseded by new productions in the genre, more effective and entertaining.
On December 10, 2019, a new version of “West Side Story” debuted at Broadway Theater in Manhattan. This time director Ivo Van Hove decided to do a serious version, leaving the romantic story in the background, which is only a pretext in the argument, in order to bring the social and political aspects that appear in the story to center stage. Introducing significant changes and concentrating the script in a single act that highlights the issue of violence without veils (going as far as showing a group rape on the stage), it opens a way to thinking about ethnic conflicts between the different waves of immigration that arrived in New York, denouncing the hidden xenophobia in American society.
The reinvention of the work includes a giant panoramic screen that reproduces in real time the tattooed bodies of the 50 gang members represented on stage. The original music remains but with an avant-garde choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, an eminence of contemporary dance who wagered on the dances and dance styles of the suburban slums of New York to relaunch the show.
Van Hove decided to go back to “West Side Story” after the 2016 US elections, when he understood that the social tension he was experiencing had allowed the victory of Donald Trump: “The work contains all the topics that I wanted to talk about: the relationship between poverty and aggressiveness, police abuses, racism between social groups or the struggle to survive through violence” says the director. He warns that in his staging the Sharks are Latinos of all backgrounds, while the Jets can no longer only be white. “When I get on the subway in New York, I see Americans of all cultures, whether they have North African or Middle Eastern roots ”(1)
While this tension was already present in the original work, where it was shown that the white characters had Polish or Italian origins, because they came from the previous wave of immigration, Van Hove’s work takes that issue to the extreme of leaving the audience at times unclear who is confronting whom, which is exactly the point. Thus, with homo-erotic winks between the male characters, with trans gang members in both gangs, with a novel poster that replaced the red and black of diffuse figures of the original, with a collage of faces of different ethnic origins, the new version of “West Side Story” puts the spotlight right there: how to make room for difference? How to tolerate the different when the segregation that inhabits us always waits around the corner?
If the original version of this iconic work left us with a feeling of hope through the song “Somewhere”, with the protagonists singing “There’s a place for us… somewhere a place for us”; the current version leaves us with the opposite feeling. This is clear, for example, in some of the other main songs of the play, when the actors representing the Puerto Rican community dance festively and sing: “I like to be in America, okay by me in America, everything free in America, for small fee in America ”, but on the gigantic screen behind it are projected the images of the camps for illegal immigrant that the Trump administration detains at the borders, or an aerial tracking shot of the meters of barbed wire, patrols and walls that multiply in the world.
“Our future of common markets will be balanced by the increasingly hard expansion of segregation processes”(2), are Lacan’s words that resonate in “West Side Story”, as well as the shocking silence with which the show suddenly ends. Van Hove’s “West Side Story” is a shock a few meters from Times Square, an alarming denunciation of the world we are building, and that is why its return to the Broadway theater scene is fundamental.
After finishing writing this article, I read that Steven Spielberg will be releasing a new Hollywood version of the play on December 19 of this year. “West Side Story” goes on…
(1) “West Side Story” changes the step of Broadway six decades later” Alex Vicente . El País. Spain. 19th February 2020.
(2) Lacan, J, “Proposition of October 9, 1967 on the Psychoanalyst of the School”