What's Going on With West Side Story?
Broadway's most anticipated revival is teeming with backstage drama.
In November, I reported that the new Broadway revival of West Side Story would be performed without the song "I Feel Pretty," and that it would have entirely new dances by experimental Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The production is now three weeks from opening night, so it's a good time to check in and see how things are going.
This Story of the Week is going to offer an update on director Ivo van Hove's reimagining of this Broadway classic about Tony and Maria, two New York City kids attached to rival gangs, who fall in love à la Romeo and Juliet. The show is the most anticipated revival of the Broadway season and (so far) the most troubled, navigating creative changes, cast injuries, and regular protests outside the theater. Here's what's been going down:
Did they replace the choreographer?
The official answer is no. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is still credited as choreographer, although the production has brought in veteran Broadway choreographer Sergio Trujillo and ballet dancer Patricia Delgado to "consult." According to the New York Times, the purpose of this consultation is to make the movement more "authentically Latino" in response to demands from the cast. Reporter Sasha Weiss, who was granted extraordinary access to the rehearsal process, explains, "Real identity politics had entered into the production's theatrical identity politics, creating tensions that had to be resolved through dance."
Broadway chatterboxes will undoubtedly parse the meaning of that sentence in an attempt to understand the backstage drama at West Side Story, but to me it sounds like a typical theatrical collaboration, the best of which are never entirely free of conflict. One hopes the results are positive for the show, which should be strong enough to support the vision of another choreographer — not just Jerome Robbins. The few photos and videos I've seen depicting the new choreography look awfully sexy, if a little dangerous.
Have there been injuries?
Yes. Isaac Powell, who plays Tony, tore his meniscus during the December 20 performance, and had to temporarily leave the show for surgery and recovery. This caused the opening night to be pushed back from February 6 to February 20. Powell returned to previews on January 17.
On January 5, Ben Cook dislocated his shoulder and had to withdraw from the production. Dharon E. Jones has replaced him in the role of Riff. Jones originally played the role of Action, which has now been taken over by Elijah A. Carter. Both performers are making their Broadway debuts, along with a majority of this very young ensemble.
Why are there regular protests outside the Broadway Theatre?
Last Friday, a small group of demonstrators gathered in front of the Broadway Theatre to protest the casting of Amar Ramasar in the role of Bernardo. Ramasar (who made his Broadway debut in the 2018 revival of Carousel) was fired from his position as principal dancer with the New York City Ballet in September 2018 for texting explicit photos of a female company member with Chase Finlay, another male dancer. Finlay, in turn, sent Ramasar explicit photos of his then-girlfriend, Alexandra Waterbury (Finlay resigned from the company shortly after, and Waterbury is the plaintiff in an ongoing civil suit).
In April 2019, an arbitrator ordered City Ballet to reinstate Ramasar after his dismissal was challenged by his union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, as an overreach of management into the personal lives of its employees (New York State had no law against revenge porn at the time Ramasar sent those texts, although Albany passed one in July 2019 that would make such behavior potentially punishable by a $1,000 fine and a year in jail). Ramasar's casting in West Side Story was also announced in July 2019.
Last week's protest was organized by LaGuardia High School senior Paige Levy, and she plans more in the run-up to opening night (you can follow her official protest Twitter feed here). Waterbury plans to join the demonstration tonight, January 31.
While the physical protests have been modest so far, the digital one has been far more significant: A Change.org petition calling for Ramasar's removal from the stage has garnered over 24,000 signatures. There is real public outrage about Ramasar's return to the Broadway stage, but I doubt even 240,000 signatures would be enough to convince the producers of West Side Story to fire him. The legal and financial expense of dismissing a unionized employee for an infraction he committed before he was hired (and about which the producers were well aware when they signed the contract) would seem to be far higher than the hit in negative public relations. I suspect the producers will try to ride out this controversy.
Is any of this harming ticket sales?
It doesn't look like it. West Side Story pulled in $1.6 million last week, with an average ticket price of $114.24. That's a huge number for a show that is still in previews in the dead of winter (only The Lion King, Moulin Rouge!, and Hamilton grossed higher). The brand recognition behind West Side Story is very strong, even if it is wrapped around a troubled production.
I'm really looking forward to seeing West Side Story and what Van Hove has done with it. I've long admired the director's work, even when it doesn't entirely pan out. He's not afraid to radically reimagine classics we think we all know, like A View From the Bridge and The Crucible. So if Van Hove wants to turn "Gee, Officer Krupke" into a dark burlesque of police violence, I'm all for it. Ironically, word of mouth about these changes to a musical so many have prejudicially deemed "already perfect" may do more to dampen public enthusiasm about the revival than any of the controversies described above. I hope audiences proceed cautiously, but with open minds.