West Side Story – a tale of two cities?

WEST SIDE STORY – Sadler’s Wells

Based on a conception by Jerome Robbin

Book by Arthur Laurents   Music by Leonard Bernstein   Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins

Originally produced on Broadway by Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince
by arrangement with Roger L. Stevens

– See more at: http://westsidestorytheshow.co.uk/#sthash.TuTlutSU.dpuf


The gritty, edgy, dangerous world of 1950’s New York City (more specifically the island of Manhattan) of West Side Story is as dead as the proverbial Dodo. It lives now perhaps only in Leonard Bernstein’s  music and Sondheim’s lyrics and Laurents’ libretto. West Side Story is a tribute and remake of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. The bard is there in the soul of this musical – shooting sparks into space in many of the romantic songs – most evidently ‘tonight‘ and ‘Maria‘. Elsewhere there is only the vibrant sound of the subway meeting the clash of multi-ethnic rhythms of the melting pot that was New York mid twentieth century.

Interestingly, like many of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals of the same period the preoccupation of this work is cultural integration and the benefit it will bring to a society. Has there ever been a better plea for tolerance than ‘there’s a place for us’? Despite its dark take on the gangland underside to New York’s streets and the clash of cultures between white blue collar and hispanic America, the reason this survives as a musical of such impact is its essential optimism. There huge credit must go tho the least remembered of the triumvirate Arthur Laurents. Laurents really gives us the distillate of Romeo & Juliet without the blank verse. He uses and adapts the modern idioms of American English but also still captures the poetry. Nothing is lost in translation of the potency of a love story set amidst rivalries between families and cultures. Love besmirched with blood. Family honour dishonoured in thuggery and murder. And above all the searing end which encapsulates humankind’s capacity to regret too late and judge too soon.

This revival is great to see visually simple and direct with its sets of two metal structures reminiscent of those firescapes down the back of apartments blocks. the dancing was to die for which given its on in the home of contemporary dance in London is well judged. Some of the sequences were just genius. only once in ‘there’s a place for us‘ did the schmaltz waltz into the otherwise beautifully judged choreography. The group scenes at the dance and later the staged fights and finally officer krupsky song were beautifully and flawlessly realised.

Here I must, however, depart from the script. Everyone was heavily miked. Sometimes it distorted the singing. Sometimes it blasted one out of one’s seat. Sometimes it made the dialogue unintelligible. Always it delivered an artistic experience in the dull grey monochrome of uniformly loud. In this New york everyone spoke, sang and shouted to the same effect. there was no subtlety. The dance routines all spoke much more of the characters interior feelings than the actors and singers were allowed to – and there’s no earthly reason why – since they all had perfectly decent voices. Dear old Ethel Merman or Marnie Nixon or Mary Martin would have wept if they were made to endure such a humiliation. a stage show is what it says – theatre on the stage where voices should be as real and the performances. This sort of thing is like the ghastly miked opera that takes place in the albert Hall. It misses the whole point not just a little of the pint. it was no accident last night that the performances were alive in the dance when you could see the dancers breathing heavily from exertion. After any singer gives you ‘Maria’ or ‘I feel pretty‘ they too should feel the exertion – it is what gives verisimo to a performance.

Thus, we had a night where the cast danced into our hearts but never quite realised the potential in either the dialogue or the sounds and nothing sounds more artificial than a duet sung face to face with voices ringing out from heaven above. In this conceit I remain a voice crying in the wilderness….

Mention of wilderness takes me back to the New York City I first got to know. The West Village in those days had been home to the Stonewall Riot and therefore the birth place of the Gay rights movement in the 1970’s. I reached New York in 1977. It still had the edge and grittiness. The West Village was colonised by gay men and women who began the gentrification of the inner city areas which was to transform them. The Meat Pack district was still then home to the transvestite prostitutes who plied their trade their in the early hours of the morning. It was also home to a wonderful shop called Lee’s Mardi Gras which specialized in all any aspiring drag queen might hope to find. The lower east side was also rundown and dangerous to go into late at night. It was home to the saint the first gay disco. it was located in a fallen movie theatre which was revived by the pink pound and pounded out the rhythms of early disco. The Saint was in time the inspiration for Heaven in London which opened in the late 1970’s. This was the New York which gave birth to the gay ‘clone’ – 501 Levi jeans, short hair, mustache, check flannel shirt and Timberland boots. SOHO was empty warehouses still waiting for the arrival of the Manhattan Loft Company. It was a city of nighttimes, nightlife and dark secrets. it was dangerous. it had one of the highest murder rates in the civilised world. Time Square west to the highway was seedy and full of porno theatres. Time have swept away all this detritus of inner city squalor and replaced it with prosperous smart middle class american which shops and etas as if the world depended upon it – which to some extent it still does. But like West Side Story in the dirt and grime there was a soul and something untamed which was so special. it is lost in the froth of consumerism and the shallow looking glass of prosperity which gamely does not even reflect the underclass that haunt the dark edges of the city and live on the streets in cardboard boxes. The rich and the relatively rich do not even look down on the poor; they have ceased to see them at all.



This entry was posted in Reviews, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.