The Evolving Choreography of West Side Story; From Broadway to La Mirada

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[dropcap]West Side Story[/dropcap] blazed its way onto Broadway in 1957 and the American musical has never been the same. The concept of adapting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a contemporary story of youthful unrest and racial prejudice among gang members came from Jerome Robbins.

Arthur Laurents wrote the book, Leonard Bernstein composed the score and, earning his first Broadway credit, Stephen Sondheim supplied the lyrics. Robbins directed and choreographed the production.

Bernstein’s eclectic score moves nimbly from jazzy riffs, to aching romantic lyricism, and includes brassy comedic numbers and near operatic tragedy. It remains as fresh and vibrant as it sounded on opening night.

Laurents and Sondheim struggled with approximating the language of the street, while not offending the sensibilities of their audience. Their solution was to create a suggestive patois which hinted at profanity. Lines like “Cut the frabbajabba,” and lyrics like “Gee, Officer Krupke, Krup you,” became the stylized slang of the Jets and Sharks.

That stylized reality also inspired the semi-surreal scenic design, as well as Robbins’ iconic choreography. Dance had long been an important, and even dramatic element in serious musicals. But there had never been a show that fused dance and narrative like West Side Story.

And, as Robbins’ choreographed the highly successful film adaptation of West Side Story, his dances became so much a part of the cultural ethos that a bit of his choreography thrown into the self-referential musical Urinetown brought immediate laughs of recognition.

Richard Israel directs a new production of West Side Story, which played the Valley Performing Arts Center and now moves to the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. He and choreographer John Todd are anxious to bring a fresh and more realistic take to the show.

Laurents tried to reinvigorate parts of the show when directing the 2009 Broadway revival. The major change was the addition of some Spanish-language lyric translations by a pre-Hamilton Lin Manuel Miranda.

Israel doesn’t approach the show as an iconoclast determined to eradicate the original. He has a healthy admiration for the work. “As a piece of musical theatre, it’s the best example of what the genre can do,” Israel explains. “It is the perfect integration of text, music, and movement.”

Todd is especially appreciative of what Robbins accomplished with the show. “Jerry’s work, as a director/choreographer has been an incredible inspiration in my own career. His ability to tell a story through movement is what makes his choreography so interesting. The story that Jerry is telling is so timeless and especially important in today’s political climate. The ability to celebrate our differences and to honor an individual’s choices… is the key to creating tolerance and honor in our society.”

The differences in this production can be better understood when briefly compared with the original Broadway staging, the film, and the last Broadway revival.

General notes:

  • The ability to mic actors gives today’s performers a freedom of expression the 1957 cast, who had to project to the back of the house, couldn’t imagine.
  • Israel wanted the street to permeate the entire production. With a background of chain link and brick, and a minimalist set utilizing moving platforms, he’s managed that urban feel. The original would have used drops and more fully realized interiors.
  • The costumes feel more like streetwear. Less colorful, less deliberately coordinated.
  • There is, of course, more diversity than in many historical productions. The original cast featured Chita Rivera as Anita and one or two other Sharks with Latin heritage. African-American soprano Reri Grist played Consuelo and introduced “Somewhere.” Within a few years, Bernstein would be conducting her in opera, where she enjoyed an international career as a coloratura soprano.

Specific notes on the show:

  • Prologue: The dance feels more earthbound. There are more gymnastics and less unison movement. The fighting is more graphic — less stylized than the Robbins choreography.
  • Jet Song: Anybodys has braids! Possibly not unique to this production, though I’ve never seen it.
  • Dance at the Gym: The geography of the dance is familiar, though the story dictates much of that. There is more of a visible police presence throughout the scene. The sexuality is much more upfront. The dances feel less presentational, less like a corps de ballet. The use of a middle finger silently offers the vulgarity that the lyrics can’t.
  • Tonight: Tony and Maria sing the duet atop a revolving platform while fog coats the stage.
  • America: Performed, as in the original production, with Anita and the female Sharks. The male Sharks were added to the number for the film. Though they do include everyone’s favorite line from the film soundtrack, “I know you do.” The ladies’ moves are more compressed and, again, more earthbound. Anita stops dancing for a chorus to watch the others.
  • Cool: Because this number contains some of the most memorable dance images, it is probably the one that will feel most different to the general audience. Also, the film places it later in the story. There is much more floor work. Less unison dancing and more acrobatic moves.
  • Quintet: Done on the upper elevation of the platforms.
  • The Rumble: Uses the most realistic set in the show. Once again, the violence is much more graphic. No grand gestures, like Riff slowly stretching out to hand Tony the switchblade after he’s been stabbed. The fights that break out, after Tony kills Bernardo, feel almost unchoreographed – messy and brutal.
  • I Feel Pretty: The trio of girls who back up Maria are more choreographed than usual.
  • Somewhere: The unapologetic ballet in the show and, perhaps because of that, the moment that feels most dated in the original staging. It’s cut from the film, so most audiences come to it without expectations. Todd’s choreography is more energetic than the norm and he includes ballet-based moves. “Somewhere” is sung by a recorded children’s chorus. The original featured the solo voice of Consuelo, and the last Broadway production used a boy soprano. Interestingly, that production excised the Nightmare section of the ballet. Todd retains it, so Riff and Bernardo reappear to face each other again. We watch a revenge fantasy play out as Bernardo slowly cuts Riff’s throat.
  • Gee, Officer Krupke: Hand gestures and a crude flourish with a magazine are used to add a coarseness the clever lyrics can’t deliver.
  • The Taunting: Over the years, this scene has become less stylized and more of an explicit rape. Like the last Broadway revival, some of the Jets hold Anita down, while pulling up her skirt. Others pull down Baby John’s pants before lowering him on top of her.
  • Finale: Let’s take a moment to marvel at the daring of the creators. After “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” there are fifteen minutes in this musical with some underscoring, and a great deal of drama, but no singing. Then this hushed and achingly transcendent finale ends the show.

NOW PLAYING: WEST SIDE STORY, at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, through May 14.

Michael Van Duzer

Michael Van Duzer

Michael is an award-winning playwright and director. For over 25 years he has reviewed opera productions around the country for a variety of print and online outlets. During the past year he has added theater to his reviewing duties.