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West Side Story
Member Name: monalipschitz
West Side Story
Date: 23/09/01, updated on 23/09/01 (349 review reads)
Advantages: Groundbreaking Show, Good Music, Great Dance
Disadvantages: Dull and listlessly put together.
LIke most successful musicals it is a re-wroking of something else; in this case Shakespeares' 'Romeo and Juliet'. They took grand themes such as love and conflict and transposed them into contemporary New York. The traditional family feuds were replaced by gang-warfare; a violent clash between the races as well as the generations. This was a musical tackling controversial political themes head on. Sounds like the antithesis of the American Dream doesn't it? but it wasn't. What made 'West Side Story' unique was that it portrayed characters engaged in dark, depressing violence and yet gave them energy and ambition too. A realistic show in touch with the vibe on the streets of Manhattan. It is undeniably powerful emotionally.
The creative team behind 'West Side Story' is collosal. Such a combination of talents is unthinkable now and would be every producers dream. The perfect fusion of old and new.
Jerome Robbins is the leading light here. A legendry choreographer for both ballet and Broadway, he was also well known as a director in theatre, movies and on television. A the time his choreography was innovative, vibrant and breathed new and youthful life into the Broadway musical. It's his dances that also appear in the film version and won him an Oscar. It is difficult to describe a dance style, you need to see it to fully understand. It's mainly modern in tone; at times with hardly any movement, just a few fingers snapping in unison (you can see how it could have influenced Bob Fosse) but just as you think you know where you are, Robbins throws in a complicated
and beautiful ballet number for Maria; fully utilising the new breed of performer who has to be able to literally do it all.
He joined forces with another legend: the great Leonard Bernstein. Among Bernstein's credits are 'On The Town', later captured on celluloid with Kene Kelly; 'Wonderful Town' and 'Candide', along with numerous large-scale symphonic works. During his career he won an Oscar for the film 'On The Waterfront' and a total of 11 Emmy's. His scoring of 'West Side Story' also pushed the boundaries of musical theatre. In places it contains nerve-jangling rythms before it swerves the unsuspecting audience into the sweeping romantic meoldies of 'Tonight' or 'Somwhere'.
Robbins collaboration with Arthur Laurents as Librettist was more unusual. Laurents, whose latest play 'Venecia' has
just finished a run in the US with an ex-West Side Story performer, was an acclaimed playwright and director in his own right but had never worked on a musical libretto before. Working with Robbins and Bernstein meant that this show had very little dialogue, most of it being performed through song and dance, therefore the book is a brief albeit well-crafted one that possibly didn't use Laurents to his full potential. Later he passed all credits as lyricist over to his co-writer who was drafter in to ease the overwhelming workload of all concerned.
The co-lyricist was none other that a young Steven Sondheim. Sondheim is now one of the musical theatres most innovative exponents, creating shows that are musically challenging and lyrically clever such as 'Into The Woods' or 'Company'. If this is the Sondheim you know, or expect to hear then 'West Side Story' will be a shock. The lyrics are at bets average and at times cringe-makingly bad. There is a limit on how many times 'Maria' can be repeated in the one song and occasionally musical em
phasis coincides with entirely inappropriate lyrics. To be fair this isn't just me being mean; Sondheim himself has been quotes as saying he is embarrassed by his efforts in this show.
In keeping with the concept of 'recreating' a show, the sets are also pretty much identical to the original. Structures indicating various scenes, such as Maria's bedroom, glide on and off the stage; intended to create a feeling of continuous movement. At a time of predominately fixed sets they were unusual, although now the look vauguely amateurish in the light of hydraulics and other modern techniques. During the balcony scene I was on the edge of my seat, unfortunately it was not due to any emotional involvement but a concern for the actors health as the set swayed ominously.
The costumes were typical '50's style, designed by Irene Sharaff, who won 5 Oscars in her career including one for the film version of 'West Side Story' they are authentic and accurate to the period. They are also fantastically fashionable now whic gave an added edge to all those prety dresses in 'Dance At The Gym'. A few did seem slightly shabby but I guess that is all part of the staging.
I'm afraid any description of lighting is going to be difficult as I didn't really notive it. It didn't seem to be either innovative or obtrusive. Designed by a new engineer rather than the original, although he may well have been following the first plot, it is lit as necessary.
With the brevity of the book characters are revealed, and developed, through dance. During the openning number, 'Prologue' not a word is spoken or sung and, through movements character and gang are clearly delineated. Such a technique was entirely new and even today there are few musicals, or choreographers, who are strong enough to do that. Here we should have been able to see exactly what Broadway and West End audiences in the 1950's an
d 60's saw. Except that we don't. The intention of recreating such a phenomenon, though honourable, is precisely what kills this production. The director Alan Johnson, well known for staging show for major stars sucha s Shirley MacLaine and who works extensively with Mel Brooks, has been recreating 'West Side Story' around the world for 30 years and it shows.
This production is the opposite of everything it was and should be now; it is dull, lifeless and jaded. You watch the actors just 'go through the motions' and you know that they have done this a thousand times before. The sense of immediacy that a live show usually gives isn't there. Instead of vibrancy, the lack of energy is palpable; smiles are fixed and eyes are vacant. The performers are all technically good, with nice voices who can all do the steps required of them but there is more to performing than technique. The ability to imbue the elements with life; to make it fresh for an audience, that is missing.
The only one who manages this, and she really stands out, is Emma Clifford as Anita. Ok, admittedly Anita is the best role, it lauched Chita Rivera to stardom back in the 50's, the West End's Anita, from a couple of years ago, Anna-Jane Casey has since gone on to wow audiences in 'Chicago' and I feel that Emma Clifford will go the same way. Whereas even for the original Tony and Maria (Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence) it marked the high point of their careers. Sadly it may well do the same for those here.
The CD available in the theatre is, quite rightly, the remastered 1957 original. It's a great Cast Album and gave me more of an impression of the original show than having just sat through it had managed to achieve. You'll hear life and emotion in the musical, in the lyrics and in the voices of this CD, and although there are many version of 'West Side Story' around this is the definitive one. Then, of course, the
re's Chita Rivera on it, and if you've read my 'Chicago' op you'll know I'm a huge fan of hers, so it's worthwhile for her alone.
The recreation of the original is admirable but not an unqualified success: the intention has only been partly fulfilled. Faithful though it may be to the mechanics of the original it a long way from the original vibrancy. For that 'West Side Story' needs to be reinvented for a modern audience staying true to the spirit perhaps being more important that just copying. Sondheim said the show "called on the poetic imagination of the audience" maybe it's time the shackles of recreation were thrown off to make room for more imagination.
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