In 1957 theater critic Walter Kerr wrote this famous opening line: “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.”
West Side Story lost out in awards that year to the equally iconic piece of American pie known as The Music Man, but West Side Story was a nutshell of figures, issues, and culture that would come to dominate the stage and set the bar for what audiences would expect in performances for the next few decades.
Broadway Rose is taking on Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins this summer, first with its production of West Side Story, running through July 24, then with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Aug. 2-24. Robbins choreographed and directed West Side Story, which was Sondheim’s Broadway breakthrough show, as lyricist; Leonard Bernstein composed the score. Forum was the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.
Director Peggy Taphorn and company have brought this latest West Side Story to life with sparkling energy and freshness, immersing the audience once again in the thrills and charms of a genuine classic. Far from being an antique, this landmark musical is a show whose images and issues are with us every day, and Broadway Rose’s production plays them out with thrilling intensity.
West Side Story is now an American legend that touches almost all of us. It carries its own particular American story, and we have stories about it: every time we see the show again, we bring the stories with us into the theater seats.
My high school music theory teacher was a thin rail of a man with a bristling mustache who took to wearing beige turtlenecks year-round, despite the weather. He was a bit delusional, thinking Aaron Copland was his teacher since he wrote a suite in honor of North Carolina, my teacher’s birthplace. This teacher did not excel in the art of bringing complex ideas into a simple form that young students could grasp and bring forward in their own work. He was like a nuclear scientist who had us build reactors out of craft supplies, and expected the same results as if we’d been equipped with a Los Alamos lab. I was an assistant school librarian, and in a shelving session discovered a slim volume by J.D. Salinger, which gave me a new confidence in rebellion.
It was the late 1980s, and for us girls, private school seemed like a groaning Titanic that was being patched up with Rust-Oleum to make her sail again. I loved music, grew up around classical performers, and had been to concerts from a young age, but the ability to play an instrument was not there. I never got beyond the treble clef in reading, and my left hand fell limp at the piano. The first two heady and tortured projects by our music theory teacher were to orchestrate a piece of our choice for a full orchestra, and to adapt a medieval poem and compose an authentic-looking sheet of music in their notation. Being 13 years old, I wanted to burn these projects to a cinder, return to my odd job as a shelver, and find more books like Catcher in the Rye. After winter break, I was ready to have a Jean Vigo scene from the film Zéro de Conduite, where we’d confront our professor in an elegiac outburst against his college-level compulsions.
Instead, he decided we’d spend the next months with Leonard Bernstein. No five metal chalk-holding witch fingers would hurry us through counterpoint lessons. He rolled out a television and said we should be sure to take mental notes of the overture and how it was placed with the visuals of the cityscape in this film. It was new, compared to the Ravel, Satie, and Renaissance English lit we’d struggled though. West Side Story was about kids our age, and the most important thing on our minds: love, and how adults get in the way. It was urban, and big cities were the cauldron where you found real living culture. The story, 30 years old at the time, spoke to us. In more than a few ways it did for us what it had done for its original late 1950s audience: it was a companion to our current struggles. The radioactive fallout was still there.
Broadway Rose and director Taphorn aren’t shy about a challenge, but to make a production that can stand up to Robbins’ choreography is paramount. Known to be a genius and a perfectionist, Robbins demanded from the Broadway and movie casts that they delve deep into method acting and “become” the roles they were given. Some of the original actors had grown up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a sketchy neighborhood at the time, where the action takes place. There was tug and pull between the cinéma vérité and Robbins’ study in the Actors Studio with such greats as Marlon Brando. The whistle, so prominent as a dread solo in West Side Story, was a catcall to women walking down the streets at the time, and many of the original cast members who had grown up around the streets of the musical’s action informed the production with this added touch. During first rehearsals, the male cast members wore out the knees of their pants trying to give Robbins the Sharks and Jets delivery he demanded. Sondheim and Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the movie version, noted in interviews that they hated days with Robbins, but he was an absolute joy and friend after work hours. Robbins created a dynamic where none of the actors would socialize on set, and planted rumors to create a real adversarial mood on stage between the Puerto Rican and white gangs. Much like my music theory teacher, Robbins was so devoted to his craft that no one could understand his method.
Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, set the record straight about West Side Story in many interviews. Robbins, who came up with the idea of a modern-day retelling of Romeo and Juliet, first wrote a turf war between Jews and Catholics, which was developed into a more sophisticated and contemporary theme of immigrant Puerto Ricans and second-generation Europeans. There’s a hidden wealth of Jewish contribution to American culture, put into shadows by a gentleman’s agreement, and this musical is an appreciation of the refugee experience through a refugee culture’s eyes. Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay takes apart the Jewish psyche and need for a hero quest in post-World War II America and shows how the under-appreciated Jewish artists created a phenomenon of comic book figures that inspired kids and reached adult culture. Laurents said that West Side Story was the Jewish experience brought home; at heart a tale of being out of place and trying to make a place with others. It was Laurents, Robbins, Bernstein, and Sondheim’s Jewish experience, not their homosexuality, that first informed West Side Story, a tale in many ways of identity politics. The multi-dimensional question of how America will define itself at home and on the international stage, relieving and making a dialogue about race, violence, poverty, and who can participate as a citizen, are rolling headlines in the news today.
Although more understated, lyricist Sondheim was also a craftsman like Robbins, and after years of making Broadway classics such as Gypsy and Sweeney Todd, he noted in interviews that with hindsight he felt some of the words he wrote for West Side Story had been dominated by Bernstein’s request for purple prose. Sondheim may never reach the pinnacle that he has set for his own standard, but the romantic pictures he paints with lyrics in Tonight such as:
Today, the world was just an address
A place for me to live in
No better than all right
But here you are
And what was just a world is a star
lend support to the idea that Bernstein was right to have these sweeping statements sung by the star-crossed lovers in contrast to the bombast of his signature brassy horns and Latin parades that open the musical.
Looking at the younger members of the audience, the question rises of how West Side Story will age. Kids today who watch the movie Cool Hand Luke, made 10 years after West Side Story‘s premier on stage, may understand the psychological terror that Paul Newman’s character endures, but they might not fully understand what a parking meter or a chain gang is. Watching Broadway Rose’s West Side Story brings the play’s complicated layers of dance, character, youth, and conflict to the surface, with similar small historical hitches. The knife fight between Riff and Nardo seems like an older device, but Chino’s fatal gunshot made old dynamics turn new: we live with public shootings every day. The violent rivalry between the Jets and Sharks seems less about race wars and more contemporary, with alienated youth taking out their frustrations in a chaotic, existential cruelty.
Kayla Dixon plays Anita, the culturally entrenched but modern-thinking Puerto Rican girlfriend of gang leader Nardo. The role is demanding: with her strong and volatile character, Anita could easily outshine the female lead, Maria. Robbins’ choreography for her is specific, and while it has the tint of Latin dance, the seductive moves bounce between ballet and those of a strong-willed woman putting her feet down. It would also be trite to play Anita exactly the way Moreno did in the famed film version. Dixon is the almost always more sophisticated Anita, and her plunging kicks, followed by precise controlled spins, fulfill the flawless performances that Robbins expected. There is a “wow” aspect to the filament fire Dixon sets to the stage, and she is able to act a well-rounded Anita by changing gears toward the end without losing her previous character’s sensuality as she becomes the maternal figure in Maria’s life.
One of the first giveaways that date a work of art is language, because language is a social practice, not a formula. We are constantly adapting words, and how we mean them, to give way to current thoughts and emotions. The number America has always been one of the more provocative and politically sensitive moments in the musical. You could even say that if it been scrapped from the score, the musical would have lost much of the cache it’s famous for. Sondheim’s lyrics – “Free to be anything you choose, Free to wait tables and shine shoes … I’ll get a terrace apartment, Better get rid of your accent” – nail on the head the controversies and complications of being an immigrant in the United States in 1957, and still this year. Broadway Rose’s performance of America has all of the necessary tension, relieved by quick-witted humor. There is a matter-of-factness to the truth in these characters’ America, and the entertainment creates a space where controversial viewpoints become simply experiences of life as it is. In our time, when refugees risk their lives to ask for entrance at our borders, America is still significant. West Side Story will age as a paramount achievement in musical theater nearing 60 years, but it will not grow old: it has an uncanny ability to adapt to the times. Robbins, Sondheim, and Bernstein made a crystalline version of the heart of conflict, and all Shakespeare dues aside, it was their ability to distill, like the Bard, moments and personalities into an essence that made the difference.
Austin Arizpe is Nardo, leader of the Sharks. He’s tall, muscular, and all alpha-male. With an air of authority, Arizpe captures the dichotomy of coming from a well-mannered society into the hustle and bustle of petty disagreements of dingy city streets. His Nardo is aristocratic, even while being caught up in a false conflict that defines his ignorance. Arizpe’s dancing looks easy, meaning that the thousands of hours he’s chalked up to learn his craft appear natural on stage. In a musical that revolves around warring street gangs, the dance could undermine their masculine posturing, but Arizpe’s lead and skill make the pageant of testosterone feel natural as the dancers break out into jazz-inspired Balanchine moves. He’s intimidating, but more from his regal posture gone haywire than as kid with no future.
Riff (Drew Shafranek) is Nardo’s archenemy, leader of the Jets. Shafranek is also tall and imposing and bursting with youthful maleness. This great casting of the male antagonists underscores that, while the men are out to play in a dangerous way, it’s the women who provide the foundation and consistency to the borough. The women’s strength and and emotional availability make the clandestine group want to fight for something. The Jets are downplayed in song and dance, a kind of irritation off to the side, and don’t show their real powers until the end of West Side Story, in the performance of Gee, Officer Krupke, the answer song to America. In America there’s an organic line dance that moves back and forth to show opposing arguments. Gee, Officer Krupke takes on the state system not in an equal ballet of warring talents, but in a roundabout and hierarchical dance that shows the flaws of the juvenile delinquent system in all of its boxed-up and paper-pushing folly. The Jets move up and down like puppets, an old pump organ that excites a sound that could be pleasing, but is far from whole. In this famous number, Broadway Rose shines and gives us a taste of the unrecognized talents of the Jets and the serious undermining of their potential, which as neglected kids is part of the point West Side Story makes. Sondheim tried, but was a few decades early in getting the “fuck you” into a song, and at the end the boys all chant: Officer Krupke, krup you.
Andrew Wade is Tony, the older, sometime member of the Jets. Usually, Tony is lost between his alliances, and that’s his downfall. Wade possesses an amazing tenor, and he not only hits the difficult leaps between notes, but also takes it further into a clear, emotional, and naïve rounded ceiling of arias that transform the essence of Tony from a kid between life stages to a more complicated, well-meaning person who is doing his best. Wade does not have the hush-to-crescendo that some actors use to fill out Tony’s character. He sings with an alkaline quality that supposes something nearer to a Romeo digging his hands into the dirt to create a more innocent future. Wade’s brilliant, but the nuanced and more involved development of Tony also must be due in part to his co-actor, Mia Pinero, as Maria. Pinero has a grounded soprano that recalls the golden era of show tunes, before the movies took them over. Yes, she’s sweet, and the fruition of a bride-to-be, but Pinaero’s golden vibrato is handled as more of an instrument than simply a matter of physical ability. She fills the air from bottom stage to fire escape with a parade of vocal colors that makes Maria grow and become what she was meant to be: an anchor for the plot; the voice of reason in an unreasonable time.
As you exit the theater, you might think about the first time you heard West Side Story, and you might want to sing a few lines from Somewhere to any person you hold dear. But this time, instead of looking at imaginary places over the rainbow, you’ll be inspired to look at the little things that make up the magic of every day and do a little more to let them know they’re appreciated. Such is the magic of this show.
Broadway Rose’s West Side Story continues through July 24 at the Deb Fennell Auditorium in Tigard. Ticket and schedule information here.