WHEN WEST SIDE STORY opened on Broadway more than 60 years ago, it shocked critics with its savage depiction of racially motivated teenage gang violence on the streets of New York City—even as Leonard Bernstein’s ravishing jazz- and Latin-inflected symphonic score, Stephen Sondheim’s virtuosic lyrics, and Jerome Robbins’s hormonally kinetic dances beguiled audiences, who fell in love with librettist Arthur Laurents’s retelling of Romeo and Juliet. In the intervening decades, this once-groundbreaking musical has been enshrined as a classic, its gritty surface burnished to a nostalgic glow. As a result, West Side Story can seem to contemporary audiences, in many ways, as much of an artifact of a vanished era as, say, The Music Man, the show that beat it out for best musical at the 1958 Tony Awards.
Enter Ivo van Hove, the brilliant Belgian bad boy of experimental theater who, with his radically reconceived takes on such Arthur Miller classics as The Crucible and A View From the Bridge, has become a Broadway hit-maker. He and the Belgian doyenne of modern dance, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, are bringing a new, hotly anticipated vision of West Side Story to Broadway for the first time in a decade.
“When I listened to it again, when I read it again, I discovered this very brutal world, a divided world where people search for unity by exclusion of the other—the person who is not like you,” van Hove says. “It seemed as if it were written yesterday. So that’s our aspiration: to make a West Side Story for the 21st century.”
Though van Hove is known for gleefully dismantling conventional notions of familiar works, he has a deep reverence for West Side Story and its creators, and he’s aware that audiences will come with built-in expectations. “The biggest challenge,” he says, “will be to seduce them to follow our way of telling this story.” To that end, he’s employing a device that will be familiar to fans of his work, notably last season’s stage adaptation of Network: video (courtesy of Luke Halls, projected onto Jan Versweyveld’s sets), which will be used to bring action from the streets, as well as the wider world, into the theater.
But van Hove’s signature is stripping works down to their essentials to reveal them anew. As such, he’ll be rearranging a few numbers and is planning to use the version of “America” from the 1961 film rather than the original. More controversially, the show will be trimmed to run without an intermission by cutting the “Somewhere” ballet and—gasp—“I Feel Pretty.” The changes have not only been approved by the creators’ estates but, in fact, reflect the original desires of Sondheim, still going strong at 89, who candidly confessed in his 2010 book Finishing the Hat that he had long been uncomfortable with some of the lyrics of the latter song. Van Hove isn’t streamlining to be perverse; the show’s action takes place over 48 hours, and he wants the production to capture that race against time. “I want to make a juggernaut,” he says. “You feel that these people are running toward their death and there’s no escape from it.”
Youth, of course, is the driving force of West Side Story, something that has always made the show notoriously difficult to cast. As Bernstein recalled years after the original production, “Everybody has either to be or seem to be a teenager, to sing a very difficult score, to act a very difficult role, and dance very difficult dances.” Six decades on, van Hove and Co. found themselves facing the same daunting task, but after more than a year of auditions they assembled a gorgeous and diverse cast bursting with the carefree exuberance of talent coming into its own. For the show’s star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the ethnic divide, van Hove has tapped Isaac Powell as the Polish--American Tony and Shereen Pimentel as the Puerto Rican Maria.
The son of an African American and Native American father and, Powell says, an “über-Caucasian” mother, the broodingly handsome, 24-year-old actor, who grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, is lanky and boyish-looking and, despite possessing the physique of a former athlete, hasn’t quite lost the gangliness of adolescence. As he proved in the 2017 revival of Once on This Island, he also has a knockout singing voice and an easy romantic charm. Engaged to the actor Wesley Taylor, Powell is part of a generation for whom the idea of a forbidden romance felt like a distant memory. “When marriage equality was announced, I was like, Of course. It seemed like the most natural thing,” he says. But he is acutely aware of how West Side Story’s depiction of racial prejudice feels more relevant than ever (such lyrics as “Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico’s in America!” have recently acquired fresh sting).
At 21, Pimentel comes to West Side Story as a senior at Juilliard. Of mixed Puerto Rican and Jamaican ancestry, she grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, hoping to be a ballerina until, after landing a part in the Broadway chorus of The Lion King at age nine, she discovered, she says, “that I could sing a little”—the understatement of the year. Radiantly girlish, with a lush, supple soprano, Pimentel seems an ideal choice to play Maria—though she warns not to expect a two-dimensional operetta maiden. “Maria’s a very strong—and strong-willed—person who learns a lot about the world very quickly, and that’s what I want to bring to her in this production,” she says. “Look at Juliet—she wasn’t just an ingenue.”
If Pimentel is anxious about doing justice to an iconic role on Broadway, imagine how De Keersmaeker feels. With their snapping fingers, athletic leaps, and cocky struts always on the verge of sliding into a series of chassés or erupting into violence—not to mention their unmatched gift for telling story through motion—Jerome Robbins’s dances have always been as integral a part of the show as the songs and the script. (The New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck faced a similar challenge as the choreographer of Steven Spielberg’s more conventional film remake, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, which opens at the end of next year.) Though De Keersmaeker, who has made a name for herself as a wide-ranging choreographer of everything from abstract works (Rosas danst Rosas) to opera (Così fan tutte), is primarily known for her rigorously formal style, she insists that “in my nature, in my very DNA, I’m a very emotional person—even, I might say, a shameless romantic.” And if she’s in awe of the man whose shoes she’s filling, that’s just part of being an artist. “Someone said to me, ‘Jerome Robbins was God,’ ” she recalls. “Yeah. But there comes a point where you just have to trust there is space—and there is need—for a different choreographic answer to that music and to that story. Now I must figure out what that is.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue