If You Have Any Expectations for 'West Side Story'– Get Rid of Them.

Ivo van Hove's 2020 revival blends old and new in what is an entirely reimagined production of the long-time classic, West Side Story, feautring new choreography, a ravishing orchestra, and smothering visual effects.

Written by Alexa Maetta


    Familar with the trademarked finger snap? Perhaps the iconic "I Feel Pretty" tune? The new "West Side Story" retired them. Instead, the radical 2020 restaging of the production begins with nothingess: an entirely dark, blank stage. A group of youth enter, walking slowly, surveying the audience in silence, forming an eventual line at the edge of the stage – staring. The orchestra strikes its first note, and the cast begins to move, but minimally, leaning from left to right. Suddenly, their faces are projected on the blank wall behind them. As if watching a movie. A hidden camera pans slowly, almost eerily, across their faces. Where is this going?

     The first three minutes alone scream that if you have any expectations for "West Side Story" they should be immediately discarded. In the original 1957 Broadway production, as well as the 1961 musical film adaption, the revolutionary Prologue, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, introduces the story seamlessly. All through dance. Not a single word is uttered yet, audiences immediately understand the chilling tension that exists between Jets and Sharks, teenage rival gangs fighting for control of the Upper West Side. The jettisoning of Robbin's choreography, replaced with new dances by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, is not the only drastic renovation Ivo van Hove had in mind for his revival. Take, for instance, the aforementioned video projections. There is no particular rhyme or reason to the punctuative video, aside from the location based images that served as backdrops for outdoor scenes, and a "black lives matter" style montage about police brutality for the "Officer Krupke" number. At times, it often felt as though audiences were watching a movie, rather than a live musical production at the theatre. Most of the original score by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, is kept in tact, with the exception of eliminating the joyous "I Feel Pretty."

     All in all, however, audiences have to admire the risk van Hove took in making so many drastic changes to what is, for many, a classical favorite. Very few productions since its 1957 debut have made as massive, if any, changes to the original. In an interview, van Hove touched upon his inspiration for essentially de-prettifying the production. His version, he states, reflects the "much rougher world," that had come into being with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. More so than anything, van Hove wanted to emphasize that the show is about an environment "where people do not listen to each other's arguments, but instead, just react to each other."

     It is fair to say that, amidst several questionable changes, van Hove was still able to achieve just that. The message of West Side Story remains the same: in a volatile world with circumstances beyond our control, we must fight to resist the hate and anger that destroys us and, instead, choose love and hope instead.