Arts & Reviews

“West Side Story” for the Modern Era

By: Julia Lees

The classic Broadway show “West Side Story” has been revived. The original “West Side Story,” a masterpiece from the minds of Arthur Laurents, Lenord Bernstein, and Steven Sondheim, opened in 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre. The show quickly became a classic and was immortalized on the big screen in 1961. The show is a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet,” a tragic love story between two young people from rival gangs in

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New York City. Though the show premiered 63 years ago, the message it holds and the problems that the young men and women face are still surprisingly relevant. Tony (Issac Powell), a member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria (Sheeran Pimentel), sister of the leader the Sharks.  Tony’s best friend, Riff, (Dharon E. Jones) is the leader of the Jets, and Maria’s brother, Bernardo (Amar Ramasar) is the leader of Sharks. The Sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants and the Jets do not want the Sharks in New York because they are moving in on their territory. Tony and Maria fall in love despite their warring gangs, but their love comes with consequences of bloodshed. 

The revival stayed true to the original. With the exception of cutting Maria’s iconic song “I Feel Pretty,” much of the dialogue and songs were exactly in the book. Despite this, director Ivo van Hove managed to make a show written 63 years ago feel modern and poignant. A large part of the way that this was accomplished was the use of cameras and a projector. The background of the set showed images and pre-recorded montages. These images made the light-hearted tunes like “Gee, Officer Krupke ” sound like angry pleas. The montage showed young people, particularly people of color, being arrested, looking afraid, and putting their hands up. This montage made the song seem as though they are laughing at this very serious problem of police brutality and systematic racism because they are driven to an almost madness and feel helpless. The images highlight the message of the song that these young men and women cannot win because they are seen as inherently evil or dangerous. The song “American” was manipulated in a similar way. The background of the set showed the American/Mexico border and the walls and fences that span for miles. This image shows the hypocrisy of American politics on immigration. These women are singing about how they love America and wanted to come here because it is supposed to give people freedom and opportunity, and welcome people of all backgrounds with open arms. The images show that often immigrants are wanted, and even if they get here, they are persecuted and become victims of racism.

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The show also made an effort to make strong commentary on racism and nativism in America. The Jets are not all white men as they are in the original. The Jets are second, third, or longer existing generation immigrants. The Jets come from Polish, Arabic, African, Italian, and many other descents. The idea is that these are groups of people who have been persecuted for their heritage in the exact way that the Jets have hatred for the Puerto Rican Sharks. This information adds another dimension to the story that makes it more thought-provoking and rich. The show asks us ‘what does it mean to be an American?’ The gangs are all fighting for their place on the west side of New York, a microcosm for all of America. Men in power, like Officer Krupke or Lieutenant Schrank, pit minorities or low-income people against each other so they can keep their power. This enhances Maria and Tony’s call for unity because it shows a level of defiance against men like Schrank and Krupke. 

 If you are able to see “West Side Story,” you should go. The show has the comfort of a classic, hearing the music swell with the first few notes of the opening transports you to a 1950s dreamland; however, the message that Ivo van Hove drives home brings the

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audience crashing back into the realities of the 21st century and the real problems that this country faces. Watching the show walks the line of familiarity and discomfort in a way that makes you walk away satisfied but also gives you a lot to think about. “West Side Story” opened for previews on December 10, 2019, at the Broadway Theatre. The opening night will be February 20, 2020, and will be open indefinitely.