Is West Side Story the Best Possible Broadway Revision of a Classic Musical?

The phone rings. Something about a hard-eyed asshole that could take out a Hallmark card for. It must be the guy who signed up to do a pre-Broadway run of his National Theatre production…

Is West Side Story the Best Possible Broadway Revision of a Classic Musical?

The phone rings. Something about a hard-eyed asshole that could take out a Hallmark card for. It must be the guy who signed up to do a pre-Broadway run of his National Theatre production of West Side Story. The voice is the same, until the texture turns a deep blue. “I can’t talk to you about it,” is all he offers. “Perhaps tomorrow.” And why would he bother? Onstage, he is a skinny kid from Brooklyn, mouth agape, eyes perpetually wide-open, wind on his face.

Arriving at the Lyceum Theatre, the audience gathers on the street, eyes closed, ears forward. A team of people slowly moves in, as if to probe for audible resistance. The actors stand on street corners, silhouetted in dark windows. A flamboyant stage manager tosses them askew. The notes of “America” ripple through the air.

Before the credits roll, the actors open their mouths, and the show continues, like a revival of the Greenwich Village folk club that won a Pulitzer in 1965. A man is born, and a woman dies. His generation, she represents, and her generation, her. It is all Broadway is now, shouting in unison. They’ve even got the cast album — a world-class R&B version of Leonard Bernstein’s original score. We are here to hear what many have deemed a bet that Steven Spielberg, the man who brought The Color Purple and Jurassic Park to the screen, has missed the mark on, writing his adaptation of the James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical.

The songs begin, melodic, far ahead of the story, of intertwined plots and songs merging, broken into loose, sprawling sections. Karen Carpenter’s version of “Somewhere” was beautiful — her aching vulnerability pierced by the orchestra’s advancing notes. Here, all we’re getting is a surprising degree of directness, a mid-1940s soliloquy re-imagined in the language of contemporary African-American culture. It’s like Coldplay stepping up to interpret Stephen Sondheim.

I’m reading yet another review that fails to grasp how much this production reminds of the delirious, effective Tony Kushner musical, A Bright New Boise. The Rolling Stones took a comment from the protagonist and made it into their own anthem. Now something else happens here — the musical’s structure kicks in. There are no songs separated into freestyle tunes, other than “America,” songs that must be wrenched apart, and the man must be broken.

It is all you can do to keep your eyes open. I am thinking, if there are any more from us, maybe they’d be worth writing about. Is it possible to just not be imagining King Kong?

During the curtain call, the sound of an enthusiastic crowd slowly erupts into sustained applause. Somehow, that giant moment of catharsis never materializes. The women stand up and applaud, then freeze. Each of them is crying. I push my face up on the pew. I am gripping a clipboard. I want to say, I’m in awe. I am mesmerized. But it doesn’t feel good.

I want to believe — so I’m guessing this is just different hands opening up when they think they should be delivering a sense of relief and closure. It is worth pointing out that the ad has not vanished. The N.T. is where the ads go to die — most are covered, but then, everyone knows this score better than most shows.

By the end of the evening, the Broadway actors come up to the teens just named Vanessa and Nico. This is how my name is written: “New Circle!” Who’s little sister and this guy? “Vanessa,” my partner whispers, “and Nico!” I look to see if there is anything to that, but to my surprise there is, in their fleeting glance, the male face I’ve followed through the hours — the face of a comedian who used to spend his weekends in the halls at the Paramount, with his older sister and some classmates from the Fat Albert improv collective, and who would prepare as a school troupe for the talent show or Star Search or something. We all had to make sure we did not screw up our onstage routines, though. It was one and done.

I am aware that this is an educated guess, but I wonder if it is a fair one. That’s why I guess I stayed. You?

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