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BWW Blog: Reviving the Retelling of a Tale

The 2020 West Side Story just adds another artform to the Shakespearean tragedy.

Stories are the memories of generations. Stories that transcend time hold the same values, yet their specific narratives transform through how they are told. Similarly, memories maintain consistent emotions while their content changes over time when recalled in different contexts. Theatre is an artform that embraces storytelling. However, when a story is revitalized, it often spurs controversy over whether it should be an exact reincarnation of the original narrative. The argument for exact recreation is illogical since stories evolve like memories. A storyteller has the right to construct a narrative in a manner that best reflects a story's core values in its current context.

Perhaps the most ironic manifestation of this debate is found in the comparison of the receptions of the original 1957 West Side Story production and its 2020 revival. West Side Story is a modern version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and the original production received positive reviews whereas the recent revival received mixed reviews for not replicating the original. The irony at hand is that both productions retell the same story, but only one received mixed reviews. Although the revival is the retelling of the retelling of Romeo and Juliet, it is perceived solely as a radical retelling of West Side Story. Some critics reject the revival for not using the original choreography and further modernizing a story that aimed to modernize another story. Other critics praise the revival for its director and choreographer making the preceding choices. The original West Side Story and its most recent revival underscore that some critics are skeptical of a story after it has already been retold if the original retelling is perceived as a whole new entity.

Before diving into this ironic skepticism, it is necessary to understand how the original West Side Story is viewed as a separate work of art from Romeo and Juliet. The original West Side Story thrived under the direction and choreography of Jerome Robbins, book of Arthur Laurents, music of Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. These four men created a production that would be ingrained in the minds of American musical theatre fans for allowing dance to have a narrative purpose and placing contemporary political struggles onto the stage. However, audiences could easily separate the narratives of this musical and Romeo and Juliet in their minds. For instance, the female lead Maria, the parallel to Juliet, survives instead of committing suicide and the death of the male lead Tony, the parallel to Romeo, was a result of free will rather than fate. Even if audiences knew of the origins of West Side Story, the musical appeared to be a new tale for audiences to fall in love with.

Consequently, critics in 1957 did not review West Side Story as if it was a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Critics deemed the musical to be a new work of art sharing its own modern, political story with an incredible use of dance. In fact, esteemed theatre critic Walter Kerr failed to mention anything about Romeo and Juliet in his review for West Side Story in the New York Herald Tribune. Instead, he wrote that "the show rides with a catastrophic roar over the spider-web fire escapes, the shadowed trestles, and the plain dirt battlegrounds of a big city feud." Kerr's review implies that he interpreted West Side Story to be a New York musical about the struggles of its diverse population and their interactions with each other and the city. Kerr's lack of recognizing Romeo and Juliet allows readers to buy tickets to West Side Story with the thought of it being an entirely original story they have never seen before. Thus, audiences who read reviews such as Kerr's are predisposed to categorizing West Side Story separately from Romeo and Juliet.

Although other critics mention that West Side Story has influences of Romeo and Juliet, they do not analyze that the musical is a retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy. For example, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times mentioned the Shakespearean origins of West Side Story, yet insisted that the musical is an "original project" while praising Robbins's choreography and the New York inspired "city jungles" evoked in the show. Readers of this review expect elements of Romeo and Juliet in West Side Story, but their attention will be focused on the movement and setting of the show rather than the narrative. Atkinson and Kerr's reception of the original West Side Story is clearly positive, however, the reviews do not frame the show as a retelling of Romeo and Juliet for they see the musical as a new theatrical force.

More than half a century later in 2020, a revival of West Side Story, directed by Ivo van Hove and choreographed by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, hit the Great White Way with a new vision and sense of movement. This revival was the first iteration of West Side Story to include live film as well as not feature Robbins's iconic choreography. Ivo van Hove approached this project with a desire to accelerate the action of the musical to highlight the political and social tensions of contemporary society. The vision of van Hove was to put West Side Story into the fast moving twenty-first century where hatred abounds and people only have time to react rather than think rationally. In reality, van Hove retold Romeo and Juliet in the twenty-first century through the eyes of the West Side Story modernization of Romeo and Juliet. The revival is a double retelling of a tragedy that still has relevant political and social undertones. After widespread positive acclaim from the first New York musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet, it would seem that a new reconstruction of this New York musical would also receive praise. If one ancient story can be successfully reconceived as an urban American musical story, then it should be able to be changed once again into a rawer, rougher version to reflect a more tense world. However, the reviews of the 2020 revival proved this logical claim to be utterly false on the basis of the radical visual and physical changes.

The visual alteration to the original production that critics felt was unnecessary was van Hove's decision to consistently project video behind the actors. Sometimes this video would be pre recorded dance sequences or urban settings to make audiences feel surrounded by New York City. Other times, the video would be a live shot of the action onstage, or behind stage as some scenes took place in offstage sets. These videos towered over the performers and revealed every little detail of their acting to all audience members. Film and theatre are two different mediums that require actors to perform differently. Film catches every detail whereas theatre requires overemphasis on any emotion or detail to be noticed by audience members seated far from the stage. By van Hove combining these two mediums, actors are forced to let one medium's acting style take priority over the other which diminishes the theatrical experience for traditionalists who desire exact replication of the original production. Nevertheless, this should not drive critics to reject the revival for it did not remake the narrative, it simply expanded the presentation of the narrative. Contemporary critics do not realize that the directors of the original musical and its revival made equally radical decisions. The original West Side Story was not denounced for adding an abundance of music and singing to Romeo and Juliet, and the 2020 West Side Story just adds another artform to the Shakespearean tragedy.

Theatrical dance is another artform that the original West Side Story added to Romeo and Juliet. Undoubtedly, the most controversial physical element of the revival among critics is the elimination of Robbins's original choreography for new dance moves from the mind of De Keersmaeker. Robbins's choreography took Broadway by storm for having a narrative purpose rather than existing just for ornamentation. The aforementioned critics of the original musical lauded the choreography for this reason and did not put it in comparison with the limited dance in Romeo and Juliet. In contrast, critics of the revival honed in on the new choreography since they had expectations for it to be similar to Robbins's choreography. Some critics fell in love with the choreography, while others felt that it fell flat.

The final major element that sparked conflict among critics was the visible diversification of the racial makeup of the Sharks and Jets. The original West Side Story added racial diversity to the tale of Romeo and Juliet by turning the entirely white Capulets and Montagues into the Puerto Rican Sharks and white Jets. Laurents and Robbins dove into the Latin American experience with their retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy. In the revival, van Hove wished to simply include more people of color from other races and ethnicities to model the gangs after what America currently looks like. The original West Side Story put Romeo and Juliet into 1950's America where racial discrimination was a hot topic, and the revival put the Shakespearean tale into 2020's America where society is integrated, yet people still act on their implicit biases. Once again, only the latter production garnered negative reception for a radical decision.

The illogical argument some critics create is that racial diversification is only acceptable for the story of Romeo and Juliet in the original West Side Story with two races, but not in the revival with multiple races intertwining in the gangs. Romeo and Juliet was a simple story to keep track of even when audiences did not know which family an ensemble member belonged to, and in the original West Side Story, racial division added a visual element to the story that is not necessary for comprehension. Nonetheless, since West Side Story was interpreted as an entirely new tale, audiences believed that every iteration of it must have a clear color division between the gangs for it appeared to be the reason the gangs were feuding. The revival reveals that the gangs, just like the Montagues and Capulets, are not fighting due to racial differences, but instead due to opposing sociopolitical ideologies. The Sharks believed they had a right to call New York their home to follow the American dream whereas the Jets thought only they could claim the streets of New York since they were there first. Critics who believe the revival must replicate the original West Side Story display their implicit biases that van Hove warns of in his production. Some critics, just like the characters in the show, react without thinking or confronting their implicit biases.

A crucial question that arises from the positive reception of the original West Side Story and the 2020 revival is whether radical change is justified in the retelling of a story. When exploring the reviews of the original production, it is evident that the creative team received only praise for what is framed as an original story. In reality, the original West Side Story is a retold story that, just like a memory, is constructed differently due to being recalled many years later. The revival was merely another retelling of Romeo and Juliet through the lens of a prior retelling, yet many critics did not think it deserved any acclaim for having radical changes. These critics do not grasp that van Hove's addition of live video, new choreography, and multiculturalism to West Side Story is equally as extreme as Robbins adding musicality, dance with narrative purpose, and racial divides to Romeo and Juliet. Critics who approached the revival as Broadway traditionalists clearly have not reckoned with the fact that the original production is in no way a traditional version of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps the lyricist of the musical in question can best lead these critics to an understanding of the evolution of stories.

When asked his thoughts on van Hove's modernization of West Side Story, Sondheim declared "what keeps the theatre alive is reinterpretation." Critics who fell in love with the original West Side Story and believe it was not done justice in the revival must recognize that theatre is a dynamic medium that changes. If the artform can change, then the stories it shares should be able to change. These critics must ask themselves whether West Side Story does justice to Romeo and Juliet before proclaiming the 2020 revival should not have made changes to the musical. Otherwise, critics may continue to develop illogical reviews that ignore how stories are retold. West Side Story is the American theatre's memory of Romeo and Juliet. It will continue to be changed to fit modern times, yet the same story of love amongst feud will always remain at its heart through every retelling.


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From This Author Student Blogger: Blake Velick