Sunday, May 3, 2009

West Side Story

I was fortunate to find a Saturday night ticket for the Broadway show “West Side Story”. The musical, revived for the first time in almost thirty years, opened this past March at the Palace Theatre and is already sold out until the end of the summer. Fifty years ago, when Tony just met a girl named Maria, theatergoers were shocked by the brutality of the ethnic gang warfare of “West Side Story” and a review in the New York Times said the material is “horrifying” and “rooted in ignorance and evil”. My, how the city and times change. This modern audience is less fearful and more sympathetic for the lovable misfits and their knife-jabbing side-kicking dance-offs.

There were a variety of forces causing the public to be frightened by the original WSS. The postwar “Migración” was in full swing and tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans were settling into the city each year. Being “Spanish” in New York use to mean being treated as an outsider and island natives were not even officially counted into separate ethnic groups until 1955. The population continued to grow and by 1960 Puerto Ricans made up 14 percent of the Upper West Side population, where the 1961 movie version was filmed. Now, Puerto Ricans comprise about one-half of NY Hispanics.

But over all Hispanics make up just a tiny portion of Broadway’s audience. In the 2007-8 season, according to the Broadway League, they bought 5.7 percent of all tickets purchased, compared with 4.8 percent the previous season. So when Bernardo and his gang take the stage at the Palace and speak to one another in Spanish, some have complained the dialogue was difficult to follow. When Maria confides to friends about her secret love and she playfully swirls to “Siento Hermosa” instead of “I Feel Pretty”, some say adding Spanish was an unwarranted contrivance.

So many objections were made that English had to be strategically deployed so non-Spanish speakers could understand what was going on. Who doesn’t already know what is going on in West Side Story? There are few new aspects to this rendition besides the genuine use of language and I barely noticed the change. I wish more Spanish had been used to give the show an aspect of something unique and updated from the original. Many people prefer performances to stay the same but different can be exciting too. By the end of the almost three hour production, my view on the use of language changed to either do it all or not at all. The snippets of Spanish followed by fluent English seemed just inane.

Overall the production was excellent but there was lack of passion and chemistry among the characters. The numbers were all well prepared but never started a fire. Anita was the standout in every way; in the candy store scene at the end, she looked like she could have taken on all the Jets single-handedly. I was so excited at the prospect of the revival, and I feel let down. Oh, well.

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