Not Without Controversy, Broadway’s New 'West Side Story' Has Its Cast

by Michael Mahany | 7/18/2019 5:47 AM

Photo credit: ‘West Side Story’ Broadway.

The 2020 revival of the classic musical ‘West Side Story’, which has its eyes set for a New York City opening next February at the Broadway Theatre, has announced its full casting and creative team. That announcement, however, hasn’t come without some controversy.

The 2020 revival cast will be lead by 2017 ‘Once On This Island’ cast member, Isaac Powell as Tony, and former Young Nala from Broadway’s ‘The Lion King’, Shereen Pimentel, as Maria.

Of note, however, the casting of former New York City Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar as Bernardo has sparked some questions and skepticism within the theatre and dance communities.

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Amar Ramasar

Amar Ramasar. Photo credit: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

Ramasar, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, was fired from the highly respected institution in 2018 after accusations arose when former School Of American Ballet student Alexandra Waterbury charged that he and colleagues Chase Findlay and Zachary Catazaro were involved in a text chain in which Findlay shared sexually explicit photos of her.

It should be stated that while Ms. Waterbury did not accuse Catazarro and Ramasar of sharing photos of her on the text chain, she did note that nude photos of other affiliated dancers were shared by the two via text message.

Casey Mink, a New York City-based arts journalist, who upon notice of the 'West Side Story' revival casting announcement posted a February 2019 article from ‘The New Yorker’ detailing the behavior in which Ramasar and his former NYCB colleagues were involved, was questioned by another Twitter user about Ramasar’s future casting opportunities.

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“I swear to God I'm not trolling,” the Twitter user asked of Mink, “I’m fully aware of what [Ramasar] did. I’m genuinely asking if those who object to his casting expect him to be forever barred from performing?”

“That is not a consideration for me,” Mink replied. “What is: the women he hurt, and how they feel in this moment, seeing the person who inflicted pain upon them rewarded with an amazing job on Broadway. Maybe ask yourself why in the world that doesn’t matter more to you than whether the dancer in question will be 'barred for life'?”

Alexandra Waterbury. Photo credit: Jeenah Moon for The New York Times.

Others in the New York City performance community questioned the casting as well. Broadway actress, Ephie Aardema, queried followers on Facebook about the consideration of the women cast in the production.

“I would be interested to know, especially considering the subject matter in ‘West Side Story’— did those responsible for casting Amar Ramasar … give any consideration for the women in the company?” Aardema asked. “I’m not the only one who would like more information on how that went down.”

“What measures, if any, are being taken to make sure the women in the company feel safe to be their most liberated and artistic selves?” she continued. “Is there any responsibility being taken to protect and respect not just the backstage environment but also their deeply personal work (which for some will involve exploring intense feelings of violation associated with rape and sexual assault)?”

It was determined by arbitrators in April, after a challenge by the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) — the union that represents the City Ballet dancers — that NYCB overstepped when it fired Catazaro and Ramasar. Findlay, who resigned on his own before the suit, was not considered in the challenge by the union.

“As I move forward, learning, and evolving, I am eager to once again dance amongst the colleagues I respect, doing the ballets I have held close to my heart for the past 18 years,” Ramasar said in a statement on April 19th. 

The resurfacing of Ramasar’s April 2019 thoughts, however, hasn’t done much to quell the controversy surrounding him. On the contrary, the recent announcement of his casting in the musical has only seemed to ignite the #MeToo community and reopen wounds that have barely yet to begin to heal.

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Choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Photo credit: Anne Van Aerschot.

The announcement of Belgian-born contemporary dance-maker Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker as the new production’s choreographer has also brought rise to questions by many ‘West Side Story’ purists.

The original ‘West Side Story’ choreography by Jerome Robbins has been restaged or honored in every Broadway production since its debut in 1957. Robbins also choreographed the 1961 film adaptation of the musical. The 2020 revival will be the first Broadway diversion away from the legendary Robbins movement.

Robbins himself, a monster success in both the theatre and classical ballet worlds, is iconically associated with the musical. His heavily detailed, specific, and difficult choreography for the original production transgressed for many what dance could do to a musical’s story.

Because of this monumental association, however, some skeptics are worried that De Keersmaeker — a genuinely avant-garde choreographer who is new to Broadway — will be up to the task.

Ivo van Hove, the 2020 revival’s director spoke with ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ about the choreographic changes.

"The Jerome Robbins choreography is there, it has been there for decades, it will be there forever,” van Hove told THR.

“‘West Side Story’ is called an American classic of the 20th century but we want to bring it into the 21st century,” he continued. “And, you cannot do that without also looking at the choreography.”

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Van Hove and De Keersmaeker have known each other since they both began their careers in the early 1980s. 

Ivo van Hove. Photo credit: Patrick James Miller/Variety.

“When [van Hove] called me about this I was on holiday, and it was a big surprise because this was the ideal project to bring us together,” De Keersmaeker said in the same interview. “I was a little bit overwhelmed and maybe a little bit scared in the beginning, but it was also because he insisted that we could do this together, that really drew me over the line.”

De Keersmaeker also suggested that the production “will remain as dance-intensive as the show has always been.”

Whether or not fans and attendees of the show will ultimately celebrate the new choreography is a huge unknown, but what is known is that it will be different.

There is also a film remake of ‘West Side Story’, currently under production in New York City, directed by Steven Spielberg with choreography by Justin Peck. The film is expected to be released in December of 2020. 

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Peck, the resident choreographer of New York City Ballet — where Robbins spent much of his career when not working on Broadway — is reportedly expected to at least honor the style of Robbins’ choreography.

Justin Peck. Photo credit: Emilio Madrid-Kuser.

Other featured principal casting for the 2020 revival include 2018 ‘Carousel’ revival cast member Yesenia Ayala as Anita, ‘Mean Girls’ cast member Ben Cook as Riff (who also will appear in the Spielberg film version as Mouthpiece), Ahmad Simmons as Diesel, Danny Wolohan as Officer Krupke, Jacob Guzman as Chino, Kevin Csolak as A-Rab, Daniel Oreskes as Doc, Pippa Pearthree as Glad Hand, Thomas Jay Ryan as Lt. Schrank, Matthew Johnson as Baby John, Dharon E. Jones as Action and Zuri Noelle Ford as Anybodys.

Rounding out the revival’s ensemble are Alexa De Barr, Daniel Ching, Gabi Campo, Gino Cosculluela, Marc Crousillat, Stephanie Crousillat, Roman Cruz, Tyler Eisenreich, Armando Eleazar, Marlon Feliz, Satori Folkes-Stone, Constance François, Carlos Gonzalez, Jennifer Gruener, Jarred Manista, Michaela Marfori, Michelle Mercedes, Michael Seltzer, Corey John Snide, Sheldon True, Ricky Ubeda, Madison Vomastek, Tony Ward, Bridget Whitman and Kevin Zambrano.

‘West Side Story’, tells a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo And Juliet’ through the characters of Tony, Maria, their families, and their community all living in the culturally diverse, 1950s working-class neighborhood of New York City’s upper-west-side. The musical was originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and has a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

‘West Side Story’ revival cast member Corey John Snide spoke with Dance Network’s Michael Mahany at the New York City Dance Alliance Nationals event.

Michael Mahany serves as Dance Network’s New York City correspondent. He is also a professional actor, singer, dancer, writer, and host. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.