New Interview Sparks New (& Resurges Old) Controversies At 'West Side Story'

by Michael Mahany | 11/11/2019 7:07 AM

'West Side Story' Broadway revival cast members Isaac Powell as Tony and Shereen Pimentel as Maria. Photo credit: Ethan James Green.

In an interview released last Saturday morning with ‘Vogue’ Magazine, Belgian born theatre director Ivo van Hove — the man at the helm of the new production of ‘West Side Story’ on Broadway — announced some major changes to the classic musical in the upcoming revival.

Among the overhaul of changes to production — not including the new choreography being integrated by contemporary choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker — the biggest seems to be that the new 2020 version of the show will run without an intermission. 

That said, however, according to the ‘Vogue’ interview, “van Hove isn’t streamlining to be perverse; the show’s action takes place over 48 hours, and he wants the production to capture that race against time.” 

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

“I want to make a juggernaut,” van Hove told ‘Vogue’. “You feel that these people are running toward their death and there’s no escape from it.”

How though, one might wonder, does van Hove plan to cut down ‘West Side Story’s average run time of two and a half hours? 

To make the iconic musical run without an act break, van Hove has opted to remove two major musical numbers from composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s score — ‘I Feel Pretty’ and the ‘Somewhere’ ballet. 

Additionally, van Hove has also opted to use the version of ‘America’ arranged for the 1961 film version of ‘West Side Story’ instead of the original arrangement from the 1957 stage production. 

Adam Green, the author of the ‘Vogue’ article, also tweeted one other major revision that was cut from his article for space. 

“They’re flipping the positions of “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” Green wrote. “Something Sondheim argued for in the original (he thought a comic number made no sense at that dark moment in the story).”

The announcement of these revisions quickly sparked many to ask the question: how did van Hove get the permission to make — especially on a musical often viewed as untouchable and “sacred” — these streamlined, controversial, and monumental changes?

He did so with the blessings of Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Laurents’ estates, and, of course, from the still-thriving Mr. Sondheim himself. 

According to the interview, “the changes have not only been approved by the creators’ estates but, in fact, reflect the original desires of Sondheim, still going strong at 89, who candidly confessed in his 2010 book ‘Finishing the Hat’ that he had long been uncomfortable with some of the lyrics of the latter song.”

More: Justin Peck Is Set To Choreograph The West Side Story Film Remake; What Does That Mean To The Dance World?

While van Hove — widely known for breaking down, experimenting, and revisioning established works — has indicated his reasonings behind making these changes, the initial response from theatre and dance fans has been mixed, to say the least.

“‘West Side Story’ with no ‘I Feel Pretty’ sounds dangerously close to a story that is only about boys in rival gangs and thinks that its female characters don't deserve a voice,” wrote one Twitter user. 

“I am not saying this production will be good, but I am saying to not jump to conclusions,” wrote another Twitter user. “If this is not your ‘West Side Story’ then fine you don’t have to see it.  It’s that easy.  But personally I’m going to give this production a chance.”

The latest news on the revisions to the musical also ramped up the already existing — and to many, far more relevant — controversy that has been present since the day the acting company was announced: the casting of former New York City Ballet dancer, Amar Ramasar as Bernardo.

“Today I’m thinking about how the white male director behind the ‘West Side Story’ revival cut two of the major female solos from the show and cast an actor known for sexually harassing his female castmates as Bernardo,” wrote another Twitter user.

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.

Many in the dance and theatre community were angered to see the casting of Ramasar in the revival of West Side Story.

Actress Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria in the recently-wrapped late-2020 premiering Steven Spielberg film remake of ‘West Side Story’ pointed out the controversial casting decision to her almost 95K Twitter followers in a tweet early Saturday afternoon. 

After a Twitter user replied to an initial tweet that mistakingly suggested Zegler was in the Broadway revival instead of the film, Zelger replied, “no, actually. never. not with the apparent disrespect for survivors of sexual misconduct.”

More: In The Thick Of It; 2 Major Dance Films Are Shooting In NYC This Summer

Casey Mink, a well known and respected New York City-based arts journalist, also tweeted in response to the resurgence of the controversy.

“What if—and hear me out—we cared as much about women who say they were harassed as we do about cutting songs from golden age musicals,” Mink tweeted.

It should be noted that 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.

After the arbitration decision las April, Ramasar released a statement. 

“As I move forward, learning, and evolving,” Ramasar’s statement read, “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.”

After Ramasar's name was included in the casting announcement, however, many -- both in and outside of the dance theatre communities -- began to vocalize their feelings. 

Mink. for example, who after the July announcement of the 'West Side Story' revival cast, posted a February 2019 article from 'The New Yorker' on Twitter detailing the behavior in which Ramasar and his former NYCB colleagues were involved, was questioned by another user about Ramasar's future casting opportunities.

“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’?”

More: Why It’s A Big Deal That New York City Ballet Just Announced Promotions

Broadway actress, Ephie Aardema, queried her 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)?”

The revival production features Isaac Powell as Tony and Shereen Pimentel as Maria. The principal cast includes Yesenia Ayala as Anita, Ben Cook as Riff, Amar Ramasar as Bernardo, Jacob Guzman as Chino, Ahmad Simmons as Diesel, Danny Wolohan as Officer Krupke, Daniel Oreskes as Doc, Thomas Jay Ryan as Lt. Schrank, Pippa Pearthree as Glad Hand, Kevin Csolak as A-Rab, Matthew Johnson as Baby John, Dharon E. Jones as Action, Zuri Noelle Ford as Anybodys. The ensemble features 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.

The revival is set to begin performances on December 10th, 2019 at the Broadway Theatre. 

Michael Mahany serves as Dance Network’s New York City correspondent. He also appears nightly in the 10th Anniversary production of Rock Of Ages in New York City. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.