We Need to Talk About “West Side Story”

The problems of Ivo van Hove’s “West Side Story” are almost too numerous to fit into a single piece, but I am going to try. There has already been quite a bit written on this revival, so instead of a traditional review this is going to be more of a semi-organized set of thoughts about some problematic aspects — things that I feel need to be talked about and addressed more. Consider this my cahiers de doléances, my list of grievances.

To begin I must of course start with the captain of this misbegotten mess, Ivo van Hove. For those unaware, van Hove is a Belgian director who of late has become Broadway’s experimental bad boy; this is his first attempt at directing a musical and it is a massive failure. Ivo van Hove is clearly trying too hard and yet also misses the point.

His iconoclastic production has no sense of nostalgia for any of Leonard Bernstein’s, Stephen Sondheim’s, Jerome Robbins’, and Arthur Laurent’s material, which makes me wonder why it is that van Hove wanted to do this piece at all. Even after seeing it, I am unsure of what message he was trying to convey, or what he was trying to say; the politics of the production are too confused and conflicting to cohere into anything even remotely comprehensible.

As a director, his work is not always this messy; the problem might be that his style has become too consistent and that audiences have become too accustomed to it. By now, his live streamed video, barefoot actors, and minimal design feels like paint-by-numbers, here sloppily applied to “West Side Story” and claiming to be original, modern, and more authentic than ever.

Although van Hove has effectively used video in the past, this video design by Luke Halls — which includes distracting live streamed video of the actors (who don’t know how to act for close ups) and equally dicey pre-recorded bits — just doesn’t work. During “America” the screens show images of Puerto Rico and end with an imagined border wall; van Hove and the video team seem unaware that the wall is for Mexico and that the song is about some Puerto Ricans hating Puerto Rico (yikes), not xenophobic Americans hating Mexico. “Gee, Officer Krupkee,” which is supposed to be a satirical vaudeville piece, is paired with images of police violence against black men, a heavy-handed choice that displays a tragic misunderstanding of the song.

Ivo van Hove evidently does not have a good grip on the text. Moreover, he seems unconscious of the fact that “West Side Story” has and always will be a deeply problematic musical, written by three white men, filled with harmful stereotypes. As Carina del Valle Schorske recently wrote in the New York Times, there is very little about “West Side Story” that is actually Puerto Rican: not the music, not the language, not the choreography, and yet its legacy haunts Puerto Ricans. So although van Hove has set this revival in modern day, cast Latinx actors, and had Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker do new choreography, most of this effort struggles to work against the problematic source material. Don’t even get me started on “America” — flashy new choreography and Latinx actors don’t make the lyrics and message any less offensive.

The material, imperfect to begin with, has been edited by van Hove in very telling ways: he has cut “I Feel Pretty,” Maria’s only solo, trimmed book scenes, removed the intermission, deleted the “Somewhere” ballet and given the vocal solo to Tony instead of a female ensemble member — van Hove has made it clear that he has no interest in the female characters, their voices, or their experiences. The publicity material, which features various gang members, has no women.

Speaking of the gangs, in a bid for relevancy van Hove has cast the Jets as a racially diverse group, including having Riff be played by a black actor, Dharon E. Jones. The result has not only visually made the two gangs at times difficult to differentiate — aided by the horribly nondescript costumes by An D’Huys and the universal shirtlessness during the rumble — but has created an unrealistic political message. To borrow from Schorske, “It’s unlikely black New Yorkers would seek (or find) security among white Americans rather than among their Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Central American neighbors. Mr. van Hove’s casting misrepresents the real solidarities that form at the margins of U.S. citizenship — and perhaps more dangerously, shifts our focus away from the enduring problem of white supremacist violence.”

In terms of casting, the largest issue is, of course, Amar Ramasar, the sexual predator / dancer playing Bernardo. Ramasar is a former New York City Ballet company member who was fired from the company for trading and sending sexually explicit photos of his girlfriend to another dancer. Later, he was reinstated, but his case and his casting have rightfully generated controversy. Weekly #MeToo protests have formed, with Alexandra Waterbury at the helm; Waterbury’s ex-boyfriend Chase Findlay sent explicit photos of her to Ramasar and was also fired from NYCB. Despite cast members anonymously saying they are uncomfortable and despite weekly protests outside the theatre, van Hove and Scott Rudin have stood by Ramasar.

Their decision is baffling for several reasons. Why would anyone cast a sexual predator in a lead role on Broadway? Even more, why, in the face of all this scandal, keep him? He is incredibly replaceable, and in actuality, he is not very good in this role. Although he is an accomplished dancer, so is everyone in the cast; Ramasar is not an actor, he struggles with the dramatic material, and he puts on an offensive faux-Puerto Rican accent. The director and producers obviously do not care about the difficult position they’ve put the ensemble in; most of them are making Broadway debuts and thus are not in a position to speak up, but have to share a stage with, dance with, rumble with, and perhaps have physical contact with a known sexual predator.

As if casting a sexual predator was not upsetting enough, the production also features a graphic sexual assault. All of the problems of this revival coalesce in this scene, where Anita (played by Yesenia Ayala, who is without a doubt giving the best performance in the production) has to run to Doc’s drugstore to deliver a message; once there, in the script she is roughed up by the Jets who yell racial slurs and taunt her.

Unsatisfied with that, van Hove has staged it in a way that seems designed to be as triggering as possible. Here Anita is violently grabbed, groped, and picked up by the Jets; after trying to run away she is pushed to the ground and dragged by her feet back inside, screaming. She is held down, her jacket is ripped off, her pants are unbuttoned, she gets pushed behind the counter, and an actor gets on top of her and removes his pants. Without seeing any actual penetration, we are forced to witness the horrors of rape. As if this wasn’t bad enough, this happens mostly in the off-stage portion of the Doc’s drugstore set, we only see it via live streamed video filmed on a cellphone.

Ivo van Hove’s choice to stage this scene in such an explicit and violent way was bad enough, but the painful irony of broadcasting it on a cellphone video — which has eerily echoes of Ramasar spreading sexual photos of women without their consent on his cellphone — is shockingly unaware. Here we have bad design, very questionable direction, reprehensible politics, and a lack of concern for women. As Schorske writes, van Hove “may not feel the oppressive repetitions of the history of violence against brown women bearing down on his body. But for many of us, it’s the umpteenth time we’ve seen Anita assaulted for dramatic effect, each time under the guise of greater authenticity.”

Watching this scene was incredibly difficult. In the entire production this was the only moment I cried. I can’t help but linger on this scene, which has haunted me in the days since seeing the production, so I want to question why, dramaturgically, it is there at all. Anita goes to deliver a message, but instead, after being raped she, clearly traumatized, lies to the Jets and says Maria is dead; this is oddly supposed to make us mad at Anita (once again, yikes). However, her lie has no effect: Chino was already en route to kill Tony, which he succeeds in doing. In fact, if the entire Anita at Doc’s scene was cut, the musical would have the exact same outcome. So if her rape does nothing for the piece, why is it there, and why are we forced to watch it — especially in this version, where it is explicitly staged, filmed on a cellphone, and live streamed on a 30-foot screen?

My list of grievances will finish here, at least for now; I won’t stop being angry and neither should you. Before ending, though, I would like to say a word about experimental theater that I hope can be corrective, productive, and ideally add some nuance. To be clear, I love experimental theatre. However, words like “experimental,” “minimalist,” and “deconstructed” describe styles, they do not necessarily imply quality. Ivo van Hove’s “West Side Story”undeniably fits those descriptions; it is not, however, good. Just as you can be a big fan of pop music but not necessarily like every pop song, I am at the impasse of loving this style of theatre but hating this production.

It is easy to diagnose this revival’s problems as side-effects of its experimental style, but this is not the case. Experimental theatre is not always bad; as Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!” hopefully proved to the Broadway community, deconstructing classics can be revelatory. Somehow, someday, somewhere there might be an experimental version of “West Side Story” that I could love — but this definitely is not it. In the mean time, don’t blame experimental theatre, blame the director. Ivo van Hove may have set out to stage a political reimagining of “West Side Story,” but instead he created a mishandled, misguided, and muddled disaster.

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store