We Need to Talk About “West Side Story”

Christian Lewis
8 min readMar 2, 2020

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…

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Christian Lewis

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