Monday, December 9, 2019

Opinion: West Side Story Part 2

As of the time this editorial posts, no one outside of the production will have seen a single second of West Side Story. And, outside of friends and family who are at the invited dress tonight, still no one will have seen it until tomorrow's first public preview. Typical of today's instant outrage/cancel culture the knives are already out and sharpened. Personally, I'm tired of it. As I said in part one of this piece (HERE), the race to be the first one to be nasty about this show seems particularly competitive. Just like with the previous article, this week I'd like to weigh in on some more "issues" and comments I've read.

Again, before I start, I'll preface by stating that I truly believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and entitled to have their say. If we don't agree, so be it. Hear me out, and I'm glad to hear you out.

"They should never have hired Amar Ramasar." 

Well, no clear thinking person would condone the incidents he was involved in with members of the New York City Ballet. I can't imagine feeling very comfortable around him knowing what he has done, especially in close quarters backstage at the Broadway Theater. That said, one can assume he completed union-mandated counseling, and that the WSS company has made their peace with it. We simply do not know. Also, there are those in the theater social media arena who are demanding to know why he has not issued (at the very least) a public apology for his actions. It could be that due to pending litigation, he has been advised not to comment publicly. Maybe everyone involved in the incident and even in West Side Story has been advised not to comment on the situation. Again, we do not know.

Another aspect of this is the appeal of proclaiming that one will not attend because of his hiring. The is certainly within your rights and a reasonable reaction if you feel that strongly. I guess this falls in line with the whole "let them know you disapprove by hitting them the wallet" mantra (Chik-fil-a closed a brand new restaurant in the UK for this type of situation. Such protests appear to be less successful in the US). Again, I can support this form of protest. However, if theater social media people think that the public at large even cares, they are mistaken. Just how many people who would buy tickets to WSS have even heard of Ramasar or even the situation in general? I'm going to go out on a limb and say relatively few. One form of protest I absolutely disagree with is the suggestion by certain bloggers that you should attend and when he enters start booing loudly to disrupt the performance. What will that do? Ruin the show for the rest of the cast and the audience? Get you thrown out and possibly arrested or banned from all Shubert Theaters for life? More than likely you won't have the same clout as Jane Fonda getting arrested every Friday for protesting climate change.

Frankly, my issue with his casting is more practical. I saw him in Carousel, and he is a fantastic dancer. But is he that great a dancer that it trumps his mediocre acting and singing skills? I'd say no. And he seems a tad long in the tooth to play Bernardo, though since I haven't seen it yet, I can't be sure that his character won't be portrayed as older than usual. (Should Bernardo be old enough to be his sister's father? That's a different article.) Is all this ill will and potentially bad publicity worth his casting? Nope. Besides, I'd rather see his understudy, Ricky Ubeda, play the role. He is a true triple-threat and both age-appropriate and controversy free.

"The advertising is 'problematic.'"

"It looks like a Benetton ad." "The Jets should be white - the show is about racism." and my favorite: "They've erased women from the show." I'd say all of this is hogwash.

1. The Benetton ad jibe seems to refer the famous "United Colors of Benetton" ads from the 80's and 90's, which were lauded for their multicultural representation even then. Hmmm. Maybe people who say this mean it as a complement? I doubt it. Seems to me that in this "woke" age of representation this ad campaign would be a winner. (I think it is brilliant.)

2. I suppose the second comment is related to the first. Yes, WSS does have racism as a theme. But people often skip over the fact that the irony is that the Jets are all children of immigrants and that the Sharks are actually US citizens, too - Puerto Rico has been part of the United States since 1898, and they have been US citizens since 1917, a full four decades prior to the original production of WSS, which took place in current time. Given today's climate, perhaps one of the updates to the show will examine the idea that Puerto Ricans are less than "real" Americans somehow. (We cannot forget Hurricane Maria can we?) So, why exactly do the Jets have to be white? Gang violence is a problem across all races these days.

3. Exactly three women are featured in West Side Story. A couple of the Jet girls have traditionally had a few lines. It's not that different than the source material, Romeo and Juliet, where there are a similar number of featured females. Outside of Maria and Anita, the women have always been little more than arm candy for the boys. We are not talking a huge paradigm shift here. The overall advertising implies that the emphasis this time around will be on the gangs, not the tragic romance of Tony and Maria. They are (and really always have been) the victims of a racist, violent society. It makes sense then not to feature the women. And for the record, many of the iterations of the ads - including the largest poster on the side of the Broadway Theater - feature that third, non-gender conforming female, Anybodys, as portrayed by Zuri Noelle Ford. (I talked about the cutting of "I Feel Pretty" previously.) Side note: In this production, Glad Hand is being played by a woman, not a man.

What we do know now, prior to any public preview performances:
  • Ivo van Hove has promised a radical, modern staging of the show. This production will take place today.
  • The choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker will not use or even mimic the Jerome Robbins' original dancing. If you see the ads or follow the show on Instagram, it is obvious the steps are decidedly in the modern dance genre. 
  • They are advertising a one hour, forty-five minute running time, with no intermission. The last revival included a 20-minute intermission in its two hours and thirty minutes, meaning roughly 25 minutes of actual show time is gone.
  • In addition to non-traditional choreography, the show will feature video design (by Luke Halls).
Clearly, this will not be West Side Story as we know it. But it is worth noting that 1957 audiences were shocked by what they saw. It was radical. Perhaps it will be again. 


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