It is just over five years since I first saw this remarkably fresh and vibrant revival of the original Broadway production of West Side Story, which was on a tour to celebrate its 50th Anniversary. It was a magical, vivacious trip down memory lane for people – like me – of a certain age and not one iota of that feeling has changed since 2008.
The idea of this musical came to Jerome Robbins in a conversation with the actor Montgomery Clift, back in 1949. Clift had been cast as Romeo and he asked his friend, the choreographer, what he might do with the role. Robbins’ first thought was to suggest how Clift might deal with the story of a great love dividing two rival clans if it were set in modern times. Immediately, since they were in New York at the time, the idea clicked in that the Montagues and Capulets could be rival Italian and Irish gangs on the City’s lower East side. Over time – and influenced by contemporary events – the writer, Arthur Laurents, persuaded Robbins to move the location to the West side and the protagonists to the second-generation Polish and incoming Puerto Rican communities. Incidentally, “West Side Story” was never intended to be anything other than a temporary working title but nothing else ever came along to displace it from the top line.
Whether West Side Story is the greatest musical of all time is a subject to be argued over forever and a day but the fusion of the greatest talents that America had to offer in the 1950s (and I might argue that this Golden Age has never been bettered) created the dream team that brought the best in musical composition (Leonard Bernstein), playwriting (Laurents), musical theatre (Stephen Sondheim) and ballet (Robbins) into a single creative unit. It took years for them to bring the show to the stage but the perfectionist in each contributor meant that this time was filled with making the product even better.
In 2008, despite the fact that I loved the show, my review pointed to a significant downside in the stagecraft and vocal projections of some performers and I’m delighted to report that this concern is certainly no longer applicable. I also noted that some costumes for the Jet girls didn’t seem to date appropriately to the 1950s. Again, I didn’t feel this irritation in 2013.
The new cast brings a fresh zest to these well-known roles. Liam Tobin gave an expressive account in the lead role of Tony, performing his opening solos (‘Something’s Coming’ and ‘Maria’) with a power, passion and strong vocal range that was captivating. As Maria, Elena Sancho-Pereg sang beautifully and her duets with Tobin were sensational. I have listened many times to the Original 1957 Broadway recording with Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence as the leads and this pair met every expectation with their delivery of these most iconic songs. I haven’t heard ‘Tonight’, ‘One Hand, One Heart’ or ‘Somewhere’ sung better. There are also excellent contributions from Mark Mackillop and Pepe Muñoz, as respectively Riff and Bernardo (the leaders of the rival gangs).
It was also hard to give my eyes a break from ogling Maya Flock in her sexy, burlesque account of Bernardo’s girlfriend, Rosalia. Hannah Balagot was just perfect as the pint-sized tomboy, Anybodys, which did present me with the embarrassment of the evening since my guest was a young dance school graduate who is trying to break into musical theatre but worried that she won’t get roles since she is petite. Seeing Hannah make such a success of this role I turned to her and whispered, innocently, “See, you could be Anybodys”! It took a bit of explaining!
The Robbins’ group choreography as reproduced by the Director, Joey McKneely, remains a beautiful confluence of electrifying energy and balletic elegance, especially in the opening prologue that explains in dance the tensions between the two gangs. I loved the Shark girls’ rendition of ‘America’, in which Penelope Armstead-Williams (Anita) and Sheridan Mouawad (a cute Estella) were outstanding. Robbins’ intricate interactive choreography for the Jet boys in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ is superbly delivered although Michael Bullard scene-steals as Baby John. In my humble view, it doesn’t help the narrative that this essentially comic scene comes so soon after The Rumble and the death of the Jets’ leader, Riff. In both the soundtrack of the Original Broadway production and the film it comes earlier in the first Act, which seems so much more appropriate. The musical numbers do shift around between stage productions and the film – the order of ‘Tonight’ and ‘America’ is often swapped – as here – and ‘Cool’ comes a whole Act earlier than either the Original Broadway soundtrack or the film.
Although there is no doubting its authenticity I have always disliked the dream ballet sequence that comes after the double murder of Riff and Bernardo. Every Broadway musical of the 50s had such an interlude and I concede that Act II would be very short without it but it adds nothing either to the narrative or the extraordinary musical brilliance of the score, which was superbly played by this bespoke orchestra under the expert supervision of Donald Chan (who has built a whole career out of mounting productions of West Side Story, including two for La Scala).
The essential message that the futility of hatred based on purely ethnic prejudice is sadly just as relevant today as in the 1950s and the fact that Robbins’ concept of a Romeo and Juliet for the modern age remains timeless in its delivery almost 60 years’ on is a testament to great music and choreography, which is revered and honed to perfection in this revival. I said it was the must-see show of the year in 2008, and – while there are a lot of great musicals now around in the West End today – this is still one that must be seen.