West Side Story at the Stratford Festival (a review)

Chilina Kennedy and Paul Nolan

This year's version of the star-cross'd lovers at the Stratford Festival

The Stratford Festival’s 2009 production of West Story Story is superb — sharp, edgy, dramatic, and infinitely more satisfying than the 1961 film, which we have always disliked.

For our money, West Story Story is all about the music, not the characters (cartoonish) or the story (not bad for a musical, but fundamentally improbable and in any case recycled from Shakespeare). Much of the story flows through the songs and the action, so serious acting chops aren’t really required.

Chilina Kennedy

Chilina Kennedy

But the cast at Stratford is first-rate. Fine as Chilina Kennedy was at the Shaw Festival last year in Wonderful Town (see this post), she seemed even finer as Maria this year at Stratford. Ms. Kennedy also gets to show off her exceptional vocal range, as Maria’s songs cover more than two octaves.

West Side Story

Anita (Jennifer Rias) puts on her red dress for Bernardo

Jennifer Rias has plenty of sass and spunk in the part of Anita, Bernardo’s over-sexed girlfriend. (Anita smugly anticipates that Bernardo will be even lustier than usual after the rumble, and she prepares accordingly.) Paul Nolan, as Tony, sings nearly as well as Ms. Kennedy, and they blend nicely on the duets; only for one phrase did we notice that his pitch was flat.

And such music! We liked Leonard Bernstein’s score better than ever, the songs, the incidental music, all of it.  And the dancers!

What must audiences have thought back in 1957 at curtain time when, instead of the usual frothy medley of pleasing tunes for an overture, the show started with dissonant horn blasts and percussion? Was this a Broadway musical, or Mahler’s Sixth? In fact, it was Bernstein’s genius through and through.  (We’re not sure whether a dance sequence is usual during the West Side Story overture, but we were mesmerized.) And has there ever been more sophisticated music composed for a popular musical play? Such glorious songs, including one of the most perfect melodies ever conceived (“Somewhere”).

We only wished that the sound designers for the show hadn’t thought it necessary to crank up the volume quite so much. There were moments with full orchestra and full chorus when the sound was unpleasantly piercing.

If you saw Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival just last year, the plot parallels in West Side Story will be especially striking. This year’s balcony scene was much better than the one last year (which was almost laughably bad, as we reported). Tony and Maria were so endearing and impetuous that their characters very nearly came to life. We were astounded with Mr. Nolan’s strength and agility as he leapt to the balcony and vaulted into Ms. Kennedy’s arms. Acrobatics from a singer! The show is worth seeing for this scene alone.

Still, as much as we appreciated this fine production, West Side Story itself is still far from a favorite of Emsworth’s.

First, no matter how well played, the characters in West Side Story simply aren’t credible. Who can really believe that Tony, Bernardo, Riff, Baby John, and the rest really belong to vicious street gangs? Are we truly to believe that all that gangs like the Sharks and Jets cared about was strutting rights to a few square blocks of Manhattan? Didn’t street gangs in the 1950s run protection schemes and prostitution rackets, fence stolen goods, and sell drugs in their territories (as they do today)? Didn’t these gangs include cold-blooded killers?

No one could imagine that sort of thing from the nice boys and girls in West Side Story.  Crime and vice from Riff and Tony?  No evidence of delinquency whatsoever.  Until the climactic rumble (for which no one in the gangs really seems to have the stomach), these rival gangs don’t seem any more dangerous to society than rival suburban high school cheerleaders at homecoming time.

And these kids are verbally sophisticated beyond belief.   “I feel stunning — and entrancing,” Maria sings. Really? Fresh off the boat from San Juan and barely conversant in English, Maria thinks of herself as “entrancing”?  The word-play from the boys is even sharper than from the girls’.  Diesel, Action, and A-Rab have such refined senses of irony and theatricality that they can slip comfortably into the role-playing of “Gee, Officer Krupke” to mock the psychiatrists and social workers who try to explain their delinquency in sociological terms.

Can we really believe that a punk like Diesel would have the vocabulary to say “This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!/It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.”  Or that someone like Action would be witty enough to utter a line like “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived”?

Ignorant high school dropouts don’t talk this way; the characters in West Side Story are out of character every time they open their mouths.  Arthur Laurents, who conceived the play, apparently recognized the problem himself; in connection with the current Broadway revival of West Side Story, he was quoted recently as saying that “[t]he musical theatre and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters to have authenticity.”   Laurents also recognized that the lyrics to “America” and “I Feel Pretty” were so witty as to be out of character for the characters who were singing them. 

It’s true — and it’s still jarring.  The show hasn’t become dated (as some folks we talked to at Stratford thought, even though they loved the Stratford presentation); it was riddled with incongruity from the beginning.

Sondheim Laurents & Bernstein

The gang who put together West Side Story, back in the day: Stephen Sondheim on the left; Arthur Laurents, second from left; Leonard Bernstein, second from right

Our second general objection to West Side Story is, of course, its anti-Americanism. The lesson of West Side Story is as crude as the other leftist propaganda of the forties and the fifties: that the land of opportunity that the materialistic Anita sings about in “America” is a myth; that the very essence of America is racism; and that its civic institutions (represented by Officer Krupke and the precinct police) will always be enemies of people of color and the working classes.

The comparison we think Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein were implicitly inviting us to draw, of course, was to the “socialist paradises” in Russia and eastern Europe, where racism was supposedly unknown.  That was a lie, and one might think these lies have done enough damage over the last eighty years that they shouldn’t be rubbed in our faces yet again.

In this Stratford production, however, director Gary Griffin has actually chosen to reinforce the anti-American overtones of Laurents’s and Bernstein’s show; he inserted a new character into the play, a young black boy, who appears silently at various points during the play as a sort of moral rebuke to people like Emsworth who might not yet be sufficiently ashamed of having been born white American males. 

And a large American flag is unfurled on the stage at just the point when the racism becomes ugliest. We are apparently supposed to take the lesson that the anti-Puerto Rican prejudice in the play is nothing compared to the racism against all people of color that has always been the essence of America. (The young actor is also assigned the singing of “Somewhere.”)

A final note: our antennae went up when we heard Maria sing, “I feel pretty, and witty, and bright!”  Wasn’t the lyric “I feel pretty, and witty, and gay”? We thought perhaps the gay rights forces had so co-opted the word “gay” that the politically correct management at the Stratford Festival felt compelled to change the lyrics of the Bernstein/Sondheim song.

Post-play research on Rhapsody disclosed, however, that just this once we were wrong. True, in the 1961 movie version of West Side Story, Maria sang the word “gay.” But in the original Broadway production, Carol Lawrence (as Maria) was indeed “pretty, and witty, and bright!” The phrase rhymes with Maria’s next line: “And I pity/Any girl who isn’t me tonight.”

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)


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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think your review of West Side Story is lacking historical context. How could they not see America as inherently racist? The KKK was still prevalent in the 1950s, popping up in places like Birmingham, Alabama. The Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy and racial tensions were incredibly high. Not to mention the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Added to this you have the segragation of people of colour; in many counties not even allowed to stand as jury members. Hell the US even still suffers from a great big dollop of racial stratification NOW, let alone in the mid-1950s. I’m sure it is very easy for a white man to feel that the inherently racist nature of 1950s America is a lie, but I doubt it would have felt that way to people of colour, immigrants and their children.

  2. Emsworth has been obliged to delete several offensive anti-Semitic comments by one John Thames, who blames the horrors of communism entirely on “the Jews” (he also blames left-wing influence on Hollywood and the theater on “the Jews”). His last comment (which I have deleted) ended with the following: “The fact that you live in New York – and the fact that you keep deleting my comments – indicates to me that you fear a certain power. You are right to fear it. But your apologias for Jews betrays the real reason for your concerns.”

    Emsworth is most curious to know what exactly Mr. Thames means by “a certain power” — and equally curious to learn what living in New York might have to do with it. (Emsworth actually lives in Rochester, New York, several hundred miles away from New York City.) But his curiosity is overridden by a desire not to indulge an anti-Semite or to stoke the fires of his paranoia.

  3. Fair question. But in fact Jerome Robbins was involved in radical left politics too, at least during the 1940s. He was actually a member of the American Communist Party, as noted in his New York Times obituary. See this link. Part of the strategy of the American communists was to attract American black people to their revolutionary cause; they pretended an interest in civil rights and portrayed themselves as enemies of racism. (In fact, they had no interest in addressing discrimination against black people, and their line that only the Soviet Union respected civil rights was an outrageous lie.) I have no idea, of course, how deeply Robbins might have been committed to the Party’s cause.

    Still, it had always been my impression that it was Bernstein and Laurents, even more than Robbins, who were responsible for the final shape of West Side Story and its themes. The Wikipedia entry on West Side Story (see this link) tends to confirm this. Bernstein’s role was far greater than merely writing the music — hardly surprising for a man of such varied talents, which included writing. Sondheim was a young man in the early stages of his career when the others brought him in to help with lyrics; one gathers that his job was mainly to work with ideas that the older and more experienced men had already decided on.

  4. Thank you for clarifying you’re view, but I have to ask, how do Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sodheim fit in to all this? Robbins concieved the idea for the play, and Sondheim wrote the lyrics. You breifly touch on Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, but your entire argument seems to be based on Bernstein, who only wrote the music. You qualms with the play seem to be with the racist undertones. But isn’t that more focused in the lines and lyrics, as opposed to the melodies and arrangements? You have every right to your opinion of the play, and everyone draws something different out of it. But if, as you say, “Perhaps I’m reading too much of what I know about Bernstein’s politics into West Side Story,” perhaps you should focus on the politics of the people who concieved the idea and wrote the words. I am in no way trying to downplay the importance of the music of this piece. Music plays a huge role in the show, as we both know. And I do grant that Bernstien used his music to show seperation between the two gangs. However, without Robbins conceiving the piece and Sondheim and Laurents to provide the words, that music may never have been created or arranged together the way it is. All I’m saying is that to me, the conceptor, writer and lyricst hold more power in demonstrating to the audience the racism of 1950’s America. The music helps make those points more powerful.

  5. Mallory,

    Of course you’re right about Anita’s singing “America” – I knew better. You were the first person who noticed.

    And, no, I don’t think for a minute that it’s un-American to comment on racism in America. Obviously there is racism in America today, and I can assure you that there was a lot more in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up. It needs to be confronted wherever it rears its ugly head.

    So I think you and I differ mostly as to the message we hear in West Side Story. Were Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein merely pointing out that America was still an imperfect country that was not yet fully living up to its ideals? I’d like to think that, but I just don’t.

    Now I haven’t read much about the life and views of Arthur Laurents, but I do know a bit about Bernstein. Genius though he was, he consistently aligned himself with people who despised America and wanted to tear it down and remake it in accordance with radical left-wing dogma. Those were people who preached that racism was the very essence of America – whether they actually believed it, or whether it merely served their revolutionary goals. They weren’t saying that racism in America was merely a important issue that needed to be tackled, but instead that America was irredeemably racist to its core (and barring a revolution, that it always would be).

    Perhaps I’m reading too much of what I know about Bernstein’s politics into West Side Story. But I don’t think so. It’s not my habit to cry “anti-American” simply because someone writes about racism. There’s nothing more American than to want to make this a better country.

  6. I don’t really understand what you mean when you say that the play is “Anti-American” and “telling lies.” Yes, the show is commenting on racism in America. It does happen. In fact, if you read the article about West Side Story in the program, you would find that the issue of American/Peurto Rican conflict was chosen as the basis of the show as it reflected current public issues at the time. If a show is “Anti-American” for commenting on social issues, then what do you consider “Pro-American?” The show isn’t saying that America is evil and everyone there is racist. It saying that perhaps there are some issues that need to be resolved, just as there are in any country. If you believe that it is lying to say that there are or were some people in America that held racist views, then I think you need to do a little more research.

    If this was not what you meant by “Anti-American” and “telling lies,” then perhaps you could make that section a bit clearer.

    On a final note, Maria does not sing “America.” Anita does.

  7. You need to pay more attention to the show! Some of the gang members are still in school because they make references to school and teachers in the show. Also krupkee is a reenactment of things they have already heard. They are just repeating what has been told to them. I recently saw the show and i agree it is WONDERFUL! Every cast member is brilliant, this show is a must see!!

  8. Lisa Robert:

    That was a little incoherent, wasn’t it? When you read my post, didn’t you notice that I actually lavished praise on this production of West Side Story? Didn’t you notice that you and I AGREED that it’s an exceptionally good production and that the singing and dancing are wonderful?

    You might want to keep your dictionary handy when you’re leaving comments on the internet. You don’t seem to know what the word “typecasting” means or how to use it in a sentence. And this is how to spell “narcissistic.”

    There’s no need for you to call someone names simply because one of your favorite plays is not one of his favorite plays too. I gather that you’re only a high-school student, but you might want to ask your English teacher to explain to you how the use of ad hominem remarks drags down polite discourse and, ultimately, reflects poorly on the user.


  9. You are so wrong about so many things. the script is the script. The production is amazing – as is the singing and the dancing. the “black boy” is not black but of another culture…shame on you for typecasting any of the wonderful actors who pull off an amazing show. This only shows that you want comments, are narcistic and want to create controversy….try it in a different venue….it is you with the racial overtones.

  10. I don’t understand why you think I’m misunderstood.

  11. The line “pretty witty and gay” has been used in pop culture but was NEVER the actual line. It seems your research is lazy. and please explain to me how the characters are high school drop outs. There is no reference to this. In fact, the whole point of the song is that they are misunderstood… it seems you fall in this catagory.

  12. I enjoyed your review. My husband and I (during our dating months) nearly broke up because of West Side Story. I insisted it was the best musical EVER and he couldn’t stop mocking it (singing gang members? Too much for a guy to handle!)

    Your critics apparently have little to no sense of humor or are just especially dense. Your insights on the show (which I haven’t seen) seem fair and trenchant.

  13. Anonymous:
    Congratulations on your perspicacity! The first part of the post addressed the merits of the production at Stratford (extremely well done, we thought). The second part of the post dealt with the merits of the play itself (we have reservations), quite apart from the Stratford show. We tried to make that clear and are glad we succeeded.

  14. Isn’t this more of a rant against the script rather than the production? Huge ignorance on your part.

  15. If I were you I would remove this because it makes you look like a fool.

  16. You really need to do more research. You don’t know a single thing about the time period, better yet, the show.

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