Apr 9, 2009

What's the Story?

I was quite disappointed with the new Broadway production of West Side Story; I will go into more detail in a published piece I'm contracted to write (ditto Exit the King, which I was in fact not disappointed by, even though its last 20 minutes paled next to my memory of the 1999 production at the Actors Gang, featuring John Reilly and the incomparable Molly Bryant). But for now I'll say a few things: I admire Lin-Manuel Miranda's deft Spanish translations--to my wife's chagrin, I can't seem to stop singing "Hoy siento tan preciosa"--but I feel that writer/director Arthur Laurents' tweaks, including the Spanglish, did nothing but emphasize how creaky the book is (has always been).

Obviously many, even most, critics don't agree. But in reading over the reviews, I came across some odd boners in John Lahr's New Yorker review. They're minor on their own, but they help illustrate some of my problems with the script. Emphases mine:
...Bernardo (George Akram), whom Tony accidentally stabs during a gang dustup...

When Maria discovers her dead lover, the moment is like a punch to the heart.

As far as I could tell, that's not what's going down eight shows a week at the Palace Theater. As for the "accidentally" business--well, let's consult the stage directions for the end of the rumble:
TONY pulls RIFF off of BERNARDO. RIFF pushes TONY away and re-approaches BERNARDO, whose hand goes forward with a driving motion, running his knife into RIFF...TONY leaps forward to catch RIFF. HE breaks his fall, then takes the knife from his hand. TONY leaps at BERNARDO and rams his knife into him.

A crime of passion, certainly, but an accident? That's the way Tony seems to think of it, as he explains to Maria:
I don’t know how it went wrong. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t know I had. But Riff...Riff was like my brother. So when Bernardo killed him--...‘Nardo didn’t mean to, either. I know he didn’t! Nobody did.

Right. (Note the passive construction for Bernardo's killing Riff--his "hand goes forward"; there's no such evasion for Tony, who "rams his knife into" Bernardo.) Now, is this just romantic muddleheadedness, or is it another kind of romanticizing--mid-century liberal idealization of the ennobled, essentially guiltless underclass? In my view, West Side Story mixes both, and that pitiful self-importance is at least one problem I've always had with the show.

As for the second description, of Maria "discovering" her dead lover--well, maybe because it didn't make a punch, or even an impression, on my heart, I couldn't help but notice how contrived the following scene looked onstage:



(As they run to each other, CHINO runs on and fires a gun. TONY stumbles as though he tripped. MARIA catches him and cradles him in her arms as he falls to the ground.) I didn’t believe hard enough.

Loving is enough.

Not here.

But hey, the dancing is great.

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