Is West Side Story Overrated?

3 minute read
Richard Zoglin

It has become a venerated broadway tradition: beloved musical from the golden age is dusted off after years of neglect, given a spiffy new revival and hailed by critics and audiences all over again. It happened last year with South Pacific and Hair. Seems to happen every other season with Gypsy. This year’s anointed rediscovery is West Side Story, the groundbreaking musical from 1957 that grafted Romeo and Juliet (plus elements of classical ballet and grand opera) onto a social-realist portrayal of New York City gang warfare in the 1950s.

For me, however, this was no usual revival. Through an odd quirk of my musical-theater history, West Side Story was the one widely acclaimed masterpiece of the genre that I had never seen onstage. Until a few weeks ago, when I saw it on DVD, I hadn’t even seen the Oscar-winning 1961 movie version. No fond memories of the original to protect; no tacky high school production to try to forget. The only pertinent question for this West Side Story virgin: Does the show still excite, entertain, live up to its gargantuan reputation? My verdict: alas, not quite.

There are certainly problems with the new production (directed by the book’s author, Arthur Laurents), which is musically shaky (the orchestra sometimes drowns out the singers) and blandly cast. As Tony, ex-leader of the white gang the Jets, Matt Cavenaugh doesn’t look as if he could survive a game of touch football, much less a street rumble. As Maria, the Puerto Rican girl he falls for, newcomer Josefina Scaglione has a lovely voice but seems to be acting by the numbers. Even the famed Jerome Robbins choreography (“reproduced” by Joey McKneely), though still vibrant and emotional, looks a little cramped and underwhelming on the stage of the Palace Theatre.

The new show’s chief gimmick–two of the songs and parts of several scenes are done in Spanish, a dubious bow to “realism”–is a relatively minor distraction. Its biggest sin is really the worst one a revival can commit: it leaves you questioning whether the original was quite all it was cracked up to be. The story today seems not so much dated as painfully thin. I don’t expect a stage musical about street gangs to have the grit or nuance of the better Hollywood films of the era, like Blackboard Jungle or Rebel Without a Cause. But I do want a love story with a hint of motivation, plausibility–or, here at least, sexual heat.

And that glorious Leonard Bernstein score? Not all that glorious this time around. The jazzy, modernist, Gershwinesque numbers–the “Jet Song,” “America”– are still terrific. But (forgive the heresy) is there a duller love ballad in any major American musical than “Maria” (“Maria! I’ve just met a girl named Maria”), or its Muzak-ready twin brother, “Tonight” (“Tonight, tonight/ There’s only you tonight”)? Who could have guessed that the show’s lyricist would grow up to be Stephen Sondheim?

And who’d think that West Side Story, rather than confirming its place in the Broadway pantheon a half-century later, would look as if it had seen better days?

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