West Side Story – Many interpretations of the timeless story

Written by Robyn Jutsum

This month’s Cardio Ballet theme is West Side Story (1961) with choreography by Jerome Robbins! Jamie Bernstein describes this musical phenomenon as follows, “West Side Story is truly everywhere — and with its themes of love striving to rise above hatred; the fear of immigrants; and the toxicity of racism, West Side Story speaks to us today as urgently as ever.”

But before the film, it was first a stage production that Jerome Robbins originally envisioned to take place on the Lower East Side. Juliet was to be Jewish, and Romeo was to be an Italian Catholic. It eventually transitioned to the plot we are familiar with, and it opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 26th, 1957. It ran until June of 1959. A revised bilingual staging of the original production also ran from March 19th, 2009 to January 2nd, 2011 at the Palace Theatre.

The 1961 film premiered on October 18th, 1961, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. It would later be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1997.

In 2020, a new production premiered at the Broadway Theatre prior to the pandemic with choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.

And most recently, the 2021 film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck made its debut within the West Side family.

Robbins, known for his choreography as well as his collaborations with George Balanchine, Bob Fosse, and Leonard Bernstein (to name a few), won two Academy Awards for his work on the 1961 musical tragedy. Throughout all of the thematic content within the plot, Jerome Robbins incorporated movement and dance as a universal language to tell the story as much as the lyrics or dialogue do.

In an article by Christopher Caggiano, Robbins’ impact shows that “In West Side Story, the dance becomes a form of communication, manifesting the inner thoughts of what these inarticulate street kids can’t find the words to say.” This is especially significant within the context of this musical because there is a language barrier between the Sharks and the Jets, the two rival gangs. Dance is used as communication and as a plot device to propel the story forward.

Justin Peck was tasked with choreographing the 2021 remake, a HUGE undertaking for the impact Jerome Robbins had made through his work on the original.

Leigh Scheps, writing for Town & Country, wrote “Robbins’s style is credited with mixing ballet and musical theater, making Peck, who won a Tony for his work on the 2018 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, an ideal choice to take on the challenge of adapting West Side Story for the next generation.” And Peck himself spoke of the intentions behind the newest adaptation, “they approached this with a sense of reverence and admiration for the original.”

Robbins’ choreography was snappy, technical, percussive, and innately cool from start to finish. His choreography emulated an overall emotional wave that washes over the characters and the audience from start to finish. In a piece for NPR, Justin Peck shares that he made the dances “more menacing.” 

“As the tension rises, ” says Justin Peck, “and the pressure between them gets higher, when words fail and there needs to be steam let off, it lifts off into dance.” The movement continues the story. And it all comes together, sweeping the original tale, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, into a new century. (From NPR’s Morning Edition “How choreographer Justin Peck helped reimagine ‘West Side Story for the 21st century“)

It’s important to not shy away from the reality that although a timeless piece of musical theatre and an influential part of dance history, West Side Story is not without its problems. From its roots in the ‘50s to today, cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, specifically of the Puerto Rican community, has been a blaring issue and hotbed for discussion and debate.

You can dive more adequately into the problematic elements of West Side Story and how choices in more recent adaptations have helped or furthered them through these shared sources:

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2021-12-12/west-side-story-puerto-rico-cultural-authenticity

https://www.indiewire.com/2020/03/spielberg-west-side-story-whitewashing-rita-moreno-1202218023/

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/opinion/west-side-story-broadway.html

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/03/ivo-van-hoves-west-side-story-steeped-stereotypes/607210/

https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/new-west-side-story-steven-spielberg-lessens-racism-original-not-ncna1285757

Join us this weekend on Sunday, February 20th at 6 pm ET on Zoom for our monthly Sips and Clips virtual happy hour and viewing party. We’ll dive deeper into the issues of racism and xenophobia, all of the fantastic dancing, and Jerome Robbins! Grab your drink of choice and get comfy for this FREE community event!

Additional Sources Cited

https://dance.lovetoknow.com/West_Side_Story_Dance_Analysis

https://www.westsidestory.com/

https://dramatics.org/the-robbins-effect/

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