How do you solve a problem like Maria? No this isn’t the wrong musical it’s the key to getting West Side Story. This offering at Sadler’s Wells is a German produced international tribute that remains faithful to the original. Technically it is very good with an American cast and with direction and choreography by Joey McKneely who has impeccable Broadway credentials. The dancing steals the show but the alternate leads of Anthony Festa and Jessica Soza as the ill fated lovers, Tony and Maria, have rich, strong voices although they don’t quite catch the lyrical nuances of Bernstein’s music. Like most musicals West Side Story demands high quality singing, acting and dancing. The cast generally tick those boxes and the stand out performance is the exceptional fireball Penelope Armstead-Williams as Anita.
Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is reset in the tenements of 1950’s New York with two teenage gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, replacing the bard’s warring families. When it opened on Broadway in 1957 it created an important connection between the aftermath of World War Two and the dawning of 1960’s social upheaval. In the First Act a cop tells a gang member about how he behaved when he was his age. ‘You were never my age’ was the gang member’s retort. The starting pistol for the teenage revolution and youth culture had just been fired. Some of the songs such as ‘Something’s coming’ had significance beyond what was implied in the plot.
One problem in staging West Side Story is familiarity fatigue with songs that have been heard hundreds of times but hearing the music reset in the context of the musical reinvigorates and reenergises the score. The wonderful opening jazzy bars from Bernstein presage menace and disaster and take the audience on a whirlwind tour of emotion and drama that relents only with the tragic finale. The music is still thrilling and remains Bernstein’s greatest legacy.
Before West Side Story musicals eschewed realism. A plot might be about war, slavery or crime but distress was quickly overlooked by a good tune. In West Side Story the realism of the book by Arthur Laurents, the words by Stephen Sondheim and the ground breaking choreography from Jerome Robbins set the standard for future musicals.
Yet for all its unrivalled quality there remain fundamental flaws. West Side Story might be based on Shakespeare but it isn’t Shakespeare. For instance Shakespeare would intersperse tragedy and comedy as dramatic device but here it doesn’t work. The insertion of the famous comedic ‘Office Krupke’ in the Second Act before the final tragic scene jars and belongs to the exchanges earlier in the First Act. It is notable that in the subsequent movie the Krupke song and the famous ‘Play it cool boys’ (Cool) swapped places.
This brings us back to the problem called Maria. In any other musical not blessed such gobsmacking brilliance, the poor girl would be laughed off the stage. In the space of 24 hours, she jettisons her culture, falls in love with a stranger (Tony), loses her virginity; discovers that her brother (gang leader Bernardo) has been murdered by the aforesaid stranger and then agrees to elope with him anyway.
The structure also feels lop-sided. The First Act is almost perfect as a standalone piece. The Second Act is a much briefer rollercoaster ride to calamity. F Scott Fitzgerald said ‘There are no second acts in American lives’ and perhaps that should also apply to this musical.
There is of course the controversial ending. On hearing that Tony has been murdered Maria grabs a gun and instead of killing herself (a la Shakespeare’s Juliet) she sort of waves it around and somehow initiates conciliation between the warring gangs who exit the stage together carrying Tony’s body. One could argue that having been based on Romeo and Juliet it is surely obligatory to retain the same ending unless there is a compelling reason to change it. That compelling reason is hope. Maria is a recent immigrant so she sees through the wretched nihilism of the gang culture and calls for a stop to it.
Some 50 years on the supposed hatred between the two gangs looks less authentic than their shared loathing of the outmoded authority figures that sought to curtail them. So maybe they got the ending right after all. This polished production is definitely worth catching.