There are songs that play over and over again in my mind, so much a part of me that I can’t even remember when I heard them first. “Somewhere”, written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is one of those songs. I heard it again last night at the general rehearsal for “West Side Story”, which opens tonight at the Israeli Opera. But this time, I heard it very differently.
Until last night, my acquaintance with “West Side Story” was based on the 1961 movie, for me, it was always a love story, one that – more often than not – left me in tears. Ali Ewoldt, who played Maria last night with a poignant sweetness and strength, says of the story, “It’s the romance everyone dreams of.” I don’t remember when I saw the movie for the first time but I must have been very young and still quite young the last time I saw it, because at one point during last night’s performance the realization flashed through my mind: “Oh, so Maria and Tony had sex!” Yet despite this revelation, I found my mind and heart drawn to other themes in the musical.
In the theatre, “everything happens for the first time, every night,” says lead actor Scott Sussman, who imbues Tony with youthful hope and idealism. Actors and audience, each individual arriving with his or her own emotions, thoughts, and events of the day; which affect the performance and its reception. The effect is often subtle, barely perceptible. More apparent is the physical presence of the actors onstage, the sense of immediacy and intimacy. Actors and audience are in the same room, however large or small the theatre may be. It is an experienced shared.
As I watched the talented young cast, Maria appeared ever so much younger than Natalie Wood had ever been. From my current vantage point, she was almost a child. They were all very young – full of hope and energy, leaping, twirling and diving head first into trouble. Director and revival choreographer Joey McKneely places an emphasis on the youth of the characters, saying, “those are kids, they are not aware of the consequences. They don’t think; they just act. At the end there are three dead bodies, one girl has been raped and another is about to commit suicide – how did we get there?” From the height of my advanced years, I looked down towards the stage last night and wondered: where are their parents, where are the adults?
The parents are nowhere in sight, although they are present in the text and minds of the characters. Humorously, in “Officer Krupke” as the source of their offspring’s delinquency and more seriously, as Tony and Maria try to envision a future together, their voices soaring through the theatre. There are only three adults in the musical: Doc (Steve Brady), Lieutenant Shrank (Anthony Partellis) and Officer Krupke (Chris Van Fleet). Doc is kind, yet his perspective on life is so bleak that it cannot offer hope or guidance. He cannot really “dig” them, understand their desires and struggles, the only “help” he can offer is to “dig” their graves. That leaves us with Lieutenant Shrank and Officer Krupke, the representatives of authority, who, under the guise of law and order, perpetuate and encourage conflict and racism.
Blinded by romance, and the tension between the gangs, I had never been as aware of the blatant racism as I was during last night’s performance – the police even offer to “lend a hand” to the Jets if the rumble gets rough. Another aspect of the play that leaped to the foreground was the economics of immigration – a member of the Jets blames the Puerto Rican Sharks for the failure of his father’s business, the inner conflict of the immigrant torn between the unfulfilled economic promise of “America” and the connection to the country of their birth. The power struggles between women and men play a major role in almost every scene: from Anybodys – the girl who will do anything to be accepted as a gang member, to the negotiations between Bernardo and Anita, the control that members of both gangs impose on “their” women and through the women on members of the rival gang – culminating in the cruel rape of Anita (a powerful performance by Oneika Phillips – this Anita is not just a terrific dancer, she is an intelligent woman capable of deep empathy as well as destructive anger).
The movie version softens some of the roughness of the musical. The theatre is different. One arrives at the theatre in a different manner, many of us, me included, even dress differently. I arrived in a nostalgic, retro mood, punctuated by my red polka-dot dress, ready to indulge in a night of musical memories. But everything I saw on the stage sent me straight back into the present, including the costumes, which downplayed the 50s look – a “conscious decision” on the part of McKneely.
Feeling that the look of the musical had evolved into a “Fifties museum that looked like “Grease” with poodle skirts and slicked back hair,” he explained that “This is a story with so much heart, emotion and drama. It’s difficult to grasp emotion through the fog of stereotypical images. I wanted the costumes to look like clothes.” The contemporary feel of the costumes lets the look convey character and story, rather than get in the way of the story, and certainly brings the audience closer to the experience. McKneely also employs the costumes to convey the cultural differences between the two groups. Taking into account that on the international tour they perform in countries where “there are no racial issues,” says McKneely, “how will they be aware of the difference?” to this end the Puerto Rican Sharks are dressed in loud, flamboyant colors while the Jets (Americans of Polish descent) have a monochromatic slightly preppy look.
It is still all too easy to designate a group, any group, as “other”, to create the separation between “us” and “them” and find rationalizations and regulations to maintain these divisions. In Israel, as in many other countries, yesterday was the first day of school. As I sat at my computer, looking forward to a night out, children of Ethiopian origin waited out the day in Petah Tikvah (see Or Kashti’s article in Haaretz) because of logistic problems, red tape, bureaucracy… or perhaps this shameful start to the school year is the product of racism? I kept thinking about those children and their families as I watched the performance. You’d think that things might have changed since 1957 when West Side Story was first performed. There has been progress, legally, culturally and socially – but not enough.
“There’s a place for us” – the music and lyrics pierced my heart once more yet acquired another layer of meaning. Who hasn’t felt that desire to be at home, to belong? Whether as an individual seeking a lover or soul mate, a teenager seeking the reassurance of belonging to a gang, a people seeking a home and acceptance. It’s a familiar song. When I heard Tony and Maria singing last night, looking for that future time and place, I thought of those children who were denied the excitement of the first day of school. I thought of the Jets and the Sharks, those kids in a world where the only adult figures present are the bleak, passive Doc and the racist, violent, oppressive Shrank and Krupke. Between Doc and Officer Krupke – there doesn’t seem to be much hope for a future.
I would like to hope that we can find a new way of living.
West Side Story
September 2 – 14
The Israeli Opera
19 Shaul Hamelech Street
Tickets and info: 03-6927777