Chita Rivera dancing in the 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story
Although West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, its reflection of the racial tensions happening in New York are just as affecting to audiences today as they were 60 years ago. But Tony Award-winning director Ivo van Hove’s newest reimagining of the musical, launching Feb. 6, will also be controversial—in order to bring West Side Story into 2020, he’ll be dismantling and reconstructing it practically anew.
Van Hove established himself as an avant-garde director in A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, but he knows how close to audiences’ hearts this musical is and will be calculated in the changes he makes. “When I listened to it again, when I read it again, I discovered this very brutal world, a divided world where people search for unity by exclusion of the other—the person who is not like you,” van Hove told Vogue. “It seemed as if it were written yesterday. So that’s our aspiration: to make a West Side Story for the 21st century.”
Original lyricist Stephen Sondheim was inspired by the mass influx of Puerto Rican immigrants into New York during the “Great Migration” of the 1950s and the social strains it caused. Rather than the familial feud in Romeo and Juliet, the play’s central conflict is differing racial classes. The original might not seem controversial, but at the time, the gang violence, racially motivated police violence and urban unrest shocked and captivated audiences.
Van Hove revealed that in an effort to reflect the velocity of Tony and Maria’s love affair-turned-tragedy, he will be removing two beloved numbers from the show: “I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere.” Fans have voiced their mixed reactions to this choice online, but it earned Sondheim’s approval, as well as that of the creators’ estates. Choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has also reworked Jerome Robbins’ legendary snapping, stomping, leaping numbers, bringing her background in contemporary dance to modernize the production.
Overall, van Hove’s West Side Story reminds the viewer that though times have changed since the musical’s debut, much has not. As Chita Rivera sang poignantly in “America,” the track that was destined to make her a star, “Life is alright in America, if you’re all white in America.” Orchestra tickets from $199, Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, westsidestorybway.com
Photography by: Photo by Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images