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As Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner prepare to remake West Side Story for the screen, iconoclastic theater director Ivo van Hove is making plans for a significant stage reinterpretation of the classic musical for a new generation, due on Broadway next season.
Following years of acclaimed experimental work at his home base in Amsterdam, throughout Europe and in frequent off-Broadway engagements, van Hove made a dazzling back-to-back splash on Broadway in the 2015-16 season with his boldly unconventional stagings of the Arthur Miller dramas A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, winning a Tony for the former.
Lead producer on both those revivals was Scott Rudin, who also is behind the new West Side Story, the game-changing 1957 show with a book by Arthur Laurents, an ageless score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The production is scheduled to begin previews Dec. 10, 2019, with an official opening Feb. 6, 2020, at a theater to be announced.
“Great plays and great musicals stay alive because people are given the opportunity to engage with them,” Rudin told The Hollywood Reporter. “For me, it’s the most rewarding aspect of presenting a revival: offering major artists of the present a chance to make something new from the major works of the past.”
“Ivo first talked to me about West Side when we were doing View and The Crucible on Broadway, and this felt like an obvious perfect next show to do together,” added Rudin. “He’s one of the few genuinely great theater-makers in the world. If he’s asking, I’m saying yes.”
While few details are available at this early stage, the most audacious element on paper is the complete departure from the original dance template of Jerome Robbins, whose background in the ballet world was key to his dynamic work as director-choreographer on the Broadway premiere, as well as the 1961 screen version, a best picture Oscar winner that Robbins co-directed with Robert Wise.
Robbins’ fusion of formal ballet with more aggressive, jazzier street movement has largely defined every major production since, including the most recent Broadway revival in 2009.
However, van Hove will be starting from scratch with an all-new physical approach, collaborating for the first time with his Belgian compatriot Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a celebrated contemporary dance choreographer whose work has been applauded and honored internationally since she first emerged in the early 1980s. De Keersmaeker’s latest pieces strip down their choreography to essential principles: spatial constraints of geometric pattern; bodily parameters of movement generation, from the utmost simplicity of walking to the fullest complexity of dancing; and close adherence to a score.
“We’ve known each other since we started,” van Hove told The Hollywood Reporter. “I saw Anne Teresa’s first production, and I’ve seen almost everything since, but we had a separate journey of course. I’ve always admired her work, so I was of course wishing we could somehow connect. When West Side Story came up, I thought immediately, this is the one to do together, and Anne Teresa was immediately, impulsively enthusiastic about it.”
“Ivo and I know each other’s work since the early ’80s, and on several occasions Ivo called me and expressed his wish that we would work together, but the right project never came up,” added De Keersmaeker. “When he called me about this I was on holidays and it was a big surprise because this was the ideal project to bring us together. I was a little bit overwhelmed and maybe a little bit scared in the beginning, but it was also because he insisted that we could do this together that really drew me over the line.”
De Keersmaeker explained that this new vision for West Side Story will remain as dance-intensive as the show has always been. As a choreographer and director, she has worked with a wide spectrum of music genres, developing different strategies to find a unique relationship between music and dance with each project.
“I consider Leonard Bernstein not only one of the most important American composers but also of 20th century composers,” she said. “The way Bernstein in West Side Story combined theater with music, specifically dance music, making a very strong, coherent, sophisticated score creates a brilliant device to tell the story through dance. The challenge will be to offer a new reading.”
Both De Keersmaeker and van Hove emphasized their enormous respect and admiration for the original choreography of Robbins, which has been faithfully replicated over the decades.
“The Jerome Robbins choreography is there, it has been there for decades,” said van Hove. “It will be there forever. West Side Story on its own is a classic and also the dance choreography is classic, and we don’t have any intention of making something that is against Jerome Robbins. But I think at the same time, we are now more than 60 years later, and even the choreography needs an alternative version, so that’s what we want to try to do. It’s called an American classic of the 20th century but we want to bring it into the 21st century, and you cannot do that without also looking at the choreography.
The production will feature lighting and sets by van Hove’s regular design collaborator, Jan Versweyveld. Van Hove and De Keersmaeker are now starting the casting and development process, looking for young performers skilled in dance, singing and acting, with dance being a crucial part of the whole audition process.
Considered one of the all-time greats of the American musical theater canon, West Side Story relocates the Romeo and Juliet story of lovers from feuding families to the urban jungle of New York’s Upper West Side in the pre-gentrification 1950s, when the blue-collar neighborhood was a frequent scene of ethnic gang violence. The love of Puerto Rican immigrant Maria and Italian-American former gang member Tony plays out against the explosive rivalry of their respective sides, the Sharks and the Jets, ending in tragedy.
David Saint, literary executor of the Arthur Laurents Estate, said in a statement: “Arthur always believed the only reason to revive West Side Story on Broadway was to bring a new perspective to the material. Ivo van Hove is sure to do just that.”
On behalf of Bernstein, the composer’s daughter Jamie Bernstein said: “The Bernstein Office and siblings are thrilled at this opportunity to see West Side Story staged anew in its own location, New York City. The show’s theme of love destroyed by hatred and intolerance is as poignant today as it was in Shakespeare’s time — but the story line involving the mistreatment of Puerto Rican immigrants makes West Side Story more timely now than ever.”
The project marks an unexpected new direction for van Hove, one of the most influential theater directors to emerge in recent decades. While he has worked extensively putting an idiosyncratic new stamp on classic American and European dramas, as well as famous films, his experience with musicals to date has been limited to the Dutch premiere of Rent in 2000 and the alt-musical Lazarus in 2015, on which he collaborated with David Bowie and playwright Enda Walsh.
However, van Hove has a long history of staging operas across Europe, including Boris Godunov at Paris Opera; Lulu, Salome and the entire Ring des Nibelungen at the Dutch National Opera; and the 2014 world premiere in Madrid of Brokeback Mountain, with a libretto by novelist Annie Proulx and a score by American composer Charles Wuorinen.
“Music is a real love of mine,” said van Hove. “Also in my theater productions there is a music score going on the whole time, not in the background but as a real character.”
“This is Ivo van Hove’s first Broadway musical, and I’m eager to see what he does with it,” said Sondheim in a statement. “What keeps theater alive over time is reinterpretation, and when that reinterpretation is as invigorating as his productions of A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, it makes for something to look forward to with excitement.”
Also in the pipeline for van Hove in 2019 is a London stage adaptation of the classic Bette Davis backstage drama All About Eve. While casting has not been officially confirmed, word has leaked that Gillian Anderson will take on the role of imperious Broadway diva Margo Channing, while Lily James will play Eve Harrington, the fawning acolyte revealed to be a supreme opportunist.
Van Hove’s production for La Comedie-Francaise of The Damned, based on the Luchino Visconti film, will play New York’s Park Avenue Armory this month, running July 17-28.
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