Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A musically great but dramatically woeful “West Side Story” at the BBC Proms

“West Side Story” will always rightly be associated primarily with Leonard Bernstein. But as Mozart needed Da Ponte so Bernstein needed Arthur Laurents, who wrote the story, and Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics. And all three of them needed Jerome Robbins whose choreography took the whole conception to a unique level of achievement. For Sondheim it was his first big breakthrough and though later he expressed some dissatisfaction with his rather uneven lyrics (they do range from the banal to the inspired) overall his contribution to the success was important. It was with a palpable sense of excitement that we went to the “Royal Albert Hall” to see the BBC Prom featuring WSS. The production would be driven by the John Wilson Orchestra who have a skilled way with the American Musical Theatre classics. Last year they did an excellent semi-staged “Oklahoma” which like WSS combines a great story with fabulous songs and brilliant dance sequences. That Prom in 2017 (see photo) was well cast, the staging though somewhat limited by the available space, excellent and the costumes, the props, the acting, and the dance and ballet superb.

“West Side Story” as a musical event under John Wilson’s direction was admirable. If you only caught it on Radio then you will have been impressed. The orchestra was in top form and the singers complemented them very well. But in the Hall it was nothing short of a travesty. True we knew that this was going to be a “Concert Performance” but I’m sure those of us who saw “Oklahoma” last year expected something similar.
The Prom programme showed two of the iconic elements of the story with drawings of New York and of the dance. In this production the Big Apple was maybe implied but there was no attempt to create a New York ambience. Unforgivably there was no dance either! Despite space constraints plenty of Proms have dance sequences in them (as in “Oklahoma”) and there was even a “Strictly Come Dancing” Prom in 2016. It can be done!

If there was no dance there was precious little acting either and the story stuttered along. Not everyone in the Hall knew the story as well as we did and there were some puzzled looks around. As Tim Ashley put it in The Guardian “Anyone unfamiliar with the piece would have had trouble following the narrative, while important characters such as Bernardo, Riff and even Anita tended to become ciphers”. The Jets and the Sharks ran on and off the “stage” a bit but there was little to distinguish the one gang from the other and even the fight sequence was omitted. Richard Morrison in The Times summed it up “… the dialogue was shrivelled to shreds and there was no dancing”. There were no proper costumes either and little real attempt at character development.

I came away little the wiser about “West Side Story” other than to have confirmed for me what a true work of musical genius it is. But it is more than the music – perhaps the greatest of all the American musicals because of the book, the lyrics and the dance. To quote Richard Morrison again “… what happened to Arthur Laurent’s masterly rewrite of Shakespeare, Jerome Robbins epoch-defining choreography and Stephen Sondheim’s deftly crafted lyrics?” What indeed.

Paddy Briggs
August 2018