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Wild Changes to Classic Shows: How Far Is Too Far?

Date: Nov 13, 2019

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things


This week, TDF Stages Editor Raven Snook geeks out (via Facebook Messenger) with Christina Trivigno, TDF's Director of Digital Strategy and a bona fide theatre nerd.

Today's topic: Inspired by Ivo van Hove's truncated and intermissionless production of West Side Story, we wonder, when does a revival change so much that it feels like a different show?

Raven Snook: It's all anyone's talking about on my social media feeds, and it's totally dividing the community. People can't even speak civilly to each other! No, I'm not talking about politics, I'm referring to the upcoming Broadway revival of West Side Story. Avant-garde Belgian director Ivo van Hove is known for his controversial productions of classic plays (the Tony-winning A View from the Bridge, the more polarizing The Crucible, last season's cinema-to-stage adaptation of Network). But ever since he said he was "remixing West Side Story for the 21st century," theatre fans have been completely freaking out, calling it West Side Story Jr. and goofing on its two months of previews, saying that's the length of time he'll need to put everything back the way it was.

Over the summer we published a piece about high school and college productions that changed shows so as not to offend. But reading van Hove's changes for West Side Story -- no "I Feel Pretty," no "Somewhere" ballet, no intermission, though keep in mind lyricist Stephen Sondheim says he's down with all of that -- I thought, this is the opposite of what schools do. They're trying to keep everyone happy. Van Hove wants to stir things up… but for what reason? For the sake of art or infamy?

Christina Trivigno: I can forgive taking out the ballet as long as the song "Somewhere" remains in some altered form. But taking out "I Feel Pretty" seems like a real shame. It's one of the few scenes given to the female characters to shine, and it shows a woman who otherwise feels like an outsider having a moment of joy and self-love. That said, I know Sondheim has long been embarrassed by his lyrics for that song.

Even the recent revival of My Fair Lady had staging changes that angered fans and also begged the question: Can you really make a classic piece like that fit into a more feminist world?

I do think with some revivals, changes are actually done to make audiences happier. For example, adding in a beloved song from the movie version of a show, like putting "Mein Herr" in Cabaret, or "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Sandy" in Grease.

And then there are revivals that change a show's traditional tone. I'd never seen Oklahoma! on stage before, so while I read it was dark and different from previous productions, I just knew I was thrilled to see Ali Stroker on Broadway again.

Raven: I see van Hove's West Side Story as different from Oklahoma! -- director Daniel Fish made the latter feel like a new show because of the staging and vibe, but he didn't make alterations to the script. It felt like a change in interpretation, not material. Still, many Oklahoma! fans have been up in arms about that one, too.

Christina: The last Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess, which was directed by Diane Paulus and adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray, changed the show quite a bit. There was a lot of controversy at the time -- I remember hearing that there were even bigger changes out of town that got cut before it came to New York. Sondheim was definitely upset about it. He even wrote an angry letter about it to The New York Times.


Raven: It's funny that Sondheim spearheaded that outrage (on behalf of dead authors, I get it), but he's approved van Hove's changes on West Side Story. I wonder if he'll write The Times a letter defending it. Seriously though, the fact that Sondheim -- the only living member of West Side Story's original creative team -- is okay with what's happening makes me wonder, who are we to quibble?

I think a lot of theatre fans love hate-watching van Hove. (Can I just say, hate-watching theatre is a very expensive pastime.) They know he's going to make huge, gasp-inducing changes on any classic he revives. He likes them streamlined and in your face and half-televised. I get it, it's his style. But often, regardless of whether I like his changes or not, I find myself asking why he made them. I usually understand the impetus for changes in other revivals. Take the recent revival Kiss Me Kate: Since today's audiences might find a man spanking a woman or the lyric "I am ashamed that women are so simple" hard to swallow, they changed them. Whether you agree with those changes or not, they make a kind of sense. With van Hove, I sometimes wonder if he does it just to spark conversation and coverage. (Yes, I'm that cynical.) To me, his changes to A View from the Bridge made it more like a Greek tragedy and enhanced the story. But his changes to The Crucible confused me. Having the girls erroneously accused of witchcraft seemingly practice witchcraft? That was weird. 

All this said, I think die-hard fans tend to forget that even with classics, many audience members will be seeing the show for the first time. To them, this is how it's "supposed" to be done. My kid's first Oklahoma! was the one currently playing. I suspect if I show her the movie now she'll find it strange.

Christina: To your point about if Sondheim is okay with it -- like I said in our Little Mermaid Live! chat, people get attached to what they know and love. I think it's wonderful when fans are so invested in a work of art that they want to defend it and protect it. I hope the artists consider it a compliment, because it'd be worse if we didn't care at all.

Raven: I think what you're saying about fans' possessiveness of the art they love is key -- especially with theatre. Movies and fine art don't change over time (unless you're George Lucas and you go back and reedit the original Star Wars trilogy). So with stage shows, fans really cling to the text because that's usually the one thing that doesn't change from production to production. Everything else -- the cast, the design, the staging, the context (see Oklahoma!) -- is bound to change. So if you start making massive changes to the script too, well, then is it even the same show anymore?

While I am nervous about the changes to West Side Story, I am shocked there hasn't been more commentary on the casting (and I'm not even talking about all the anger at Amar Ramasar being cast after the New York City Ballet scandal). Tony, formerly a white character, is being played by a biracial actor, Isaac Powell, opposite a Maria, Shereen Pimentel, who's Latinx and African-American. I appreciate that van Hove is trying to make sure the musical doesn't come off as a period piece. That casting signals to me that he's trying to investigate current hot-button issues such as identity politics, multiculturalism, white privilege and the immigration crisis (even though, as my Puerto Rican husband constantly has to remind people, Puerto Ricans are not immigrants, they are Americans). 

Christina: I do look forward to that casting. My father was a young immigrant when the movie came out and he's not a musical theatre guy, but he felt it spoke to his experience as a young man making friends with other Italians and being at odds with other groups of kids from different backgrounds. I think the story would hold up with any two groups clashing over their perceived otherness.

Raven: Agreed. I keep trying to think of classic musicals I've seen that were drastically rewritten. All the ones I'm thinking of, like On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, were called revisals. I wonder why they're not calling this West Side Story that? Also, fans need to be reminded that it was rewritten last time too, in Spanish (courtesy of Lin-Manuel!) But eventually they went back to the English-language lyrics.

I just realized, van Hove seems to be taking a page from the John Doyle playbook. Doyle loves cutting everything down to NMNI (90 minutes no intermission), or at least by a third. I do wonder if this cutting has to do with directors feeling like they're trimming the fat, or if they don't think modern-day audiences will sit for three hours (ahem, Hamilton begs to differ), or if they feel like it gives the show a certain kind of momentum. Certainly I can see the benefit of cutting the intermission from West Side Story in terms of how it feels like the action is heading toward unavoidable tragedy.

Christina: Yeah, I like the idea of no intermission for the same reason. Sometimes an intermission can take you out of the moment when a lot is going on. Something as silly as a long bathroom line can change your mood or mindset.

People were seriously skeptical about the Spanish lyrics even before that last revival opened, but the idea was solid and I feel like they were pretty open and transparent about why they wanted to give that a go. I don’t feel like we’ve heard nearly as much about the whys on this one. That probably feeds the anxiety most. Like why? Just tell us! Do you think there’s a point where they will start calling this a revisal instead of a revival? Like how many more changes would warrant that distinction?

Raven: I know for me, as a fan of the original show, I am thinking of it as a revisal. No one involved may use that word, but I think it's the way I can go in with as open a mind as possible. And maybe it will blow my open mind. I would love that actually.


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

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