Broadway presents West Side Story

Oh my goodness. I had the most fabulous time last night! My wonderful father bought the Husband and I tickets to go see West Side Story here in Houston. It was at the new(ish?) Hobby Center. I was frankly surprised that the Husband was interested, but he had a great time too! (Perhaps he would not say “fabulous.”)

I have to say that my greatest reaction was to be transported back to the first Broadway musical I saw, at age 16 or so, at the Nederlander Theatre on the actual Broadway in NYC. My same wonderful father and I were visiting prospective colleges, including NYU, and he took me to see Rent while we were there. We were really far back, maybe just a row off the back wall, but it was a tiny theatre and the seats seemed to just go straight up – we were fairly far away from the stage but it was all vertical distance, as I remember it. I was just transfixed. The personality and emotion conveyed by the actors was enormous. I guess musical theatre by definition expresses itself through exaggeration, kind of like how the ancient Greek theatre used oversized masks to make emotions and characters extra-obvious to those sitting really far away in the amphitheatre. I felt simultaneously taken in by the characters and their struggles, and interested in the process by which these actors created the characters. I liked thinking about how they did this, the rehearsals, and everything that goes into it.

Rent is a powerful story. It’s a rewrite of the opera La Boheme, which I have not seen and do not know much about, but apparently it follows the story quite closely, re-setting the love of Rodolfo and Mimi from 1830’s Paris into 1990’s New York City. The illness originally was consumption (whatever that means) and now is HIV/AIDS. In Rent, then, a group of young, impoverished actors in NYC deal with AIDS’ effect on all of them, although only some are infected.

This story captured me so powerfully at 16. I cried, and I still cry and cry when I hear songs off that soundtrack. It was perhaps one of my more powerful experiences to date at that time. I also had a gay friend who came out to his family around the same time, and I remember being excited to share with him the gay culture I discovered in Rent, in San Francisco, and in Seattle during my travels.

Like Rent, West Side Story is a remake, of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Again the story is re-set in a more modern time and place: this time in 1950’s NYC. The Capulets and Montagues have become rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. I had seen the movie years ago, but had forgotten how racially charged and not-PC it was: the Puerto Rican Sharks are reviled by the Irish-Catholic Jets but also by the police lieutenant (who doesn’t completely spare the Jets his racism, either, but being white they get gentler treatment). So that was a little shocking to me. One of the most fun scenes, in which the Shark girls sing back and forth about the charms of the US vs. PR (“América”), plays to some of the stereotypes, too. It’s a great, fun, funny scene, but again not entirely PC (as comedy often isn’t, I suppose). It was interesting to note.

It was such a great, fun play in general. Husband and I were both shocked and impressed at the outrageous dancing the women did in stiletto heels! (I can’t even walk in them, or even stand still!) I find it perfectly acceptable, in theatre, to know the ending; for me, it’s not about being surprised by plot twists, but about seeing a story executed. Still, I was surprised by the ending which diverges slightly but crucially from Shakespeare. For the bulk of it, though, I enjoyed knowing what was coming and appreciating how these incredibly talented actors, singers, dancers take me through a series of emotional reactions. I’m so touched.

Tony & Maria

And again, I was taken back to that little theatre in NYC when I was 16 and so touched by Rent. What a beautiful experience. There were little parallels: when Tony and Maria touch for the first time, they exchange comments about cold hands;

Roger & Mimi

I can still hear Roger and Mimi singing, “cold hands”… “yours too”… “big… like my father’s… wanna dance?” “with you?” “no… with my father.” These lines are more readily available in my memory than those from last night.

Musical theatre is amazing stuff. What a special treat. Thank you so much, Pops.

3 Responses

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  2. I am so jealous! I really wanted to see West Side Story while it is here, but we decided against it to save the money. I love West Side Story (and Rent).

  3. Oh yes, I’m a lucky girl. Was really a great experience, both times. I guess those are my only two Broadway experiences. Dad is now offering Billy Elliot, a local musical production. Don’t know about cost (haven’t looked) but if you’re interested, we could pick a night and all see other there… I love theatre, musical and otherwise. Usually don’t get excited about ballet, def not opera. Theatre is always a very special treat but I can rarely spring for it so definitely understand. A few years ago I saw The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Alley – now that was a wild experience! I recommend it if you get a chance. Another gift from Pops. 🙂

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