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'West Side Story' Gets A Modern Reboot On Broadway

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we'd like to tell you about the new revival of "West Side Story" on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Skyscrapers bloom in America.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Cadillacs zoom in America. Industry boom in America. Twelve in a room in America.

MARTIN: No matter how many times you may have seen the American classic in the past, this is like nothing you've seen before. Don't get me wrong, it still tells the story of Tony and Maria, a young couple trying to protect their young love against the dictates of the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. There is still fierce dancing and heartbreaking violence. It's still set in New York. But this new "West Side Story" directed by the award-winning Belgian director Ivo Van Hove is different. Gone is a popular song and the familiar choreography. In their place are new moves and riveting visual touches. And none of this came about without some controversy.

With us now to tell us more about this new "West Side Story" are Shereen Pimentel - Maria - and Isaac Powell - Tony in the new revival. They're with us from our bureau in New York. Shereen, Isaac, congratulations on everything. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ISAAC POWELL: Thank you.

SHEREEN PIMENTEL: Thank you.

POWELL: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: So tell me how, when each of you found out that you had been cast in these much-loved roles, first, what was your reaction, and then what were your thoughts about how to approach it?

POWELL: I lost my mind when I found out that I had gotten this part. You know, it's sort of being handed this very iconic role. It was at first seen as a bit of a challenge, I think. But then I started to reframe my thinking around it. And that was with the help of Ivo as well. I knew that his vision for the show would be a little bit different. And throughout the entire callback process, he really sort of coached me into bringing my own unique qualities and my own quirks to the role. So I feel like I sort of was liberated from the idea of having to approach this role the way that it's always been presented, if that makes any sense.

MARTIN: Sure. Shereen, what about you? Like, how were you encouraged to think about it?

PIMENTEL: I was encouraged to think about Maria in a way that I don't think she's ever been portrayed, which is as somebody who always knows what she wants and is incredibly determined and has a sense of drive and passion within her. And I think that that gave so much to the character. And one of the things I find really funny is my mother has seen the show about four times now, and after the third time, she said, I think if anyone was to say that a 16-year-old can't act that way, they never met you when you were 16.

And my mom said, if anybody would like to contest that, they can talk to her anytime because I - the portrayal that we've come up with of this Maria is exactly how I was when I was 16 years old and dealing with life and growing up. And so I think that that was really, really fascinating to kind of tap into another part of how women are and that they can still be young but also kind of have a maturity to them and feel so many feelings and be strong women while also falling in love at the same time.

MARTIN: Well, you two were adorable together, I just have to say. I mean, you're just so cute. I can't even stand it. But I don't know, Isaac, maybe you agree with this - instead of Tony - it's not that Toni picks her, they pick each other. Do you agree?

POWELL: Yeah. I feel like it's even deeper than that. I don't really think that they're like picking each other. I feel like it's two souls, two, like, essences that were two halves of a whole that just - almost like a magnet just found its mates. I think it goes beyond the body and the mind of Tony and Maria of each of them. I think that there is something cosmic, something on a different level that just draws them together. I think they are two halves of a whole that were attracted to one another.

MARTIN: Well, I don't want to gloss past the fact that people who know this piece and of course know that it's based on "Romeo And Juliet," it is brutal in some ways. And it's also brutal in a very modern way. So do you want to describe for people who haven't seen it, there's this visual element, do you want to describe it?

PIMENTEL: Yeah. Basically, we have no set. We have a wall that projects videos. Some of them live. Some of them are pre-recorded. And we have videos set up throughout onstage where we have Doc's shop and also the sweatshop as well as throughout the theater because Maria's bedroom is three flights up in the theater. So we have a whole kind of - I don't want to say montage, but we have a whole thing of video behind us as we do the entire show.

MARTIN: Well not only that but when there's fighting happening a lot of the kids whip out their phones or videos happening on their phones. That's a very real thing now. I was just wondering when you realized that was going to be a part of it. Like, what did you think? Did you think, wow, this is really the real deal or like - what do you think?

PIMENTEL: I felt like it was a great opportunity to kind of touch on some things that are really important for us now, which is technology and the uses of it and the uses of it, obviously, as we're teenagers, as you were saying. So I think to be able to show that on stage every night and to make it so, so real, I just found it to be fascinating that we were going to kind of touch on that and that we were going to explore that idea.

POWELL: And it's its own language almost, its own sort of digital language that, you know, we have as a society now and a new way that we take in information. And to see that playing out on stage, I think it just really elevates and heightens the entire experience.

MARTIN: I do have to ask about one of the pain points here, which is the play has been getting some attention for the fact that one of the cast members, Amar Ramasar, who plays Bernardo, a member of the Sharks, was accused in a previous job of inappropriate conduct. He allegedly shared explicit images of another dancer with a male dancer. He was first fired from a company, then he was rehired. But there've been protests every single performance. And I wondered, first of all, I just have to ask, Shereen, do you feel OK with this. Are you - do you feel safe with him in the cast?

PIMENTEL: With the cast as a whole, for me, I think that all of us have been able to come together to create something beautiful. And I have felt safe with our entire cast and our creative team. And I think that that's really important. And so we all find out who is in the cast, and then we all come together on our first day of work to create something really beautiful and focus on the work that we're doing to create such a modern version and to do something so different. And so I have felt safe, but I've also been really, really focused on creating a new Maria and making this to be the best show possible in this new version and for all of our wonderful castmates who are making Broadway debuts. So yeah, that's kind of been the main focus is the show.

MARTIN: OK. Isaac, what about you? are you comfortable with how this has unfolded?

POWELL: You know, I try to be a professional and not let my own personal politics influence my work. I show up every day, and I do my job, and I leave my own baggage at the door. And I agree with Shereen. I think my focus has been on making the show as great as possible and trying not to let anything else get in the way of me doing my job that I love so much.

MARTIN: What's it been like, though, to come to work with this other layer?

POWELL: I do feel for some of the cast who have had this sort of other outside tension sort of weighing on them as well that I don't think that they necessarily deserve. But I think that our cast is really strong and really smart. And we like to keep our heads down and do our jobs and try not to let outside forces influence what we do on stage every night.

MARTIN: Well, it is a remarkable experience because it's so - there's been so much attention to this revival. It's gotten so much attention even before it premiered, both because of the artistic issues - I mean, this is such an iconic piece, right? And the changes are so interesting. But the reality of it is the play does speak to issues that have always been very controversial, right? I mean, it speaks about police violence, about racism, about intergroup violence. I mean, one of the points that I'm not sure we've made clear is that in the original version, one of the gangs was kind of - was all white, and the other gang was Puerto Rican. In this latest version, it's much more diverse. It's kind of interesting, right? It's much more of a mix.

PIMENTEL: Yeah.

POWELL: It is. But I actually don't think - that's one thing I will fight people on. That is not a radical move. I think that in the script on the very first page, Arthur Lawrence describes the Jets as an anthology of what is called American, which I think these days we see a little bit differently than we did in 1957. So of course in 1957, the Jets, the American gang, were going to be represented by an all-white group. But that's not the case in 2020. And I think it's a great way to cast the show. I think it reflects America in 2020 as it should.

MARTIN: Shereen, what about you?

PIMENTEL: I completely agree. I think it's the same thing with the Sharks. As someone who is half Puerto Rican but also half Jamaican, I think there's something to be said of being able to have a woman who's mixed and a person of color who's also playing Maria and showing that being Hispanic is not one look. There's a whole spectrum. We as Hispanic people look many different ways. And I think that that's so important to be able to show that, that you can still kind of tell that story, and that story can be a part of you even if maybe you don't look at - I don't know - like, what maybe people would think is the typical Hispanic. I don't think there is a look for a typical Hispanic. I think that we all look different.

MARTIN: That's Shereen Pimentel, who plays Maria, and Isaac Powell, who plays Tony in the latest revival of "West Side Story." It's directed by Ivo Van Hove, and it's on Broadway now. Shereen, Isaac, thank you so much for joining us. And congratulations to you both.

POWELL: Thank you for having us.

PIMENTEL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.