photo by Daniel Bachofen
When I recently saw the latest revival of the musical “West Side Story,” directed by Ivo van Hove, I was not wowed artistically.
The latest version of the 1957 Leonard Bernstein classic opened last week at the Broadway Theatre. I saw it on Feb. 8, when it was still in previews. A director known for his experimental approach to classic works, van Hove took a lot of artistic risks to try to bring the script into the 21st century. The production chops about an hour from the performance time – it’s now less than two hours, without an intermission – and eliminates one well-known song, “I Feel Pretty.” The choreography is radically different from Jerome Robbins’ iconic approach. The production design, too, is a departure, featuring on-stage cameras projecting giant concert-style images of the cast onto the set’s back wall. The cast is in modern dress, complete with camera-equipped smartphones in their pockets.
For all the effort that went into these choices, I thought the story of ill-fated lovers Tony and Maria torn apart by ethnic rivalry in midcentury, ungentrified Manhattan did not travel through time particularly well.
But travel it did. It landed squarely in our #MeToo era, replete with online petitions and social media-ready street protests. It is for their offstage performance in 2020 America that the production company, led by producer Scott Rudin, and the cast of young actors and dancers (which includes no big names) deserve a Tony Award for personal and artistic integrity.
They stand out for resisting a real-world mob in favor of the proposition that, whether you are one of their Jets or one of their Sharks, you belong to the gang “from your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day.” Or at least until the show closes and you have to start looking for another gig.
This Broadway rumble is a sequel to a 2018 dispute at the New York City Ballet. Actor Amar Ramasar – who plays the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo, in van Hove’s production – is a principal dancer with the NYCB. Two years ago former School of American Ballet student Alexandra Waterbury sued Ramasar, along with the ballet company and two of its other male dancers. Waterbury alleged that her ex-boyfriend Chase Finlay shared explicit photos of her with Ramasar without her consent. It later came out that Ramasar had shared private material depicting his girlfriend Alexa Maxwell, too. Maxwell was, and remains, a member of the company’s corps de ballet.
Finlay resigned. The company fired Ramasar and another dancer, Zachary Catazaro; the men won their jobs back in arbitration. Catazaro declined to return to the ballet company, but Ramasar resumed his duties after receiving mandatory counseling. Maxwell has stated publicly that Ramasar has apologized and she has forgiven him. She said that they remain in a long-term relationship and that she does not consider herself a victim. Maxwell further said Waterbury tried to persuade her to join the suit as a plaintiff, an offer she declined. Ramasar and the New York City Ballet continue to fight Waterbury’s lawsuit, which is still pending.
Against the backdrop of this drama at the ballet, Ramasar won the role as Bernardo. His employers and fellow performers were well aware of the allegations against him when he was cast. Waterbury’s allegations boil down to her assertion that Ramasar wronged her by seeking and viewing her private photos. Which he did, assuming the facts to be correct – just as he wronged his own girlfriend, Maxwell, by sharing photos of her. Viewing or sharing explicit photos without the subject’s consent is wrong, plain and simple. Waterbury, who is now a Columbia University student, believes she is entitled to more than the apology that satisfied Maxwell. It is her prerogative to pursue her claims in court.
“Someday, somewhere ... we’ll find a way of forgiving,” is a lyric in one of the most famous numbers in “West Side Story.” Maybe someday Waterbury can forgive Ramasar’s intrusion. Or maybe not. That is entirely up to her.
But here in 2020 there is virtue to be signaled, movements to be hashtagged, and social media prominence to be gained. And so it is that someone unconnected to the incident, a college student named Megan Rabin, launched a Change.org petition to get Ramasar fired from “West Side Story.” Another uninvolved student – high schooler Paige Levy – organized protests outside the theater during some previews and on opening night. There were no protesters in sight when I saw a Saturday matinee. But Waterbury has used Instagram to share photos of herself with the protesters outside the theater, including one in which she holds a sign stating “SEXUAL PREDATORS SHOULDN’T GET LEADING ROLES ON BROADWAY.”
Maybe it strikes you that Ramasar’s publicly known conduct does not rise to the level of “sexual predator.” It certainly strikes me that way. Maxwell, too, has said such characterizations are unfair and untrue. But Ramasar has been called that and worse online.
It is not true that all publicity is good publicity. A lot of employers would have disassociated themselves from Ramasar and his public baggage, especially as online outrage grew. So I give enormous credit to the producers and cast for standing up for him. The producers issued a statement saying they have no intention of bowing to the mob and firing him. The Actors Equity union also emphasized its commitment to a safe workplace for all cast members in a recent statement about the production. I’m reading a bit between the lines, but the union’s failure to object to Ramasar’s continued employment seems to support the producers’ claim that the cast is behind him.
That’s how it goes in 2020’s version of “West Side Story.” When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet. And a Shark, too.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been corrected. An earlier version incorrectly described materials that were allegedly shared with former New York City Ballet dancer Zachary Catazaro.