Simple as it is, the powerful story continues to devastate audiences everywhere.
The opening of West Side Story is pure theatre. Instead of being engulfed by blatant character motivations and exposition, we get a balletic dance scene with no dialogue. A jolt of adrenaline to start the show, it immediately introduces the Jets and the Sharks as teenage street gangs with a bitter rivalry. This scene exemplifies the show’s dramatic device of expressing simple ideas equally simply.
At a running time of 155 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission, remarkably little happens in the plot — essentially an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Yet while the young foolishness of Romeo and Juliet happens over a five-day period, Tony and Maria’s tryst begins and ends in just two days.
However, West Side Story rarely feels bloated. Its scenes seem to leap from one to another, the confident storytelling bolstered by its adherence to the age-old cause-and-effect structure.
The use of cause-and-effect would be wasted without the effort taken to make the dramatic stakes abundantly clear. With its rushed plot, West Side Story relies on simple and understandable drama to hold its audience.
This means emphasising the most important plot points through the songs, the staging, and the choreography. This production claims to be the only one in the world still using Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking choreography, and it is especially vital to the early dancehall scene set in a gym.
Against a sunset orange and rich purple gradient background, the American Jets face off against the Puerto Rican Sharks. Both gangs have distinct dance styles. The Jets’ resembles the standardised dancing of the 1950s, and they could be mistaken for the dancers in Grease. Meanwhile, the Sharks’ dance moves have the unmistakable flourish and freely flailing arms associated with salsa.
The direction also splits the stage in half, clear semi-circles separating the Jets from the Sharks and reinforcing their rivalry. Tony and Maria’s first meeting takes place on that same divided stage. The background fades away and spotlights fall on them as they lock eyes from opposite sides of the room.
Here, the choreography has Tony and Maria float to meet in the middle at the exact same moment, snapping their fingers in time, even though they have only just met. In this one scene, we see the animosity of both gangs towards each other, as well as how naturally perfect Tony and Maria are together.
Both the prologue and the dance at the gym scene set the audience up for the simple drama that West Side Story operates in, which is how the show gets away with its unbridled sentimentality.
This is especially important in endearing us to the character of Tony. He is the embodiment of innocence in this show, whether through his optimism for the future or his impulsive love for Maria. Because every dramatic point is presented without irony or derision, we have no reason to doubt Tony’s intentions or his cheesiness.
Which brings us to the song ‘Maria’, a song that consists of Tony literally singing Maria’s name more than 20 times. Kevin Hack does a magnificent job of capturing Tony’s infatuation, especially in embodying the tenderness of the lyrics “Say it soft/and it’s almost like praying.”
This song feels like the easiest possible answer to the question, “How do we show the love in Tony’s heart?” In more complex shows, a song like ‘Maria’ would cause the audience to question its simplicity and doubt its earnestness.
But this one song has become entrenched as an expression of pure love, and could only have become so because of the show’s uncomplicated dramatic narrative.
To further demonstrate how crucial simplicity is to this show, we should look at the scenes that falter, like the musical number ‘Somewhere’.
The number is accompanied by an impressionistic portrayal of peace and harmony in Tony and Maria’s imagination. The stage is filled with white light, perhaps to evoke a sense of heaven, but then the staging starts to introduce abstract ideas that feel transported from another musical.
The first idea is simple enough — the street kids are lost in an alien place, reminding us that they are strangers to peace.
But then the scene turns dark and red-tinted, and we get an expressionistic depiction of the rumble under the highway. The street fight served as both the climax and curtain closer of the first act, as well as providing a powerful plot twist.
These are dramatic points that we already understand and are unlikely to have forgotten. Meanwhile, the true dramatic tension of the scene — Tony and Maria’s shared feeling of loss — is undercut by removing them from the intimate setting of Maria’s bedroom to an undefinable void.
Because of the direct narrative, West Side Story sacrifices a complex plot structure — and the chance to include more plot twists that seem to be so popular in modern culture — for a simple dramatic tale.
This does not mean that it suffers in comparison to more complex stories. West Side Story wanted to tell a story of star-crossed lovers, and its creators chose the most appropriate structure to accompany its straightforward emotional goals.
Love is a universal feeling, and people will keep telling new stories of love for as long as the universe exists. If more storytellers make their dramatic stakes simple enough for any audience to understand, then they might be remembered until the stars die out, as West Side Story will be.
West Side Story is showing at the Mastercard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands until Sept 30. Tickets are available from Sistic.