Leipzig’s West Side Story: A review from an American perspective

Recently the Leipzig Opera and Leipzig Ballet debuted their collaborative piece – a rendition of the classic American musical West Side Story. As a newcomer to Leipzig and theater enthusiast, I wanted to see for myself what this music-loving city could do.

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The Leipzig Opera House

West Side Story is itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the 1950s. Two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, battle over turf in New York City. Tony, a Jet, and Maria, sister to the Shark’s leader, fall in love and desperately try to run away together.

Going into the theater, I expected to see a German-language adaptation of the original show I had fallen in love with as a kid. While the storyline, as far as I could tell, was close to the original, and the songs were original (performed in English), much of the show took me by surprise.

Though the original piece was set in the 1950s, the Leipzig version very clearly was not. Costumes and hair were much more reminiscent of modern day Germany. Bright colors and flowing dresses were replaced with black slinky dresses, or even shorts for the Jet ladies. Perhaps this modern take on 50s style was mentioned in the program, but as an English speaker, I was only left to wonder what the costume director had in mind. And from there the costumer’s questionable choices only got worse…

Clowns. There were two clowns in the production for seemingly no reason at all. With fluffy rainbow wigs and jeans decorated with American flags, these clowns were the belles of the ball where Tony and Maria first fell in love. I wasn’t sure at first if it was a joke or a tip of the hat on the recent supreme court decision, but there they were in the middle of the playbill as if added intentionally from the beginning.

'meruca!

‘murica!

Nightmare-inducing patriotic clowns aside, by far the weirdest scene for me was the song “America.” As soon as we had purchased our tickets, I was walking around the apartment singing this tune in a Puerto Rican accent in anticipation. My excitement for this song was then ruined by what can only be described as German bastardization of American culture. During the song, a huge American flag backdrop was lowered and out came every American stereotypical figure you could imagine. Two sets of Mickey and Minnie Mouse (one set dressed for a ball and the other dressed for vacation) were dancing around with Superman, Spiderman, Cookie Monster, and Mario! I was really taken aback. It was as if they were saying American culture can be summarized by these children’s characters. It was simplistic; it was juvenile; it was viscerally offensive. That was the lowest point for me as an audience member, but it mostly improved from there.

Ignoring the modernization and bastardization, the show was incredible. Just as I had hoped, I was able to understand enough of the German dialogue from context to be able to follow and enjoy the show. And even if I couldn’t understand it, the dancing by itself was enough to keep me entertained. The sheer athleticism of the dancers was remarkable, and definitely my favorite part. As a singer, you might have expected me to rave about the musicality of the Opera performers. Musically speaking, it was a sound performance (pun intended), but as a native English speaker, it was distracting to hear the disconnect between the broken English words, neigh syllables, and the emotion of the story. By the end of it, I was seriously contemplating starting a business of teaching the American singing accent.

Overall it was beautiful. Weird, but beautiful. If you remove the crazy costumes and overlook the accented English (which, really, who am I to judge), it was a hit out of the park! And the performers could feel it. They were so proud of their performance that they must have taken at least 30 bows! They took their initial bows and the curtain went down. When the curtain was raised up, I was expecting an encore performance of… something. Anything. Instead it was an encore of silent bows. The ensemble moved downstage, raised up their arms together, took a bow, and went back upstage…over and over and over with not even music playing. (Someone please tell me if this is a German thing…)

I hope my review didn’t scare you away. It really was a magnificent show. I was just surprised by much of it. Now that you know what to expect, I highly recommend that you see it for yourself. The show is playing intermittently throughout the year, as late as next June. See the Leipzig Opera House schedule for details.

A confused, but satisfied customer

A confused, but satisfied customer

For an alternative review from LeipGlo, read here!


I hope you enjoyed reading! Tell me what you think in the comments! 

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12 thoughts on “Leipzig’s West Side Story: A review from an American perspective

  1. newswriterana says:

    Interesting to read your take, Becky, and thanks for linking back to us! Now, now, you can’t expect non-Americans to sing in perfect (Latinized) American accents, can you? Just as you couldn’t expect Natalie Wood to sing in a perfect Puerto Rican accent. ;-p Let’s try me and you to sing in German and see what comes out. Haha! And yes, the repeated bowing is a German theater thing. I also was quite amused when I saw it the first time. The cartoon characters appearing does sound a bit random though… Mario is not even from the U.S., much less a member of a Puerto Rican gang!

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    • beckymarkovitz says:

      Oh no, I hope you didn’t think I was being too harsh! I have a lot of respect for what they do. In fact, I distinctly remember when I sang a German song in a choral competition and my native German friend laughed in my face about my pronunciation! It’s not bad; it’s just different! …and probably only noticeable to a Native speaker. There was certainly a lot of talent in the show, and I hope you get a chance to see it for yourself! Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      • newswriterana says:

        It’s all good. 😉 Please keep letting us know when you find/write something that might interest our readers! Also: Would you be interested in doing a Q&A for The Leipzig Glocal? We’ve begun featuring people who have blogs and websites about Leipzig in a new section. If so, just write me at newswriterana@gmail.com.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. swanpride says:

    lol…yeah, there is this current trend in German theatre to “modernize” everything no matter if it fits or not. It something I don’t really love…sometimes it is done well, but mostly it isn’t, especially not if the go for clichés or shock effects. You are lucky (or unlucky, depending on the perspective) that there wasn’t a naked man on stage.
    I wonder…are you aware of the two “big events” which happen in Leipzig every year?

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  3. newswriterana says:

    And yes, sometimes people appear naked on stage in Leipzig, including in classical productions given a modern twist. Not abnormal. And some people also go naked to the local lakes. You’ll get used to it. Although not part of my culture (in spite of what people may think of the tropical hot-blooded Brazilians), I’d rather see nudity than violence portrayed in art. And the sunbathing naked thing dates back to the GDR, it’s become a tradition in East Germany.

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  4. swanpride says:

    Well, naturally the Leipzig book fair and the wave and gothic festival…expect a lot of people in costumes in the city during both events, though you’ll have until next year to experience them.

    Since I am living elsewhere I have no idea how common nudity on the stage is in Leipzig, but it is certainly something not unusual to happen during stage productions in Germany, though usually more when a piece is for the “artistic minds” instead of something with mass appeal like the West Side story. Mind you, not in every production, but I still vividly remember a rendition of Turandot in which one of the singer sported a giant boner after he was forced to rob over the stage naked. Or a rendition for Nabucco which for some reason featured a bunch of woman in lingerie in a hot tub. Sometime it is done well, though. It just depends.

    About the bowing…I am not sure how it is in the US, but in Germany the quality of a stage play is measured by the number of “curtains” during the applause….meaning the more often the actors have to bow because the audience is still applauding, the better the audience liked what they saw. So a play which has only one curtain is frankly bad, because the audience just gave the polite applause (the only good thing you can say than about it is that the audience was still there and didn’t leave during the break), two to three is normal (depending on how many members of the troop have to bow), everything above says that the audience really liked what they saw.

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    • beckymarkovitz says:

      I knew about the Gothic Festival, but this is the first I’ve heard of the Book Fair! It looks pretty spectacular! I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it!

      As an American, I don’t know if I’m culturally prepared to see such a stage performace haha! It sounds very “artistic,” indeed.

      As far as the curtain call in the US goes, I’d say that the noise, not duration, of applause indicates the quality of performance. It seems to me that typically performers have a pre-set number of bows to acknowledge all of the people involved and, in a musical, there is ALWAYS an encore performance – that’s why I was expecting it and kept applauding so that they would get to it!

      Thanks for the information!

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      • swanpride says:

        If you see a musical from an actual musical ensemble in one of the musical theatres, there usually is an encore performance (because they tend to follow the American example). But what you watching were a play put together by the local theatre. The rules are a little bit different there.

        There are two big book fairs in Germany, one in Frankfurt, one in Leipzig. Historically, Leipzig used to be the centre of the book trade with a lot of publishers, until most of them had to flee during the war, first because of Hitler and later because Russians were not fond of free publishing. As a result, the book fair in Frankfurt was eventually established and nowadays most of the big publishers are seated in Munich for some reason. After the Wall went down, the book fair in Leipzig was re-established. Nowadays, the one in Frankfurt is the “serious” one, while the one in Leipzig is the “fun” one. A lot of young people go there to make cosplay and there is one hall just for Manga and comics. It is certainly not comparable to Comic Con with all the big announcements, but it is kind of fun to walk from one hall in which some political writer reads from his newest work to the next where you suddenly encounter a bunch of people dressed like Disney characters (the last time I was there it was immediately after Frozen and there were a lot of people dressed like Elsa and Jack Frost running around).

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