Receiving a free ticket at the entrance to theater is a unique gift. The crowd streams into the sold-out hall as you curse yourself for not having been more organized about ordering tickets, and ponder whether it might just be worth it anyway to pay twice the value to the scalpers doing business just down the street. You pray for heaven for manna, and if it falls, rejoices.
At the world’s most expensive opera houses, the ticketless pool at the exit during intermission like fish being fed. They hold out their hands for tickets that the wealthy—heading home early out of displeasure with the production or merely as a normal expression of their wastefulness and boredom—might dispense if they’re in the proper humor. How much happier are the lowly to be given the chance to see the last act than the jaded aristocrat whose place they take in the loge. The pauper becomes a prince under cover of theatrical dark.
When I was a student an old gent bestowed on me a ticket to hear Rostropovich play the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Boston Symphony. I remember the gift as much as the concert. Once at Lincoln Center my brother and I got the last ticket at the box office to hear our hero Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. My brother had just won our coin toss deciding to see the concert when a hand appeared from the crowd with a miraculous ticket in the third row—an Eroica as memorable for its intensity as for being heard at all.
For a West Side Story at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper we had bought eight tickets for a group of adults and children before the event was sold out. Since its Broadway revival for the 50th anniversary in 2007, the “original version” of the musical by Leonard Bernstein, supposedly conceived by Jerome Robbins, and brilliantly choreographed by him, has been touring various continents.
Just before we set off for the theater one of the adults cried off with a cold. I was already running behind schedule and arrived within five minutes of curtain front at the foyer. The others had already taken their seats and I paced the sidewalk out front with the ticket held up to see if there was any demand for it. Sadly, no takers. I went around the corner to the entrance and asked an usher if he
might give the ticket away if anyone should want pop up. The usher agreed and I went up and joined the others an empty seat to my right along the aisle.
A few minutes later, as the conductor entered the pit, a somewhat bedraggled elderly man in a fishing vest and jogging pants came through the doors to the first balcony and took his seat next to me. He sat down with a contented sigh and then couldn’t help himself from humming along with bits of the overture.
He emitted sighs of wonder and excitement during Robbins’ opening dance number, one that so dynamically captures the macho posturing and bullying of the competing gangs. The Jets and Sharks seem to fly on and off the stage and over one other. With its contrapuntal mixture of classical ballet combinations with anti-ballet poses of flexed feet and angular bodies, made to seem both natural and contorted, Robbins’ choreography for West Side Story, revived and adapted for this production by Joey McKneely, is as vital today as it was more than half a century ago. “Wunderbar!” exclaimed the old man, half turning to me, at the scene’s climax.
The production’s minimal touring sets were enlivened by projections of black and white photos of tenements and cityscapes from the 1950s Manhattan. But it was the all-encompassing range (jazz, Latin, symphonic strains) and power of Bernstein’s music coupled with Robbin’s choreography that make this a show that, when well done, deserves the full houses around the world. Stephen Sondheim’s celebrated lyrics range from the edgy and irreverent (Officer Krupke) to the almost unbearably sentimental (Somwhere), but are full of inventive turns and dramatic insights—most of them consistently missed by the German supertitles.
The show must have more dancing—and of a more demanding quality—than any other musical. Many numbers, most notably “America” require virtuosic dancing and singing beyond what was then expected on Broadway. Such demands made the initial show extremely to cast, but the Americans in Berlin were up to the task, much to the delight of the old man next to me, whose enthusiasm emanated from him like an aura.
For “Tonight” the old man moved forward on his chair, an enchanted smile on his face. When the Puerto Ricans stormed the stage for the rumble, he murmured “Ach, die Sharks” and as the curtain fell on the first act with two dead bodies on stage—a theatrical downer that scared all initial producers away from taking the show on—the old man emitted a melancholic groan. When Tony was felled by the pistol shot in the closing moments, the old man gasped in shock.
After letting the echo of the instrumental Finale—a fragile reprise of Somewhere—linger in the hall, the old man was instantly on his feet—a one-man standing ovation in a country where standing ovations are rare things indeed. He sent full-voiced batteries of Italian plurals towards the stage: “Bravi!” for the Jets and Sharks; “Brave!” for the Puerto Rican girls; “Bravo!” for Tony; and “Brava” for Maria.
I suspect the man lives around the corner and comes by many nights hoping for a free ticket. He deserves every one he gets, for he shows to those around him how the theater can make you young again.