There has been no shortage of buzz, even contention, about the upcoming Broadway revival of West Side Story on Broadway, helmed by Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. As choreographer Lisa Jo Sagolla details in this in-depth feature, De Keersmaeker has been allowed to radically overhaul Jerome Robbins’s original choreography—a first on Broadway—and van Hove has made some big cuts and changes, including removing “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet. All of these reported artistic choices have created their share of skepticism and curiosity.
They haven’t seemed to hurt business, though. The show has made headlines with unprecedented pre-opening box office sales, breaking the all-time Broadway Theatre house record for a single week last month: $1.8 million in just eight preview performances. According to the Broadway League, the show has been performing at capacity at the 1,761-seat venue, reaching 90 percent of its grossing potential so far this year.
But there’s another buzz gathering around the show—and not because two dancers’ injuries forced the postponement of opening night from Feb. 6 to Feb. 20. It is instead the controversy over the production’s choice to cast dancer/actor Amar Ramasar as Bernardo. Ramasar was fired from New York City Ballet in 2018 for sharing aggressively lewd text messages and nude photos and videos of female company members without their consent with some of his fellow male dancers at NYCB. After completing mandatory counseling, Ramasar was reinstated to the company eight months later.
Last fall Alexandra Waterbury, one of the female dancers whose photos and videos were shared without her consent, filed a lawsuit against Ramasar, two other dancers, NYCB, and the School of American Ballet. Waterbury missed her first day of classes at Columbia University this semester to attend the first day of the trial, which began on Jan. 21. (New York passed a revenge porn bill last July that would make sharing nude photos of an individual without their consent a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, but too late for Ramasar to be charged under its provisions.)
There has been a growing groundswell of opposition to his hiring since it was announced last summer, and it is coming to a head as West Side Story nears opening. A Change.org petition to have Ramasar removed from the show was launched in December and has already garnered 23,734 signatures. And protesters have greeted patrons outside the theatre, demonstrations expected to continue weekly. Waterbury herself plans to join the protest this Friday, Jan. 31.
Two young women are behind the latest efforts to draw attention to Waterbury’s case and to raise questions about the message it sends to other young women that Ramasar could be so quickly reinstated at NYCB, then rewarded with a high-profile role on Broadway. Megan Rabin, a 19-year-old college student, started the Change.org petition, and Paige Levy, a high school senior at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, has organized protests on Twitter and Instagram and in front of the theatre.
“It really took off,” Rabin said of her petition. “I never expected it to gain so much traction, and I’m happy it has.”
Rabin once dreamt of training with the School of American Ballet and one day joining the New York City Ballet Company, but said that reports of what happened to Waterbury were so dispiriting that she has reconsidered her ambition. “I had been following Alexandra on social media for years and really felt like I had this connection with her,” said Rabin. “When she came out with the news about the text messages, it was really devastating to hear—and it shattered that perfect image I had created of New York City Ballet as an institution.”
When Ramasar was cast in West Side Story and Waterbury spoke out on social media, Rabin said, “I felt really drawn to do something and to take action.”
Levy had a similar reaction. She recalled that the same day news broke about sexual harassment at NYCB, she saw the Broadway revival of Carousel, in which Ramasar was making his Broadway debut as Jigger. When Levy learned that Ramasar would be returning to the Great White Way, she was angry. “Nothing had been resolved,” she said. “He had never formally apologized.”
A dozen protesters organized by Levy gathered outside the Broadway Theatre on Friday, Jan. 24, comprising Levy’s classmates and others who learned about the protest via Twitter. The production team sent police to set up a designated area for the protesters to stand out of traffic. “It was organized and peaceful,” said Levy.
Protesters held signs showing support for Waterbury; one succinctly read, “Keep Predators Off the Stage.” The protesters gathered attention from audience members filing into the theatre before the show. “I was surprised that a majority of them didn’t know about the situation,” said Levy, who was more than happy to educate them. “I forget sometimes how insular the theatre community is.” She said some audience members told her that they wouldn’t have supported the production with ticket purchases had they known about Ramasar’s hiring.
While many of Levy’s friends have been supportive of her efforts, others have cautioned her that speaking out might damage her reputation in the industry. But as a young woman and a performing artist, she feels that standing up to create a safer industry is imperative.
“This career has been touted as this safe, inclusive space where anyone can come, which has been proven time and time again to just not be true,” Levy said. “I want to be able to enter this career knowing that it is truly a safe space, not just a safe space for men.”
In December, American Theatre reached out to the production team to ask about how it would ensure the safety of the cast in light of Ramasar’s past behavior. Producer Scott Rudin responded: “The actions we take to ensure the safety of the company of West Side Story are exactly the same actions we take to insure the company of every show we produce or have produced. The safety of the actors in our shows is top of mind for us always and in everything.”
Though there have been no reports of harassment behind the scenes at West Side Story, one cast member recently reached out anonymously to Chris Peterson at OnstageBlog to say, “I support anyone and everyone protesting Amar’s casting. I’m not speaking for anyone else in the cast, but it’s been an issue for me from the moment he showed up to rehearsals. I haven’t followed the story from day one, but when I did read the details, I was and still am appalled. I hate that I have to share the stage with him. I hate seeing him smile or laugh backstage. I hate seeing him reap rewards of adoration from audiences who don’t know or who haven’t bothered to look up what happened.”
When asked about the petition and protest, Rick Miramontez, president of DKC/O&M, the PR firm representing West Side Story, sent a prepared statement. “The incident that occurred while Amar Ramasar was employed by New York City Ballet was addressed by NYCB and Mr. Ramasar’s union in a formal arbitration proceeding,” the statement read. With the backing of that union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, Ramasar was indeed reinstated to NYCB as a principal dancer, and he has remained a member in good standing of Actors’ Equity Association.
For her part, Waterbury expressed gratitude to Levy and Rabin. “I’m humbled that other young women went out of their way to take action surrounding my case,” she wrote in an email. “Social media has been a great tool to spread awareness about sexual abuse and assault, but oftentimes results in little or no action. Megan and Paige took the next steps to achieve justice and equality, not just for me, but for women everywhere, in every industry.”