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'West Side Story' with a Spanish accent

At age 91, Arthur Laurents refashions his 1957 musical for 21st century Broadway.

March 18, 2009|Josh Getlin

NEW YORK — When they got together at the Beverly Hills Hotel in August 1955, their legs dipping in the pool, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein were wrestling with a problem 3,000 miles away: They were trying to recast the "Romeo and Juliet" story for a modern-day musical set in New York, and their initial idea about Jews and Catholics battling each other wasn't going anywhere.

Then they got an inspiration from the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

There had been stories about violent clashes between Latino gang members, and a new idea took root: "We decided to make the show about teenage gangs, to make it more timely," said Laurents, who went on to write the book for the musical "West Side Story." "Lennie wanted to set the action in Los Angeles, but I suggested New York. We had Puerto Rican gangs there, and the story would work well."

Today, 52 years after the show opened, Laurents is pondering similar questions as an eagerly awaited revival of the legendary musical -- the first on Broadway in 29 years -- is set to open Thursday: How do you update a show that, despite its stellar reputation, can seem dated and even dramatically stale, given how theater and America have changed since "West Side Story" debuted in 1957?

As he sat at the back of the Palace Theatre, watching the cast rehearse "I Feel Pretty," "Cool" and other classic numbers, Laurents, 91, heaved a sigh, recounting the path this revival has taken to the stage. At an age when others have slowed down dramatically, he remains sharply focused on the work at hand -- and cheerfully contentious when others quarrel with his new vision for the show.

"My biggest challenge is that, even in the age of Obama, there are people who don't want change, certainly not in a show that's considered a classic," said Laurents, who is directing the revival. "But we had to change it. I couldn't just do a replica of the original. We had to ask ourselves: Why are we doing it now?"

For those who love "West Side Story," which is perhaps best known as an Oscar-winning 1961 movie, the answer would seem obvious: The show, powered by timeless numbers like "Maria," "Tonight" and "Somewhere," changed the face of American musical theater; it introduced subjects like murder, racism, gang violence and attempted rape into a genre accustomed to more genteel subjects.

The potent mix of Bernstein's music, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, Laurents' book and Jerome Robbins' trailblazing choreography created a show that has been drilled into the American psyche. The clash between the Jets, a self-styled Anglo gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, is iconic, as is the story of Tony and Maria, two doomed lovers who try to rise above hatred and bigotry.

But that by itself is not enough for producers who are leery of gambling money at a time when the Great White Way has been hit hard by the recession. Although most believed "West Side Story" could be a hit revival, some were looking for a hook bigger than nostalgia to justify bringing the $14-million show to Broadway.

Kevin McCollum, who produced "Rent," "Avenue Q," "In the Heights" and "The Drowsy Chaperone," asked Laurents to explore the idea of a revival, and the writer voiced similar concerns. In fact, he was initially reluctant to do the show, saying he was exhausted after directing a hit revival of "Gypsy," which he had also written. But then he got a novel idea, again drawing on Latino material.

Tom Hatcher, his longtime partner, saw a Spanish-language production of "West Side Story" in Bogota, Colombia, and had been electrified by the 2006 show. He told Laurents that, for Spanish-speaking audiences, the Sharks were seen as the heroes and the Jets as villains. The language seemed to empower the Puerto Rican gang members, heightening their dramatic tensions with the Jets.

"It gave the show a new life, a new edge," Laurents said. "The Sharks are isolated, they face terrible bigotry, and we could illustrate this now by using Spanish in key songs and scenes. It was the kind of change the show needed."

But Laurents didn't stop there. He wasn't going to treat "West Side Story" like a museum piece, no matter how much aficionados might howl in protest. In his new version, he said, the prime emphasis would be on acting and dramatic realism.

"When you think of the original show, the 'Jet Song' treats these gang members like cute, adorable thugs doing a musical number," he said. "But they weren't that in 1957 any more than they are now. They're bigoted killers. They're uncaring."

From the opening bars, the new production announces that this is not your parents' "West Side Story." As the Jets appear on stage, staring down arrogantly at the audience, the eerie, swinging notes of Bernstein's "Prologue" begin. Then they stop abruptly, and resume, as other gang members appear. The flow of the cool, jazzy music -- so familiar to millions of listeners -- has been notably altered.

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