March 21, 2009

"West Side Story" Gets a Special Retelling

My mother didn’t have the money to take my sister and me to see West Side Story when it opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1957. But she knew it was something special. So when the movie came out in 1961, she took us to see it at Radio City Music Hall. And to mark the occasion, she bought me a souvenir book that I read and reread until the pages fell out. So from the very first moment I learned that Arthur Laurents, the show’s original book writer, was planning not only to direct a new revival but to give it a grittier makeover, I knew I had to see it.

Maybe it’s my enduring fondness for this mid-century retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story or my ever-deepening appreciation for the genius of Jerome Robbins, who conceived and directed the original show, but I’m really glad I went. Even if this production isn't everything I'd hoped it would be, there is truly no other show like West Side Story. It was a pioneer in the merging of high and low culture that we now so take for granted. Leonard Bernstein’s score nimbly juxtaposes Stravinsky-like sounds alongside pop ballads. Robbins’ dances are as at home in a ballet repertory (they’re regularly performed by the New York City Ballet) as they are on the Broadway stage.

From the second that the 29-member orchestra plays the first jarring notes of the “Prologue” and the rival Sharks and Jets gang members begin to jostle one another on stage, it’s obvious, as my mother surmised all those years ago, that what follows is going to be something different and remarkable. And although this revival isn’t as thrilling as it must have been when the show was brand new and no one had seen anything like it before, there are moments of sublime pleasure, like when the lovers sing the duet “One Hand, One Heart.” “I totally believe them,” a twentysomething woman sitting behind me told her friend as she wiped tears from her eyes. Me too.

Laurents’ changes, or at least those that have survived from an early tryout at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., are mainly cosmetic. The most noticeable are that some of the dialogue and two of the songs (“I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That”) are now in Spanish ("Siento Hermosa” and “Un Hombe Asi”). The translations have been smartly done by In the Height’s Lin-Manuel Miranda but I miss Stephen Sondheim’s old lyrics. And my husband K says the Spanish-speaking segments caused him to tune out because he knew he wouldn’t understand what was being said.

Still the core of this classic show remains the same—the gorgeous music, the incredible dancing. Joey McKneely has faithfully recreated the original Robbins’ choreography (click here to read a piece McKneely wrote about doing that) and West Side Story wouldn’t be West Side Story without those iconic dances.

Laurents, now 91(click here to read an incisive New York magazine profile of him), attempts some other efforts to make the show more relevant to contemporary audiences. It’s nice to see Latino actors in Latino parts but chorus boys performing jetes look like chorus boys performing jetes, regardless of their ethnicity. And the ones Laurents has cast as gang members this time around look even less menacing than those who created the roles a half century ago. The sex is now more obvious and the ending less hopeful but only by small degrees.

Even the performances track along the same lines. Tony, who has to be convincing as both a street tough and a guy tender enough to fall in love at first sight, is always a difficult role. Even the talented Larry Kert, who originated the part, was criticized for not being macho enough and Matt Cavenaugh has the same problems in this production. Just as Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno and Debbie Allen before her, Karen Olivo brings crowd-pleasing fieriness to the role of the best friend Anita. But Josefina Scaglione, a 21 year-old Argentinean, adds a new feistiness to the innocence that usually defines Tony’s beloved Maria and she has a luminous voice (click here to read an interview with her).

After the show, as K and I walked over to get a light supper at Bar Centrale, the Broadway hangout of the moment, I thought about what made West Side Story so extraordinary for me when I was a kid. Unlike musicals like Oklahoma and The Music Man, which centered around idyllic small towns where everyone knew everyone else and they all more or less got along, West Side Story was a musical filled with city folk, the kind of rough-edged people I knew. It expressed all their yearnings and it made me feel that somewhere, someone felt we were special too.


Esther said...

What a beautiful review. You do such a wonderful job of combining a critical perspective with a personal story. As always, I'm in awe!

Anonymous said...

I like "Somewhare".I will watch Westside Story Japan tour in July.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Esther, thanks so for saying such a lovely thing. And Martha, do enjoy the show when it gets your way. Albest, jan

Unknown said...

The film "West Side Story" opened at the Rivoli Theatre NYC in 1961 not the Radio City Music Hall.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks, Simon. Memory is unreliable but both my sister and I remember seeing the movie at Radio City and eating afterward at the lunch counter of the drug store across the street from the music hall (a treat for us then). So who knows? Still, wherever it played, my sentiments remain the same.

Esther said...

I finally got to see West Side Story and I'm so glad I did. I loved the dancing, the memorable music, and Josefina Scaglione is so lovely. The Spanish and Matt Cavanaugh didn't quite work for me. I wanted to hear Sondheim's lyrics, especially in the emotional scene between Anita and Maria. And I couldn't believe Matt had ever been a gang member or would do anything remotely violent.

But this was my first time seeing West Side Story on stage and it was a very pleasurable experience.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Esther, glad you got to see the show and, for the most part, enjoyed it. There's been a recent online debate about whether some choreographer should reimagine the dance in West Side Story, giving it a more contemporary, maybe hip-hop, feel. It's hard for me to imagine the show without the Robbins dances but the idea certainly is thought-provoking.