There are two ways to do a Broadway musical revival, says producer Barry Brown. You can reinvent the show, as director Nicholas Hytner did in his stunning 1995 production of Carousel. Or you can faithfully re create the original, secure that the material will hold up. He chose to do the latter in the revival of West Side Story, which has been touring and will play Richmond, Washington, St. Paul and Los Angeles in the next few months. "Why mess with perfection?" he asks.
Indeed, rave reviews and hot box office for the touring production have validated the classic status of the 1957 landmark musical created by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (making his Broadway debut). In 1961 the musical about warring New York gangs loosely based on Romeo and Juliet became an Oscar-winning film, starring Natalie Wood. The show was last seen on Broadway in a critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful revival in 1980, featuring Debbie Allen as Anita, and six years later Rex Smith toured in a production that also proved to be far less than satisfactory. Robbins, Sondheim, Laurents and the Bernstein estate were understandably skittish about another revival, but Brown had an impressive track record: Tony winning revivals of Gypsy, starring Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly, and the smash success of La Cage aux Folles.
"I was keen to do what I'd seen onstage at the Winter Garden in 1957," says Brown, who hired director Alan Johnson to faithfully re create Robbins's staging and choreography, Campbell Baird to reconstruct Oliver Smith's set design and had costumes made from Irene Sharaff's original sketches. "We didn't change a word of the book or the songs. And what struck me at the first preview was how well things held up after 40 years. The audience cared for these characters. It's a seamless interweaving of staging, book and music."
The one departure from the original is the relative youth and obscurity of the cast, the median age of which is 21. The producer said that he had originally wanted to cast even younger but that the process proved to be extremely difficult because "actors are simply not trained to sing, act and dance" as in previous generations. After weeks of auditions Scott Carolo (Tony), Marcy Harriel (Maria), Natascia A. Diaz (Anita), Jamie Gustis (Riff) and Vincent Zamora (Bernardo) were chosen. "The youth of this wonderful cast is what gives the production its energy and emotion," says Brown.
While some of the slang ("daddy-o") may seem quaint, the subject matter is unfortunately as relevant today as the headlines. In fact, says Brown, in various cities, gang members were invited to attend the musical and then meet with the cast. "They were impressed," says the producer, "but they always commented that while it reflected a lot about their lives and feelings, they didn't dance around. Sometimes you get so carried away with the emotional reality of West Side Story that you forget it's not real life. It's a heightened sense of reality. And that is what the theatre, at its best, conveys best." -- By Patrick Pacheco