Author Arthur: Repaving West Side Story

By Harry Haun
26 Feb 2009

Arthur Laurents
Arthur Laurents
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

West Side Story director and librettist Arthur Laurents mines a groundbreaking work to uncover new riches.

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It started out as East Side Story, ironically. That's what Arthur Laurents titled the outline for the show that forevermore ushered him into the musical theatre arena.

In January of 1949, Jerome Robbins proposed that Laurents and Leonard Bernstein write a musical that would transplant Romeo and Juliet to the Lower East Side. Romeo and the Montagues would be Catholic, Juliet and the Capulets Jewish, and both factions would mix it up in their sweet-sorrow fashion during Easter/Passover.

Unfortunately, this religious collision carried the pungent, second-hand whiff of Abie's Irish Rose, the theatrical archetype for Catholic–Jewish unions, and gradually all hands let go of the project. Eight years later, this lightbulb went off again as Bernstein and Laurents sat poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, discussing the phenomenon of the day — juvenile delinquency — which was mirrored in that day's headline: "More Mayhem From Chicano Gangs." Bernstein's original notion of setting the show in downtown L.A. was quickly rerouted back to New York turf Laurents was more familiar with. They moved the plot from the Lower East Side to the Upper West Side. Lyricist was the last slot to be filled, and Stephen Sondheim, show-savvy even then, got the job simply by asking Laurents who the lyricist was going to be.



West Side Story opened Sept. 26, 1957 at the Winter Garden and logged 732 performances. Its landmark reputation over the years is worth more than its weight in Tonys (The Music Man won Best Musical in 1958, and only Robbins' choreography and Oliver Smith's sets took Tonys), but the 1961 movie version made up for that with a near-record ten Oscars, including one for Best Picture, and popularized the property into legend. Plus, it returned to Broadway in 1960, 1964 and 1980.

Now it's back again, previewing at the Palace and opening there March 19, in a production directed and rethought by the original (after Shakespeare) author. Spanish is spoken here for the first time — and sung (In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda Latinizing Sondheim), and this gives the Puerto Rican Sharks added authenticity, putting them on a more equal footing with the Jets, their turf-war rival.

"It wasn't my idea," admits the author-turned-auteur. That credit Laurents passes on to the late Tom Hatcher, his partner for 52 years. "Four years ago he saw West Side Story in Bogotá. When the hometown is Spanish and the production is in Spanish, the Sharks become heroes and the Jets become villains. I said, 'It'd be great to think of a way to equalize the two,' and he said, 'Why not have the Sharks speak Spanish?'"

This necessitated some minor rewriting. The fight that breaks out at the dance at the gym, for example — "When it was in English, Tony could understand what Bernardo was saying. Now, he can't. Then there's Anita. She wants very much to be American so she speaks English — and Bernardo, who's very proud of being Puerto Rican, speaks Spanish — but then when he's killed, she goes back to Spanish." Continued...