Author Arthur: Repaving West Side Story

By Harry Haun
26 Feb 2009

Surtitles, installed to help audiences over these bilingual bumps, were eliminated during the Washington, DC tryout. "They're terribly distracting because the audience doesn't know where to look," says Laurents. "Even the audience that doesn't want to read them sees these things flickering, and it pulls them out of the scene. I think the answer would probably be to do what they did in the old days of opera before surtitles: You put the libretto in the program of those two scenes, which are heavily Spanish. Let them read them or not. It's up to them."

It was also Hatcher who suggested a rethinking of Gypsy with Patti LuPone, and Laurents' aggressive reexamination of his own material produced one of the most heartfelt versions of that show ever. "That's what I've tried to do here. It was much harder, for a reason I didn't anticipate. West Side Story has become part of American lore. Jets and Sharks have become part of the language. People want to see things a certain way. Some people don't want to see change, as Mr. Obama is finding out. I have to accept the fact there'll be some people who object, but if I start worrying about that, I'm never going to achieve anything. I've been around long enough to know there are going to be complaints, but in the end I have to go by what I believe."

Laurents had no problem interesting producers about his new take. "Everybody wanted to do West Side Story, which is curious because it has been revived three times and not one of them has been a success. I think I know why: They tried to replicate the original. I don't see any point in doing a revival unless you have a fresh look at it, which this, Lord knows, is. At my age [91!], I don't want to do what I did before or what anybody else did before. It isn't doing something to be different. It's really examining the material and saying, 'Okay' as I did with Gypsy 'let's really dig into it.' And then it becomes exciting. This company is so wonderful to work with. I've really enjoyed that, and I think the physical production the scenery is absolutely staggering. And I'll tell you one thing never mind the Spanish the minute that curtain goes up, you'll know you're seeing a different West Side Story."

I'm there. "Curtain up, light the lights," as they sing in Arthur Laurents musicals.