Author Arthur: Repaving West Side Story

By Harry Haun
February 26, 2009

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."

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.