PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: West Side Story — Leveling the Rumble Ground

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: West Side Story — Leveling the Rumble Ground
The royalty of urban gang warriors — the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks of West Side Story, a Shakespeare-rattle-and-roll retelling of Romeo and Juliet — found their way into the Palace on March 19 for their fifth Broadway rumble.
West Side Story leads with director Arthur Laurents; guests Mike Nichols, Christie Brinkley and Lin-Manuel Miranda
West Side Story leads with director Arthur Laurents; guests Mike Nichols, Christie Brinkley and Lin-Manuel Miranda Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book and was very time-specific back then (setting it in the summer of 1957 when there was suddenly an abundance of rebels without causes), is less specific now in this new version he has directed, omitting the date altogether, hoping for a contemporary reading from audiences since the "social disease" of juvenile delinquency still exists in epidemic portions.

An even more conspicuous change is the bilingual spin he puts on the Shark scenes, turning over his script and two of Stephen Sondheim's songs for Spanish translation by In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda. The original English lyrics to the charming "I Feel Pretty" ("Siento Hermosa") and the charged "A Boy Like That" ("Un Hombre Asi") are printed in the Playbill on the off-chance they didn't play in your head while the Spanish was being sung. A third song, "I Have a Love," which musically bled from "A Boy Like That," reverted to English early in NYC previews.

Joey McKneely, a dancer in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, has the weighty task of "Reproduction Choreographer," recreating Robbins' original Tony-winning choreography, and the great Leonard Bernstein score is robustly conducted by Patrick Vaccariello from orchestrations by Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal.

"It was an extraordinary experience," a content and collected Laurents was crowing to the press at the elegant after-party held at Pier Sixty. There is, in fact, a book in the experience — "Mainly on Directing Gypsy, West Side Story and Other Musicals," just out (like, March 16) from Knopf. He managed to get in the DC tryout of WSS.

About the New York opening-night audience, he said, "I was amazed at the reception. A great number of people had never seen West Side Story before and ere totally surprised and, I must say, in tears — which made me very happy." Not one to rest on his laurels, even at 91 (!), Laurents has a new play — a nonmusical called New Year's Eve — opening in less than a month (April 17) at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, helmed by his WSS associate director, David Saint, and headlining Marlo Thomas and Keith Carradine (both of whom attended the musical's opening). Completing the George Street cast will be Peter Frechette, Natalie Wood's daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Walter Belenky.

"What was it like to work with Sondheim, and did you think anyone would ever ask you that question?" a reporter asked Miranda. "Nooooo, not in a million years," the Tony winner (for last year's Best Musical Score) shot back with laugh. "Arthur and Steve were both incredibly generous. They told me precisely what they wanted and left me alone. The tricky part was maintaining Sondheim's rhyme scheme in Spanish, which is very difficult. That was very important to him. He'd say, 'I want it to rhyme here, here and here. Everything else, do whatever you want.'"

Miranda also sprinkled sporadic Spanish throughout the libretto. "They gave me a bunch of Latin-American translations [of West Side Story]. I read through them, then chucked them and started from scratch. It was a crossword puzzle."

The Maria of the evening, Josefina Scaglione, had tears streaming down her face when she took her first official Broadway bow. She came out of nowhere — or, rather, Argentina by way of YouTube — arguably, the first Broadway star born that way; Laurents' first sight of her was in a YouTube video and he was intrigued. "Yes, I know, it's crazy," she shrugged sheepishly. "It's a miracle, but those are the things that happen in real life. It's amazing that it happened." She had much to like and relate to about the character. "I came to New York from my country, too, and I speak Spanish, and I know what it is to live in your country."

Matt Cavenaugh has played Tony before — "a few years ago, back in summer stock — but it's great to do it here, now, on Broadway with this terrific cast.

"Josefina is so incredibly real. Y'know, sometimes you just have an inner dialogue with someone. It just happens. You can't rehearse that. You can't make that come to life. It either is or it isn't. And, for Josefina and me, it is. We have a great time."

Another In the Heights alum, Karen Olivo, makes a visceral and passionate Anita and admires her character's arc: "She starts at the top; she ends up at the bottom. There's no way about it. You have to be fiery, and you have to hit the stage running, and you have to knock everything out of the park — every line, every laugh, every button of every number — and, at the end, you really have to deconstruct yourself."

George Akram, who plays Anita's doomed lover, has a big second-act problem — like, what to do with himself backstage. "I put ice on my hand," he said, holding up a cast-encased hand. "I wear a smaller one on stage. This happened during one of the fights last Saturday. One of the ligaments in my finger pulled, and it's injured."

For him, Bernardo was the best and only option for him to play. (George Chakiris, with charisma and hair to spare, got an Oscar for it.) "It's a movie I've watched since I was seven years old. I did a translation of it when I was in high school. I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, and over there we don't speak English at all."

[flipbook] Similarly sidelined from Act II is Cody Green, whose Riff is the first character on stage and the first to buy the farm. "Luckily, the second act is shorter than the first," he noted. "I have a nice long first-act to be in. Sometimes I watch the show a lot. I love this cast. I love getting to watch everyone. Sometimes I work out. Sometimes I watch a little TV. By halfway through the second act, I'm still pretty out of breath."

A survivor of Movin' Out (and TV's reality show, "Step It Up and Dance," for which he was the winner), Green admitted that heading the Jets is a dancing workout. "Obviously, I love it because of the dancing that's in it, but it's everything. It's dancing, it's singing, it's acting. There aren't that many roles like that anymore that really ask you to be a triple-threat, and they go so seamlessly from one to the other. That's the biggest challenge for me from the start of the show — you're dancing, then suddenly you go into a scene and sing your song, and go back into the dancing."

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The original Maria, Carol Lawrence, was on hand to cheer the new team on. "I had a wonderful time," she exclaimed. "I loved it. It was a beautiful production. I think it was up-to-the-minute in the — well, I don't know if it's politically correct, but it is certainly true — the violence and the horrible bigotry and the intolerance. Unfortunately, it's still going on. We attacked it 50 years ago, and it's still alive." The Bernstein offspring — Alex, Nina and Jamie — were also present with praise for all parties. "I was elated," said the latter. "We've waited such a long time for this night, and I have to say today was hard to get through, with all the anxiety and excitement of finally getting to showtime, and then the minute it began I forgot all about being anxious and I got lost in it." Her sister, Nina, then picked up the ball with: "We've been waiting 30 years for this night—the last revival was in 1981. That's a very long time."

It was a ritzy, glitzy opening, as these things go, knee-deep in beautiful celebs and the like and representing a variety of arts. To give you an idea, Christie Brinkley and Vanessa Williams were in the same room, but then the room was the Palace.

"It's my favorite show of all time," Williams trilled. "Anita was my dream girl. I'm afraid I'm too old for it now, but I love Leonard Bernstein, I love Jerome Robbins, I love Stephen Sondheim. It's the best of everything."

Her Blondeness — Brinkley, in a fire-engine red dress — brought her 13½-year-old Jack. "I saw the movie when I was my son's age, but I've never seen it on stage before," she confessed. Much can be learned from the story, particularly for teenagers. "Not too long ago, my daughter and son were doing one of those on-line games when, all of a sudden, this pop-up comes up, trying to recruit kids to a gang. I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. With all the different areas that kids could be pulled into the world of gangs, now the internet has gotten into the act,' so I think this show is a good lesson and very relevant right now as these gangs seem to be reemerging."

Son Jack was shooed out of the celebrity path by an unsmiling Lauren Bacall, making her way into the theatre where she twice-struck Tony silver (Applause and Woman of the Year). "Move," she said — which was more than I got out of her — and he dutifully jumped. "Think of it as a compliment," a publicist said, consoling the kid. Scott Hart, proprietor of the swank 44&X eatery (located, of all places, at 44th and Tenth Avenue), was checking out this west side story. "Arthur Laurents was in the other night, and we had a lovely chat," he said. A favorite mannerism of the restaurant is the funny way Hart names his drinks after Broadway shows. I suggested a "Bloody Maria" for the one, but he topped me with a "West Sidecar."

Michael Riedel, who stirs the theatrical cauldron at the New York Post, arrived — atypically! — with a nun on each arm — a Sister Laura and the Rev. Mother Dolores.

The latter is prioress of the cloistered community at Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, but 50 years ago, at the time of the original West Side Story, she was just beginning her five-year, ten-film acting career under the name of Dolores Hart.

She even made it to Broadway once — in Samuel Taylor's 1958 The Pleasure of His Company. "It was at the Longacre and the Music Box," said Mother Dolores in a soft, still beautifully enunciated voice. "I was under contract to Hal Wallis on a loanout."

Does she get to theatre much anymore? "Not at all. We are cloistered, but Laura thought this would be a very important and special occasion." Her only other theatre experience was seeing Vanessa Redgrave in 2007 in The Year of Magical Thinking — so maybe this is becoming habit-forming (pun intended). "I hope so."

Other first-nighters included Barbara Cook, Houston Astro Craig Biggio, Patricia Clarkson, "Sex and the City" creators Michael Patrick King and John Melfi, Tony Roberts, painter Hunt Slocum, director James Lapine, Bill Kux, composer Stephen Flaherty, husband-and-wife Rooms authors Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Stanley Donen, Rob Ashford, Rachel Dratch and her Minsky's director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, Bobby Cannavale and Sarah Paulson (currently rehearsing The Gingerbread House for an upcoming Rattlestick opening), Michael Kors, Kathleen Turner, Lili Taylor, Dana Ivey with director Walter Bobbie (both from the just-closed Savannah Disputation), Taye Diggs, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and designer-wife Georgianna Chapman, ABT's Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy, model Irina Pantaeva, John Patrick Shanley, Bryan Batt of "Mad Men," Patrick Wilson of "Watchmen," Phyllis Newman, Amanda Green, designer Valentino, Cheyenne Jackson, singer Peter Cincotti, screenwriter-director Paul Haggis, Leslie Gore, Jeffrey Denman and Kerry O'Malley of the recent White Christmas, Phil Donahue, Zac Posen and the usual "Ugly Betty" contingent (Mark Indelicato, Ana Oritz and Eric Mabius).

CBS' jester-in-residence Mo Rocca wrapped the evening up for me in his usual inimitable fashion with "It made me believe in the possibility of love after my life spent in a gang. I'm one of the only people who was both a Shark and a Jet."

The cast of <i>West Side Story</i> at curtain call.
The cast of West Side Story at curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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