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"West Side Story" gets a makeover in new stage production

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*'West Side Story' gets makeover*

Laurents makes gritty changes to classic




More than a half-century after its Broadway debut, following countless tours, high school and college stagings and international productions, producers are set to do something rather radical with the latest Rialto revival of "West Side Story": They're tinkering with it.


That may raise eyebrows among theater purists wary of fiddling with a ubiquitous classic, but at the helm of this new $14 million production is one of the show's creators, book writer Arthur Laurents.


As the director of the new production, Laurents aims to showcase the darker shades of the tuner, concentrating more fully on the performances.


"The original production wasn't about acting," he says. "It was about dancing and singing and style. My basic feeling was that in 1957, the gangs were loveable little things. That wasn't true. They were vicious little killers."


Oh, also: Some of it will be in Spanish.


At least initially, the creative risks seem to be paying off. In the first week of previews, which began Feb. 23, the tuner racked up more than $1 million from seven perfs, making it one of only two shows to top a million in a frame mostly dampened by the usual winter decline in tourism. Producers Kevin McCollum and James L. Nederlander peg the advance at $14 million.


The wide appeal of the beloved musical, which officially opens March 19 and features 40 onstage performers and a hefty orchestra of 29, surely factors into those sales. The tuner -- with a slew of now-familiar songs by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Laurents -- looms large in musical theater history (as does the 1961 pic adaptation), but hasn't played the Rialto since a 1980 revival.


The new staging stars Matt Cavenaugh ("Grey Gardens") and Argentine discovery Josefina Scaglione as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria, with "In the Heights" alum Karen Olivo cast as the latter's confidante, Anita.


Auds on the lookout for familiar "West Side" elements will see Jerome Robbins' original choreography reproduced.


But sometimes they'll be hearing the words in an unfamiliar language. The revival's collaborators are incorporating Spanish-language dialogue and songs for the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang of youths that squares off against the American-born Jets in the New York-set update of "Romeo and Juliet."


Even though they are braced for some surprised audience members, particularly during the preview period, producers believe that Laurents, coming off of his Tony-winning revival of "Gypsy," will lend instant credibility to the project.


"He brings a knowledge to it I don't think anyone else can bring," Nederlander says.


In its original version, "West Side" is often thought to offer little more than a stereotypical portrayal of the Sharks. The Spanish, suggested by Laurents' late partner Tom Hatcher after seeing a production of "West Side" in Bogota, helps to remedy that.


"The show is written from the Jets' point of view," Laurents says. "But when you hear people speaking and singing in their own native language, they take on more weight."


Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of "In the Heights" (also produced by McCollum and "West Side" cohort Jeffrey Seller), provides the translations of dialogue and a few songs.


" 'West Side Story' is the only show I know better than 'In the Heights,' " Miranda says, adding that a large part of the eight-year development process for "Heights" centered on the question of how much Spanish is too much for Broadway auds.


The writer-performer, who directed a production of "West Side" in high school, believes the new bilingual elements pump up the conflict that's already there. "The most interesting change is that the chasm between these two gangs is doubly accentuated," he says.


Producers and creatives also note the fact that language has become an increasingly prevalent concern in the last 50 years, with new media helping to make the world smaller and the Latino population in the U.S. fast on the rise.


"You're riding the subway cars, and everything's in Spanish," Laurents says. "That wasn't so in 1957."


During the production's tryout in D.C. over the holidays and now in Gotham previews, creatives are still experimenting with striking the right balance between the two tongues.


Supertitles were tried, then nixed. A couple of songs were sung entirely in Spanish in Washington, but now in New York, "A Boy Like That" switches between the two languages at an emotionally charged moment.


With sales strong so far, and now that the current staging of "Guys and Dolls" has opened to downbeat reviews, "West Side" has become the revival to watch this season, particularly since those high sales, according to McCollum, aren't just nice -- they're a necessity.


"We've spent top dollar," he says. "These truly are the numbers we need to do in this environment."


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I have several friends who've seen it already in previews.


These are hardcore theatre-goers, most in the entertainment business. Half of them loved it unreservedly, half hated the Spanish parts --- felt it made it hard to follow.


By all accounts, better than the current Broadway revival of *Guys and Dolls* , which was universally panned. The _entire_ front page of the New York Post had a photo from the show and the giant headline "Guys and Dulls."

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It's sort of an odd time when you more or less have to be bilingual to really enjoy a stage musical... :P


Seriously, I do hope you and other folks in the Tri-State area who may be interested will give it a try, and then come back and tell us how they liked it and how it compares to the film adaptation by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

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Eh, I have my doubts about the effectiveness of it, but I haven't seen it so I can't pass judgment.


Here's what the Village Voice's Michael Musto heard from the original Anita, Chita Rivera:


"I heard those notes again at a SAGE reception for the West Side Story revival, where the original Anita, Chita Rivera, didn't stick to her own kind?she even mingled with non-theater people. I got to ask Chita if the show was really underappreciated in its original incarnation. "The Music Man won Best Musical that year," fabulous Chita said, as aghast as if it had just happened. "I ask you not to laugh! I love The Music Man, but you can't compare!" It's apples and Valencia oranges.


Chita also talked to me about the Spanish lyrics added to the new version ("I don't pass judgment, but . . .")


(For those who might be unaware, Chita played the role on Broadway that Rita Moreno grabbed the Oscar for in the film).


Chances are, I'll stick with Chita, but like I said I haven't seen it yet.

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I heard good things about Chita but I've grown used to Rita Moreno's performance, since I've been watching the movie since I was very little.


If the new stage production lasts long enough, I may be able to check it out. B-)

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> {quote:title=ChipHeartsMovies wrote:}{quote}

> FF, you must let me know if you visit Our Town so we can have a drink together.


I would most certainly like that! I don't get out to NYC as much as I did when my mom lived there, but if I ever do, I'll be sure to let you know. ;)

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  • 2 weeks later...

A bilingual "West Side Story" makes sense. In real life the Puerto Rican kids would probably speak in Spanish among themselves. Dramatically is does create another level to the conflict between the gangs and the ethnic barrier the two lovers must cross.

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I have no problem with doing the PR scenes in spanish. people are so dependent on knowing what every word is that is being said that we now use microphones. But I recall one of my favorite shows of the last 10 years, Light in the Piazza. There was a LOT in Italian with no attempt at translation. Let me tell you, it was amazing. I don't speak Italian and I knew exactly what was going on based on the situation and the actions they were doing. It helped me focus on the relationships and really made me feel like I was in Italy.

I also have West Side Story pretty well memorized, so I shan't be confused.

And as someone already said, it's creates a better "otherness" about the Sharks. I can't wait til it comes to LA. Though it won't be the same without Jerome's brilliant choreography.

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It is a little different to change it to Spanish (if that is the case, then every show/film that has characters that may not speak English - at least not all the time - should speak in the tongue of the character that they are portraying). But I, too, immediately thought of "The Light in the Piazza". That was accepted. It did work well in the show. Maybe it is because WSS is so well-known that it seems to make it so "different" to have the characters speaking Spanish. Of course, if you know the musical well enough, it won't matter what language they are speaking. If you don't know it at all, I guess you would be going into it like a person would be when they see/hear "The Light in the Piazza" for the first time. That would be all that a person would know and they wouldn't think anything of it.


My major problem is touching Robbins' choreography. No matter what the reason is, I find that silly. But that is just my opinion, of course. :)

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The reviews are in, and they aren't favorable. Not devastating (the worst reviewed show is still *Guys and Dolls* ), but not very nice. It's a shame since Arthur Laurent's *Gypsy* with Patti LuPone was the best show last year.


Message was edited by: ChipHeartsMovies, because it's "Gypsy," not "Gupsy"

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  • 6 years later...

I saw the more up-to-date Broadway stage revival of West Side Story 4 years ago, with my sister-in-law and my then-8-year-old niece. here in Boston.  With West Side Story being West Side Story, I largely enjoyed it, but, unlike my sister-in-law and my niece, I viewed this present revival of WSS with a harder, more critical eye.  


The fact that the finger-snapping and the Jet gang whistles, as well as the hints of reconciliation between the Jets and Sharks in the end were taken out of this production bothered me a great deal, because these elements were a very integral part of the very story behind West Side Story.  The reconciliation or hints of reconciliation between the Jets and Sharks in the end, after the deaths of Riff, Bernardo and Tony, send an important message:  That reconciliation between groups, as difficult as it often can be, is still possible.


The young woman who played Maria basically had a good voice, but it was a little too operatic and too shrill.


The guy that played Tony wasn't that strong, plus the vibratos in his singing voice--well, one could practically skip-rope through them, because they were so slow and wide.


The idea that a child's voice was singing "Somewhere" seemed very out of place.


The idea of having the Sharks and their girls speak/sing in Spanish was an interesting idea on the face of it, but it seemed out of place here.


This revival, as a whole, seemed a bit too bombastic;  inotherwords, it sort of screamed at the audience the whole time.


Karen Olivio, the young woman who played Anita, however, was excellent, and had a wonderful voice, besides.


The costumes of the Jets and Sharks, especially their dainty-looking white shoes, seemed very much out of place, imho.  Both the Jets and Sharks in this Broadway stage revival of West Side Story looked more like a bunch of rich suburban kids who were dressed to the nines for an evening of partying out on the town, rather than tough-looking street gangs at war with each other.


The Jets and Sharks in the film version of West Side Story looked way rougher and tougher than that, imho.



Yet, at the same time, it's interesting to see productions of a certain musical re-created on the stage, which is one reason that stage productions can be and often are interesting.


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