Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Return of West Side Story

Ever since I heard about the revival of West Side Story, which is being directed by Arthur Laurents, I've been cautiously excited. As much as I love West Side Story, I've never seen a really excellent version of it. The movie wasn't great (at least from my perspective), and the two professional versions I saw were so bad they were laughable.

Perhaps one of the issues with reviving West Side Story has to do with its place in musical theatre history. Despite not garnering the Tony awards or the audiences of The Music Man when it first opened, WSS has become an indelible part of musical theatre. In addition to launching several legendary Broadway careers (including Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Chita Rivera), the show is often seen as the start of a new era of musical theatre, in which musicals could be darker and more entrenched in reality. There is no happy ending or waltz into the sunset. Even Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel, which has a main characters who abuses his wife, is a walk in the park compared to West Side Story.

However, while the legend has made it part of the Broadway landscape, it is also part of the show's burden. When reviving the show, the question becomes: Do we want to take the show in a different direction or do we want to carefully recreate the original version, from the costumes to Jerome Robbins's excellent choreography? The problem with opting with a revisionist version is that the original is so entrenched in Broadway lore and memory that any changes may be viewed as sacrilegious. The problem with keeping exactly everything the same is that the show becomes a museum piece.

The New York Times just published a piece on the WSS revival, which will recreate Robbins's choreography but will make some very interesting changes that don't fit with many people's interpretations of the show. Mr. Laurents, who disparages both the film version and the 1980 Broadway revival, wants a grittier, harsher West Side Story. One of his more innovative ideas is to incorporate Spanish into the script. Part of the reasoning behind this is that Laurents wants to put the gangs on more equal territory. He mentions that, in the original staging, the Jets seem like the heroes while the Sharks are the interlopers. However, his partner saw a version in Columbia that was in Spanish and consequently transformed the show's power dynamic.

While I'm not sure about Mr. Laurents's assertion that the Jets seem like the heroes in the original version (they almost gang rape Anita), I am looking forward to this revival. In addition to it being very timely given the problems with teen gang violence and the tension over immigration, I'm hoping that this version is a little grittier and less idealized than other productions have been.