Lansing State Journal
We don't expect 50-year-old musicals to be like this: pulsating music, exciting dancing, and a plot all about urban gangs clashing between Hispanics (Puerto Ricans) and whites with a heartbreaking love story in the middle.
But that's "West Side Story," the show that is at once nostalgic and surprisingly current. Now considered one of the best musicals ever written, in 1957, when it originally opened on Broadway, the show was considered edgy, overly loud and rhythmic. It played for less than two years, and "Music Man" won the Tony for best musical that year.
David Saint, director of this production and associate director of the recent Broadway revival on which it is based, admits that they sweetened everything up a bit for the Academy Award winning movie in the '60s. "It opens with the dancers high kicking against a backdrop of bright blue skies. In reality, all of the action takes place over a two day period, from dusk to night each day."
In general, the entire revival views the show a bit darker and more gritty than the original. This production caused a stir when it opened on Broadway because it changed some of the songs to be sung in Spanish to create more realism. For the most part, the producers brought it back to the original. Saint says, "The audiences were not ready for their favorite songs to be sung in Spanish. We even thought about subtitles, like opera."
The revival was directed by original playwright 91-year-old Arthur Laurents.
Saint, who served as his assistant says, "He died last May. He was my mentor and best friend. They're all gone now except for 81-year-old Stephen Sondheim - composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and now Arthur.
"When he directed the revival he was vital and exciting. He made the play enormously hard hitting."
Saint is excited about the new cast that began in September and features Evy Ortiz as Maria. "She's a full-blooded Puerto Rican. It's exciting. She's the first Puerto Rican who has ever played the role. On Broadway we had an Argentinean as Maria and there are subtle cultural differences."
For Ortiz, playing Maria is a dream. She's been listening to the music for her entire life and a music professor at New York's Pace University said to her, "You should play Maria in West Side Story. You'd be perfect."
Now in her mid-20s, Ortiz says, "It's not scary to play Maria, it fits me so well. I was born in New York. I don't find the show dated at all - it's absolutely relevant today. And this version is more updated to make it more realistic."
Growing up in New York, Ortiz says, "My family was a totally Spanglish family - English and Spanish were always in the same sentence." Her family came to the US at about the same time that West Side Story was opening (1957). "My grandfather was just like the character Bernardo in the play. He never liked the U.S. and wanted to go back to Puerto Rico." Life imitates art.
Although Ortiz only has been playing the lead for a few weeks, things are changing. "Now the play has more layers to it. The relationships are deeper. Vocally I'm feeling the music more.
"One of the big surprises of playing the show is understanding what to do between scenes. There are many scenes when I am backstage but I can't goof around with the other actors and allow that to lose my concentration. Even though I'm not on stage, I still have to focus on my character all the time."
Although Ortiz loves the entire show, her favorite section is at the end of Act I, the famous Quintet. Five singers are all singing together, opera style, about what is going to happen "Tonight."
Ortiz says, "It's wonderful for a soprano to stand on the balcony looking over the other four singers and just soaring over everybody. I'm only 5'3" so I never get to look down on my fellow singers like that. I love singing it every night."
Stage director Saint says that he is now working with the producers of the hit TV show Glee to create a multiple episode series based on the characters preparing to do the musical in the high school. "Sondheim watches the program and when he was asked to put his blessing on it he said, 'I'm all for it.' "