The original stage musical of "West Side Story" — now revived and touring to Seattle — differs from the well-known film in key ways. Here's a short "compare and contrast" by Seattle Times theater critic and "West Side Story" historian, Misha Berson.
By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic
Love the movie of "West Side Story"? Never seen the musical done live?
There are several good reasons why any major "West Side Story" fan should grab a chance to see the show in revival, like the full-dress Broadway version coming to Paramount next week. But bear in mind that the movie and the show are not identical, because the original creators didn't have total control of the work once Hollywood scooped it up.
Reasons for going
1. The dancing: Watching a corps of live dancer-actors ripping through the exciting Jerome Robbins choreography for this classic show is a breathtaking thrill. It's hard to imagine how they ace all those spins, leaps, lifts and proto-breakdancing movements, especially in the brilliant "Dance at the Gym" dance-off between the Jets and Sharks gangs, and in the iconic "Prologue" for the show. And when they do, the excitement is electric.
Also, the fantasy-ballet number (to the song "Somewhere") in the live edition that was left out of the movie is well worth taking in.
2. The music: In the blockbuster 1961 film, the songs are dubbed — often by singers who never appear on-screen. This can be stilted and disconcerting, especially when Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer are pouring out their disembodied love in the "Tonight" duet. On stage, every tune is live, with a full orchestra backup — and there's no disconnect between singer and song.
3. The ethnic authenticity: In the film and early stage versions, the show mainly featured non-Latino actors in the Hispanic roles. But the multiethnic talent pool has much expanded, with more Latino performers to bring their verve and cultural specificity to the Sharks roles. It also will be interesting to see how Arthur Laurents' insertions of Spanish language play out.
4. The intimacy: Even on a big stage, live theater creates a sense of here-and-now connection that film, for all its attributes, can't offer. In this case, the aliveness allows you to feel closer to the experiences of these fervent kids, and to their passions, bravado and tragedies.
But keep in mind
1. The film dialogue changes many lines in the original Arthur Laurents book for the show, "cleaning up" dialogue viewed as possibly offensive — though today it would be considered utterly tame. (There's not a single profanity uttered.)
2. Two musical numbers for the Jets gang are switched up: "Gee, Officer Krupke" occurs after the rumble in the stage show, but before the rumble in the film. And the "Cool" number happens onstage before the rumble, instead of after it. This changes the emotional tempo a bit, but flow with it.
3. A Sharks number goes coed: the marvelous "America" sequence is performed in the theater by the Sharks' girlfriends; an expanded movie version includes the gang boys too. The stage lyrics are quite different also, more about the perks of living in the U.S. versus Puerto Rico (rather than the prejudice and poverty faced by newcomers to this country).
4. The Prologue lasts for several minutes on stage. It's a much longer, more elaborate sequence on film.
Most of all, just keep an open mind and remember that we're dealing with two very different mediums here.
"Some people who see 'West Side Story' on stage for the first time get mad because they think we've changed things around," says David Saint, who directed this tour. "Most people don't know that it was the film that made changes to the show, not vice versa."