‘West Side Story’ the enduring standard by which musicals are judged
By Michael Grossberg
The Columbus Dispatch
The Jets and Sharks are back on tour, although the American consciousness was never really without them.
In the 55 years since the premiere of the original production, West Side Story has become a touchstone of American life and culture.
“In retrospect, it was revolutionary,” said David Saint, associate director of the national tour, which will open on Tuesday for a weeklong run at the Ohio Theatre.
“Today, people use the musical as such a standard.”
Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story updates the Shakespearean romantic tragedy from rival families in Renaissance Italy to rival teenage gangs whose prejudices spark conflict during the mid-1950s in New York.
“Romeo” evolved into Tony, an old member of the white Jets gang who falls in love with Maria (“Juliet”) — sister to Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks and boyfriend to Anita, a co-worker of Maria’s in a bridal shop.
Saint noted the familiarity of the plot of the 1957 Broadway hit (and 1961 Oscar-winning film) when, after the shooting early last year of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, he watched Democrats and Republicans — in a show of civility — cross the aisle to be seated among one another during the State of the Union address.
“Anderson Cooper on CNN said, ‘I guess it’s for the good, but it’s a little bit like watching the Jets and the Sharks dance together at the gym,’ ” Saint said.
The “eternal themes” — the need for acceptance and the growth of conflict from differences — have helped West Side Story endure, he said.
“The show opened at a time when Broadway audiences expected musicals to be comedies or otherwise lighthearted. Yet West Side Story is a tragedy with several major characters dying. . . . Act 1 ends with two dead bodies onstage, and the second act ends with (another death and) a silent curtain.”
The creative team was stellar: playwright Arthur Laurents, who later wrote Gypsy and the screenplays for The Way We Were and The Turning Point; composer Leonard Bernstein, who also wrote the music for Candide and Wonderful Town; director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who later staged Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof; and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who made his Broadway debut.
“Each one of those four creators went on to extraordinary careers,” Saint noted. “They were basically four geniuses at the height of their youthful powers and the only time all four worked together.
“Bernstein wrote the most glorious music, but so many elements of the show are fantastic: the singing, the dancing, the lyrics, the music, the book. To have that all in one show sets it apart.”
In a 2000 survey, the American Theatre Critics Association topped a list of the 25 most significant American musicals with West Side Story.
Such recognition confirmed the lasting power of a work initially deemed a landmark in the history of the Broadway musical because of the artistic way in which Robbins integrated dance with the seamless fusion of song and story.
More than a half-century later, Laurents directed the Broadway revival that inspired the latest tour.
The revival ran for 748 performances, slightly more than the original show did, from 2009 to 2011.
Evy Ortiz plays Maria in the touring production, which mimics the Broadway version in adding Spanish lyrics and dialogue to a few scenes that the Puerto Rican characters would speak in their native tongue.
“That’s the way the Sharks speak, and that’s the way my family speaks,” said Ortiz, of Puerto Rican descent.
“Sometimes it’s a bit of a distraction with the music, but I really like it because it draws some authenticity that wasn’t there before.”
Ortiz, in her mid-20s , plays Maria on the cusp of womanhood.
“She’s a teenager and a dreamer, so there’s an innocence and an impulsive sexual nature,” the actress said. “Maria is immediately attracted to Tony, but she’s also very realistic in trying to balance the feeling of love she has for Tony and trying to make it work somehow.
“Maria goes on a challenging emotional journey. . . . In only two days, Maria goes from being young and innocent to a woman in despair.”
Saint, a close friend of Laurents’ until his death last year at age 93, credits him with making the dramatic transitions concise and convincing.
“ West Side Story has the most economical book writing ever,” said Saint, who serves as executor of the literary estate and president of the foundation that Laurents left behind.
“When Anita finds Maria, and Tony has just left her bed, there are just three lines before they go into a song ( A Boy Like That). Anita looks out the window, sees . . . (Tony’s) undershirt, picks it up, throws it down, and Maria says, ‘Now you know.’ Anita says: ‘You don’t know. Tony is one of them!’ — and boom!”
During the eight-year gestation of the musical, Saint said, Laurents whittled down the concept to a single notion: the struggle for love in a world of bigotry and violence.
“That theme is why I believe West Side Story has lasted so long and will continue to last,” he said. “This story has existed for hundreds of years.
“Unfortunately, it’s timeless.”