by Caryn Robbins
David Saint is currently directing the National tour of WEST SIDE STORY, a production based on the highly successful 2009 Broadway revival. The tour is currently playing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Saint also serves as Artistic Director of the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick NJ where he has directed twenty-nine main-stage productions. Most recently, he directed Ken Ludwig’s The Fox on the Fairway; the NJ premiere of the Broadway hit God of Carnage and the world premiere of Joe DiPietro’s Creating Claire. His time in New Brunswick has been marked by collaborations with such artists as Uta Hagen, A.R. Gurney, Arthur Laurents, George Grizzard, Chita Rivera, Eli Wallach, Frances Sternhagen, Anne Meara, Dan Lauria, Stephen Sondheim and Jack Klugman.
Mr. Saint has directed on Broadway, off-Broadway, and at most of the leading regional theatres around the country. He is the recipient of the Alan Schneider Award, Helen Hayes Award, Los Angeles Drama Critics Award, and several Drama-Logue Awards.
David Saint took time out of his busy schedule to speak with BWW about the current National tour of WEST SIDE STORY as well as to remember his close friend and trusted mentor, famed librettist, director and screenwriter Arthur Laurents, who passed away a year ago at the age of 93. Mr. Saint was chosen by Laurents to be the literary executor of his estate, responsible for some of stage and screen's greatest masterpieces including West Side Story, Gypsy and The Way We Were.
You were chosen by Mr. Laurents to be the literary executor of his estate. I'm sure that is both a huge honor and a heavy responsibility.
Yes. It's a huge responsibility and a great privilege. And actually, the timing of your call is interesting because Arthur wrote a last memoir which he finished literally a week before he died. I am editing that as well and this past weekend I just finished the final edit and sent it off to the publishers. May 5th will be one year since he died and it was quite a busy year for me. And just reading the memoir very closely again the last few days with the final edit has really brought him back in so many ways. I still can't believe he's gone in a way.
How did you first become associated with him?
We met years ago, way back in the early 90's. We were in Seattle together, I was directing a play and he was doing a workshop of another play of his. We had met earlier than that through Anne Meara originally and so I knew him a little socially, but we really got to know each other in Seattle. A few months later he sent me a script and said he wanted me to direct it and that was of course thrilling. And then we continued to just become better and better friends and work together. I think I worked with him all together 11 or 12 times - a lot of plays, musicals. It was probably the most exciting relationship of my professional life. He was such a huge mentor to me and I learned a great deal from him.
Well that brings me to my next question which I'm sure is a difficult one to answer. What would you say is the most important thing that he taught you?
Oh boy. I could write a book. In fact I may! I think one of the big things was, to find the honesty in the work and to find the honesty in yourself. He dealt remarkably honestly with people and sometimes in this business that is rare. A lot of people will say "Oh tell me what you think", but they really don't want to know what you think. They want to hear praise and Arthur never believed in that. He believed in telling the truth. If you asked him what he thought about something he would tell you. It was intimidating to a lot of people but what I found out was that after years of dealing with him and dealing with other folks, I much prefer dealing with him because I always knew where I stood.
I find even since he's gone that policy always works the best because you don't have to worry about "Did I sugarcoat it? Should I really tell them what I thought? Should I temper it?" With Arthur, he really did keep it about the work. He could be very harsh and brutal with his criticism but it was always about the material. And he assumed everyone else thought that way too. So I learned early on that when we were talking about my work, I could not take it so personally but take it more about his sharp observations. And for that he was invaluable. And he saw everything I directed. He was a great friend that way and a great support but he would tell me right off the bat "David, it's a piece of s**t!" and that's hard to hear right off the bat. But then he would tell you why he thought that and in the process of him telling you, you always learned an enormous amount.
And I'm sure when you improved on it, it was even a greater feeling to receive his praise.
Exactly! When he came down the aisle and said "David, I loved it," you felt on the top of the world because you knew that he genuinely loved it. That's rare.
You also serve as president of the Laurents-Hatcher Foundation.
Yes and that foundation is growing very rapidly. A year ago we started the Laurents-Hatcher Award which is given to a young playwright. It's a very substantial award. The winning playwright gets $50,000 and the theater that will produce the winning play gets $100,000 toward the production. So it's one of the largest awards given. And the only restrictions are that it must be a new American play by an American writer that has some kind of social significance. Arthur felt even though he earned so much of his fame with his musicals, there would always be more people willing to produce a musical than a straight play so that's what he wanted this award to be. The foundation will grow and it's another great legacy that he's left.
I'm also the executor of all of his literary properties, so anything to do with any major treatment of West Side Story or Gypsy or The Way We were, Turning Point, all those movies, I have to now deal with and try to act as the best as I know he would have. I can safely say that I think I am probably the closest individual to him that's alive that knows about his work. And Arthur felt that way and that' s why he chose to leave me in charge.
Regarding the current National touring production of West Side Story which you are directing, I understand he gave you the green light to re-imagine and re-stage the show to make it your own.
Yes, which was both thrilling and intimidating because I wanted to be faithful to the spirit of his recent Broadway revival and what was important to him. Because I was his Associate Director on that production, I was with him every second and really knew very well in depth what his intentions were with the production.
There were certain things that I asked him, "Can I fiddle with this? Can I chose this?" and certain things like 'Officer Krupke' that he would say, "Oh please, I was never happy with the way that number ended up so do whatever you want." I knew what he was after. In fact it was interesting. He had spoken to the actors a lot about where that song was placed in the stage musical. It was purposely placed as a way for the gang members to vent their rage and their trauma at what had just happened, namely they had just seen their friend die and Tony was on the run. In order to cope with all this fear and rage and anger, they vented into a Vaudevillian number and that's what 'Officer Krupke' was about. Now when I was watching Arthur speak to these young actors in rehearsal, and they were young, 20, 21, 22 year old actors, even a couple of 18 year olds, and Vaudeville meant absolutely nothing to them. They nodded but it never really quite took off. When I started the tour in rehearsals, I was talking to the actors and I tried to translate more to my generation and hopefully their generation. I thought "What is a current day type of vaudeville that deals with things irreverently and with shock value and makes comments on serious issues in a dark humorous way?" and I immediately thought, "South Park." So I said "It's sort of like "South Park," and the minute I said "South Park" all of them lit up. They were like "Ohh we get you!" and suddenly it just unlocked a lot of creative impulses in them. That was one example of a change that I made.
Another example, Arthur had given the song "Somewhere" to a little boy in the Broadway show. I thought it worked to some degree but in another way not...I said to Arthur "can I come up with another idea of how to do this?" and he agreed. I thought, "The whole song is about yearning for that place where we can find acceptance", and to me, the one character in the whole piece who is really alone is Anybody's. She is not even comfortable in her own gender. She wants to find a place to fit in. She wants to be a member of the Jets, but they won't let her in. She doesn't fit in with the women in the crowd because she identifies more with the guys. So I thought that is the perfect character to sing that song. So that's another big change we made in the tour. I think it works just beautifully. Those kinds of things gave me great satisfaction.
The Broadway revival caused a bit of controversy when the lyrics to some of the songs were translated and sung in Spanish.
Yes, that was an experiment that had been started at the very beginning with Arthur hoping to level the playing field but also to give it more a sense of what we are used to in contemporary theater. When we were in Washington we had a lot more songs in Spanish. We were toying with the idea of using subtitles and supertitles. And then of course we had the difficulty of translating Sondheim's lyrics because he wanted to keep the rhythms and he worked with Lin Manuel Miranda on making that happen. Of course the lyrics were not a literal translation of Sondheim's words but the spirit of them, while keeping the original musical rhythm. The more we used the Spanish lyrics, the more we basically found that the audience was pulling out because they didn't get the important information of the story and that was not good. So we started to mix it more with the English and the Spanish and that's what I continued with on the road as well.
One of the things you find as you travel around the country is that audiences are different. In Newark, New Jersey there's a lot more exposure to the Latino population and the Spanish language than there is in say the Mid West. So as I traveled with the tour, I loved to sit in the audience and sense their reactions, watching and listening to their reactions about what they were following and what they were not. So there's certain little things that we brought back to English. It probably started at about 15% with translations in Spanish and now it's probably less than 10%. But it's enough to give just a little flavor of the authenticity.
Also, the girl who is playing Maria now whom I adore, Evy Ortiz, is the first time that a first generation full-blooded Puerto Rican is playing this role. She said to me "This is like my household. We always speak a mix of Spanish and English. Even my parents who are full-blooded Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico, they don't speak Spanish constantly, they speak English and Spanish even when we're alone." So that was very interesting insight and it just confirmed that we were on the right track. I think it's at the right balance now.
What do you think keeps West Side Story so relevant today despite the fact that Laurents wrote it over a half a century ago?
Unfortunately, the theme of the piece has been a relevant theme for hundreds of years with Romeo and Julliet and even with the Italian plays before Shakespeare. This notion that love cannot thrive in a world of intolerance is unfortunately still with us very strongly today. That's what is so moving to me. I had some friends who went to see it in Philadelphia a month ago and one of them told me she was crying because her sister is married now to a Muslim and the prejudice she goes through is extraordinary. All I could think of was Tony and Maria. This is something that has not left our world and I don't think it may ever. So I think that theme makes it so very relevant.
And then in addition to that, let's face it, you had four geniuses of the American theater at the top of their game, in their 30's and even 20's, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. These were the best. The giants! This was the only collaboration where all four worked together - and it's magnificent. The music is some of the best ever written, Steve's lyrics - you can't get any better. And Arthur's book the best, the best. And Robbins great choreography. You have these incredible elements and I think they are still very powerful.
Now having said that, I will tell you that Arthur, made a lot of changes in the book for the revival that are subtle unless you really knew the piece. Everyone concentrates on the Spanish as the big change but he went through and literally cleaned out anything that was too sort of, musical comedy-dated from the 1950's. He felt that that was something you needed in the 50's to get by but now you didn't need that. He felt it dated the piece and made it less powerful. So he did update the book. He didn't bring it into the 21st century or anything, but he did edit out some of the stuff that was no longer necessary.
I'm wondering who you and Mr. Laurents considered the current day or up-and-coming great creative artists.
You know, Arthur and I went to the theater three or four times a week. He saw everything - he loved theater. He would see the Broadway musicals as well as the works down in the East Village. I think he was a big fan of Adam Guettel, as am I. He was also a big fan of Bill T. Jones, the choreographer. Of course, Mike Nichols was one of his favorites. I think one of the reasons he loved Adam Guettel was that he was encouraged by his spirit. His music wasn't afraid to soar with emotion. Arthur felt that for quite a while now the composers in American musical theater had been afraid to really let loose with emotion and let the emotions soar. Songs like 'Tonight', 'I Have a Love' and 'Somewhere' were not afraid to really soar emotionally. I think that was something he was always on the look out for.
As the literary executor of the Laurents estate, I was wondering if you could give us any updates on the upcoming Hollywood version of 'Gypsy' starring Barbra Streisand.
Right now, it's still in development as they say. They've hired Julian Fellowes to adapt the screenplay, who is wonderful writer and Arthur loved his work. He wrote 'Downtown Abbey' and so many things before that and Arthur loved him and thought he was a talented screenwriter. But as far as I know, they still don't have a director yet. They do have a producer, Joel Silver and Barbra and Julien Fellowes. That's all I know at the moment.
Well best of luck with the National tour.
Thank you. You know, the production has a very young cast who I'm very proud of. It's always great to discover brand new talents. That's one of things that keeps it fresh and exciting for me. There's a kid right now playing Action. He's sensational. Talk about a diamond in the rough. He's never acted, he's never sung. He was brought up in Germany, dancing ballet because he had some physical problems with his legs and he started physical therapy in a ballet class. Turns out he was a great dancer! I think he's got a huge future. When he came in to audition I said "What do you want to sing?" and he had never sung, so he sang "Happy Birthday" for us and I said "You're cast"! It's just wonderful when you discover talent like that!
The National tour of WEST SIDE STORY, directed by David Saint, is now playing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. For tickets and further information, click here
To view a preview of the 2009 WEST SIDE STORY production, click here.