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West Side Story is a timeless classic

By Ben Ryland

Arthur Laurents directed a “West Side Story” for the 21st century. The recent acclaimed 2009 Broadway revival tour will play this weekend at The Hanover Theatre in Worcester for five performances Dec. 28-30. Laurents’ production has been recreated for the tour by David Saint and choreographed by Joey McKneely reproducing the original Jerome Robbins icon work.

“I thought ‘West Side Story’ was going to be a flop,” states Laurents who passed away shortly after the revival opened in New York City in March 2009. “I thought it would run for three months…I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things. I wanted to do a much tougher ‘West Side Story.’” More than 50 years later he had the chance.
Laurents added the grit to the story as well as heightening the romance. He also has the Puerto Rican characters (Sharks) sometimes sing and speak in Spanish, which not only gives the musical a bit more authenticity, but reflects the sounds of New York City today.

Cast member Mark Deler who plays Inca and understudies the lead “Shark,” Bernardo, explained by phone from South Carolina last week some of the updates that were made. The show is a little bit darker and about 12 percent of the lines are spoken in Spanish. “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” are sung partially in Spanish.

When the revival opened on Broadway, both songs were sung entirely in Spanish but were changed by Laurents after a few months because some theater goers who were unfamiliar with the story didn’t understand what was happening in those pivotal scenes. What now exists is a perfect balance which gives the audience the most authentic emotional expression of the scenes while enhancing its universality. Deler believes it has helped the show immensely. “When you watch the show or movie it is much more geared toward the Jets a little bit so by adding the Spanish in there it helps to make the Sharks more prominent,” he explains.

Laurents says he, “directed the musical as though it were a play,” casting the revival and tour with very young performers. There is strong language, violence and sensitive sexual subject matter portraying even more heartbreaking emotions of these lost souls.

Originally the concept was to be a takeoff of Romeo and Juliet about the love story set in the Jewish slums of New York called “East Side Story,” but that idea was abandoned. It evolved into a story of gang war between the Polish and Puerto Ricans living in poverty on the isle of Manhattan. Containing many love songs that have become popular there are also the famous “action” songs and tear-jerking ballads.

Mark Deler is having a lot of fun performing in this tour which continues across the country until next May in first-class theaters such as the Hanover. From his excitement while speaking to us, it was apparent he loves the opening dance prologue which is also a novel approach the artistic team created more than 50 years ago for a musical. In this extended sequence the dancers immerse the audience into their world as they set them up for the events of the story. It is also a highlight in the film version unlike any other.

“It’s the high-octane of the beginning of the show…we go into it (as dancers) full-throttle which is great because it gets all of us into the show as quick as possible—in it at 100 percent. We come out running on stage and running off stage, it’s a lot. And it is long.” Deler has high praise for his fellow performers and especially the dance captains in this heavily choreographed show, “They make sure the show look as good as it needs to look,” he says.

“We do this line called the ‘Sharks Charge’ during the dance at the gym sequence. The Sharks line up and come across the stage yelling MAMBO. Lately I have been really screaming it. It’s a lot of fun…the audiences love it.”



( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 28th, 2012 11:37 pm (UTC)
I really really wish someone would say something sometime about how the production was made darker other than vague statements and the Spanish speaking/singing thing! I'm very interested in knowing the details of the changes, and there never seems to be anything about that.
Dec. 29th, 2012 07:59 am (UTC)
You know, I've seen the recent National Tour version which is based on the 2009 Broadway version and it wasn't really all that different. Sure, they ramped up the sexual assault scene and made the fights in the Prologue a little tougher but that was about it IMO.
Dec. 29th, 2012 08:53 am (UTC)
Huh. I wonder why they keep making such a big deal out of it, then....
Dec. 29th, 2012 11:16 am (UTC)
I just think Laurents wanted to distance himself from Robbins because he couldn't stand him so he made a big deal about his "improved" version.
Dec. 29th, 2012 11:19 am (UTC)
It's like the "Somewhere" dream ballet, Laurents removed a big chunk of it this time around so there's less of Robbins' choreography for the audience to view.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 04:10 am (UTC)
The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:

The Broadway stage revival of West Side Story that my sister in law, my niece and I saw back in late June of 2011 was enjoyable, but, being a devout fan of the film version of WSS who's also seen several really good stage productions of West Side Story prior to seeing this one, there were a number of things that bothered me about this particular revival of the Broadway stage version of West Side Story:

A) The finger-snapping and the Jet gang whistles, which, imho, were a rather vital part of the story in the stage production and the film version, were taken out of this revival of West Side Story altogether. It's a shame, because it's sort of messing with a classic.

B) It's all very well to have the Sharks speaking in Spanish, which is an interesting idea on the face of it, but this, too, is another example of messing with a classic.

C) Having seen a number of other stage productions of West Side Story that I found very good, I also felt that, while the dancing was good, and some of the voices were good in this latest WSS stage production, I have never before seen a production of West Side Story that sort of screamed at you pretty much the whole time, and that was so overly emoted by the various characters. Inotherwords, this particular production was somewhat bombastic for my tastes. Moreover, Tony's singing voice sounded very artificial, with very slow, wide vibratos that one could practically skip-rope through (if one gets the drift), plus Tony's singing voice sounded really forced in many places.

D) The basic musical score was retained, and it was interestingly, a somewhat more jazzed up flavor, but it did sound somewhat shrill and tinny in many places.

E) In both the film version of West Side Story and the several other stage productions of WSS that I've seen prior to this particular production, several Jets and Sharks come together in the end to carry Tony's body off after he's been shot, providing a ray of hope, and hinting of a possibility of reconciliation between both sides. Unfortunately, this production of West Side Story lacked that scene in the end, which was sort of a downer.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 10:32 am (UTC)
Re: The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:
Ahh, I see. Thank you for your information! That's right, I remember reading that the scene at the end was changed because he realized the police would never allow the body to be removed from a crime scene like that. Very true, but still, the scene was so iconic and powerful that it seems it shouldn't have disappeared altogether. Even if he didn't want the body removed, maybe he could have found some other way of showing the Jets and the Sharks coming together over the tragedy.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 11:06 am (UTC)
Re: The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:
You still have Baby John putting the black scarf on her head but the rest of the scene is gone.
Mar. 1st, 2013 09:07 pm (UTC)
Re: The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:
"You still have Baby John putting the black scarf on her head but the rest of the scene is gone."

That's really too bad. Part of the original message of West Side Story is that, as difficult as it can be and often is, reconciliation between people is still possible. The fact that the majority of that scene was taken out changes the message...by a lot.
Mar. 1st, 2013 09:09 pm (UTC)
Re: The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:
You're welcome, insaneladybug! Thanks for your input. The fact that the powerful end scene that at least hints of possible reconciliation was removed took a great deal away from the more updated, newer Broadway stage revival of West Side Story.
Mar. 1st, 2013 09:16 pm (UTC)
Re: The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:
Yeah, it seems like it would end on an utterly discouraging note without at least some modified version of them coming together.
Jul. 20th, 2013 06:13 pm (UTC)
Re: The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:
Thanks for the good points about the ending, Insaneladybug. Excellent idea.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 11:07 am (UTC)
Re: The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:
Did you see a production with Ross Lekites?
Mar. 1st, 2013 09:04 pm (UTC)
Re: The new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story; A Critique:
Nope. I've never even heard of Ross Lekites.

Was the production good? A curious, inquiring mind wants to know.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


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West Side Story

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