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.”