LINDSAY CHRISTIANS | The Capital Times
For two years in the late 1950s, “West Side Story” electrified Broadway audiences, recasting Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets as troubled teenagers on New York’s upper west side.
But for the musical’s fiftieth anniversary, changes outside the theater made revivals of “West Side” seem dated. In 2009, the late Arthur Laurents, then 93, transformed the show by making it darker and more violent; addition, the Puerto Rican characters speak Spanish.
“I don’t believe in reviving anything unless you have a fresh approach,” Laurents told the New York Times Patricia Cohen in 2009, two years before his death in 2011.
Cohen added that “Laurents liked the idea of a production in which both gangs were perceived equally as villains,” and saw a bilingual retelling as a way to do it.
This new version is the one local audiences will see Tuesday, Feb. 12 through Sunday, Feb. 17, in Overture Hall, with a non-Equity cast brought by Troika Entertainment as part of Overture’s Broadway series.
Many of the young players are bilingual. Fluency in Spanish was a requirement for the men auditioning for the Sharks.
“This is a ‘West Side Story’ for the twenty-first century,” said Carolina Sanchez, a 21-year-old singer who plays Rosalia and understudies Maria. “Some of the musical theater comedy elements have been removed or tweaked to have a darker reality. The dialogue of the show that made it seem stuck in the 1950s has been removed to make it a little more modern.”
Sanchez is a fluent Spanish speaker herself, a first generation Floridian whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Cuban. Thrilled to have landed her first professional gig, Sanchez has one year to complete at Rider College in New Jersey, where she plans to return after the tour ends.
Sanchez estimated the language changes as “50/50” in the music — composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer of the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” translated some of Stephen Sondheim’s original lyrics — and “10/90” Spanish to English in the dialogue.
(After previews in Washington, D.C., the show dropped English language supertitles and “strategically deployed” more English to make the story easy to understand, Cohen reported.)
Adding Spanish “absolutely strengthened the depiction of the Sharks,” Sanchez said. “This production has realistic Puerto Ricans that actually speak Spanish. It’s nice because you get the sense of culture … the Sharks are ad-libbing the music, and then you go to the Jets and it’s completely different.”
Leonard Bernstein’s soaring score and familiar melodies — “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight” — remain in play, as will co-creator Jerome Robbins’ choreography, reproduced for the revival by Joey McKneely.
But those familiar with “West Side Story” might be surprised at how Laurents “added more grit to an already gritty show, and heightened the romance,” Sanchez said. A scene in the 1961 film of the musical shows Rita Moreno’s fiery Anita being hassled by the Jets when she tries to deliver a message to Tony. In the stage musical, it’s a rape scene.
“Some places we have to change that, they ask that we take it out,” Sanchez said. “But in that era, women were not treated well … gangs would gang rape, they’d go one by one. It hits you when you see it. It’s so strong.”
Putting Spanish in the show was controversial at first, Sanchez said, because the worry was that people wouldn’t understand it. But she and the rest of the cast also communicate “by our body language,” she said. And so many people understand Spanish anyway, she said.
“To be bilingual is now seen as normal,” Sanchez said. “It’s ‘Oh, you speak Spanish? OK, well so does (everyone).’
“The movie had culture, it had everything this production has as well. But with the Spanish … it’s so much more real.”