San Francisco-based arts critic
Revisiting West Side Story (VIDEOS)
Singers often like to put their own personal stamp on a piece of popular music. Louis Armstrong's recording of the title song from Hello, Dolly! became an instant hit on the radio (as did Eydie Gormé's rendition of "If He Walked Into My Life" from Jerry Herman's next show, Mame). While Cher's attempt to sing all the roles in West Side Story is a nice concept, no one ever took it too seriously.
Although I did not see the original production of West Side Story, I've been lucky to see several others (ranging from the 1964 New York City Center revival to the 1980 Broadway revival and Opera Pacific's 1987 production).
Directed by David Saint, the latest touring company of West Side Story (in a production based on the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents) recently touched down at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre. Much has been written about how Laurents decided to have the Sharks and their girls speak to each other in Spanish in an attempt to make the show more relevant to today's audiences and give it what Pooh-Bah once referred to as "dramatic verisimilitude." My reaction upon finally seeing the production was that it was a huge mistake (almost as misguided as an all-bear version of Follies with Bruce Vilanch singing "I'm Still Here").
The idea initially came from Tom Hatcher (Laurents' life partner who died on October 26, 2006). Hatcher saw a production of West Side Story in Bogotá, Colombia and realized that when Spanish is the audience's primary language, the Sharks become the heroes and the Jets become the villains. As Laurents recalls:
"I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things. The truth is that they're all killers -- every one of them. I wanted to do a much tougher West Side Story. What I thought 50 years ago, I certainly don't think today. A lot of my ideas have changed, and this whole production is radically different from what it was back then.
I said to Tom, 'What if there was some way to equalize the gangs?' And Tom said, 'What if the Sharks spoke and sang in Spanish at those moments when they would in life?' And that was it. That's when I became interested in directing the show.
'A Boy Like That' was originally in Spanish and it was very effective -- for people who knew the show. But once you got past that audience, people had no idea what was being sung. So now, the song is in both languages (first in English, then in Spanish). We did the same thing with 'I Feel Pretty.' The costumes by David C. Woolard are purposely independent of any particular decade."
Laurents insists that, from the start, the use of Spanish was an experiment and that when he felt audiences did not understand what a song was about, he restored at least some of its English lyrics. Unfortunately, this solution did not work as well as he had hoped.
In the lead-up to the song "America," there is some caustic dialogue between Bernardo and Anita which cannot be clearly communicated merely with body language. A failure to communicate those sentiments severely weakens the scene.
Similarly, in the 'I Feel Pretty' number, the audience misses out on a great deal of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics.
By Act II of the opening night performance in San Francisco, the Puerto Ricans were alternating between speaking their lines in Spanish and English in a way that diluted their credibility and made the effect seem almost laughable.
To me, the worst use of this gimmick (and that's all it is, folks -- it's a gimmick) came during the Act I quintet when Anita, Tony, Maria, the Jets, and the Sharks are all describing their feelings about the upcoming rumble. At the key moment when the voices all merge, the impact of everyone singing the same lyric makes a powerful dramatic statement to the audience. That impact was totally lost when the Spanish and English lyrics essentially drowned each other out.
As my favorite character in J.C. Lee's Pookie Goes Grenading would say: "Dat's just stoopid!" The bottom line is that, if Laurents really wanted to make this version of West Side Story sound more contemporary and authentic, all he had to do was persuade Stephen Sondheim to change one single word in the second act.
If, instead of having the Jets sing "Gee Officer Krupke, KRUP YOU!" the lyric had been changed to "Gee Officer Krupke, FUCK YOU!" he would have instantly changed the show's dynamic and updated its street cred using two words that are easily recognizable to audiences (and gangs) that speak English, Spanish, and quite a few other languages. The fact that such an epithet -- which would have scandalized an audience in 1957 -- is now commonplace in movies, in comedy clubs, on cable television, in all kinds of households, and on many legitimate stages trumps the bilingual bullshit Laurents used to justify his misguided changes to the script.
Joey McKneeley, who had previously worked with West Side Story's original choreographer, Jerome Robbins (and has since restaged the dances in numerous productions) explains that:
"What happened with the choreography, and with West Side Story in general, is that it had become a museum piece. It became stuck in a time warp, and it started to feel dated. The material is not dated. The subject matter is not dated. The social content speaks so vibrantly to today's audiences. But the choreography was missing a youthful zest, it was missing passion.
Arthur wanted to break free of that museum quality. And he felt, as did many people, that the show needed to be updated in terms of its appeal to an audience. That included making the choreography look edgier, harder. He wanted to get rid of the musical comedy aspects of the choreography, and take it to a more reality-based place. It was difficult (because it's not my work) and I wanted to be true to the integrity of the choreography. But if my director wants something changed, I have to try to acquiesce to his needs. How do you change choreography when it is not yours? What parts do you manipulate without losing the original intent or structure? Very challenging!
I had all the resources to pull from: my experience from Jerome Robbins' Broadway, the movie version, the West Side Story choreographic manual, the 1980 revival video, even the New York City Ballet version of the dance suite. Along with my associate, Lori Werner, I started as we have for all the tours...setting what we know. Then, as per Arthur's suggestion or prodding, I was able to use my insight as a choreographer to adjust a step here or there to help take the show away from its entrenched past and bring it into the 21st century with more edge and energy.
An example is the opening of the show. There is a step called the 'sailing step,' a very ballet looking jump with arms out in second position. If the intent is to make these Jets look intimidating right at the top of the show, then a pretty ballet step defeats the purpose. Simply making the hands into fists gives a hard look to the step, but still communicates the fact that the Jets are in charge of this street and will protect it and fight for it."
"I kind of walked a tightrope. But in the end, I think the adjustments that were made to the choreography really were the right things to do for Arthur's vision.With each actress that plays Anita, you want to build around their strengths. The changes in the choreography (which needed the approval of the Robbins estate) were most extensive in the second act ballet. Tony and Maria, the show's doomed lovers, are now featured more prominently. Arthur wanted the ballet to be connected a little bit more to the book and the characters. We also left out the nightmare section of the ballet, which is about a third of the piece. Although it completes the ballet's thought, Arthur felt we could do without it, and everyone agreed. I have since worked on an Australian production of West Side Story and was able to take some of the lessons that I learned and apply them to that production. However, I went back to the original choreography."
YouTube allows for curious comparisons. Here is Debbie Allen leading the "America" number in the 1980 Broadway revival. The choreography for that production was recreated by Lee Becker Theodore (who played Anybodys in the original cast of West Side Story). As you can see, Ms. Allen is a lean, mean, dance machine.
Now, see if you can spot the difference in the number's energy as it was staged by Joey McKneely in the 2009 revival with Karen Olivo as a fleshier Anita. It's slightly slower, the gestures are less exaggerated, and the energy level is much lower. There's no ignoring the fact that, 30 years later, this rendition of "America" is sending quite a bit less electricity out into the theatre.
Still, some of the current production's changes seem totally unnecessary and occasionally counterproductive:
This group of Jets looks so clean that one would imagine they had been brought in from a prep school.
Whereas the Jets dress up for the dance at the gym, they seem out of place wearing vests and ties (instead of T-shirts with rolled up sleeves holding a box of cigarettes) on the street. The costume for Diesel looked like a standard knit Lacoste/Izod shirt. These boys look far too wholesome to be hoodlums.
During the "I Feel Pretty" number, an utterly gratuitous piece of shtick has been added in which Consuela and Maria have a mini-operatic throwdown to see which soprano can hold the highest note for the longest amount of time.
Not only does the abbreviated ballet in Act II diminish its dramatic impact (without the nightmarish aspect of Robbins' original choreography it seems more like a dancing Hallmark card), it's rather strange having the character of Anybodys sing "Somewhere" (this was originally sung by an offstage voice).
Without any doubt, the strongest member of the cast was Ali Ewoldt as Maria. Michelle Aravena's Anita was powerful. As Tony, Kyle Harris was having some obvious vocal problems with his upper register on opening night in San Francisco. Leonard Bernstein's music is still thrilling after 53 years, even if opening night had some rough moments in the orchestra pit.
As an interesting side note, the actor playing Tony in this company (Kyle Harris) also played Tony in the hilarious Web Site Story. If you'd like to see a fascinating adaptation of West Side Story, the following 21-minute clip is of West Bank Story (which received its world premiere at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and, at the 79th Academy Awards, won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film). Enjoy!