'West Side Story' retold
By Colin Dabkowski
News Arts Critic
Set in New York in the 1950s, the musical centers on tensions between Puerto Ricans and the white working class that no longer factor in the Big Apple's ethnic potpourri. Its central love affair, based on what ought to be the ageless tale of Romeo and Juliet, has grown creakier over the decades.
And then there's the small matter of the popular 1961 film adaptation, a less-than-polished affair that some critics claim squeezed the life out of the show and imprisoned it in a certain time and antiquated style in the minds of most Americans. All of that conspired to make a relevant 21st century revival increasingly unlikely.
But that didn't stop Arthur Laurents, the director and writer who penned the show's book, from fostering its resurrection in 2009. ...The infamously prickly and fastidious Laurents, who died last month at 93, knew "West Side Story" still had untapped potential. With soaring music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Jerome Robbins at the top of his game and his own potent and economical book, Laurents saw an opportunity to reimagine the legendary collaboration for new generations of theatergoers.
The result, a production that reportedly played up the youth and innocence of its central characters and featured a mix of Spanish and English dialogue and lyrics, was a success. It played at the Palace Theatre on Broadway for 748 performances over nearly two years and is now enjoying a healthy national tour.
Laurents and the show's producers enlisted Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of "In the Heights") to translate some of Sondheim's poetic lyrics into modern street Spanish, a transition intented to make the cultural rift between the Jets and Sharks more stark and realistic. In the reconceived show, "A Boy Like That" became "Un Hombre Asi," and "I Feel Pretty" became "Siento Hermosa."
But shortly into the Broadway run, it became clear that audiences unfamiliar with the show were having trouble following the plot, and many of the lyrics were changed back to English. According to producer Jeffrey Seller, the show is now about 88 percent in English. And by many accounts, the immediacy of Laurents' production survived the linguistic switcheroos.
The touring production, which launched last October, stars Kyle Harris as Tony and Ali Ewoldt as Maria. Like the Broadway production that preceded it, the show features Robbins' choreography meticulously re-created and dialogue shorn of any references that might place it too firmly in the 1950s.
"An equally important part of Arthur's vision was to pull the show out of the 1950s and set it in no specific time period," Seller wrote. "As a result, the timeless universality of the show is felt as powerfully and with as much relevance now as when it was first written."
A pop-culture 'Story'
Since "West Side Story" debuted on Broadway in 1957, it has become a major part of the pop-culture landscape, inserting itself into the repertoires of symphony orchestras, jazz musicians and pop singers alike. Thanks to the popularity of that 1961 movie adaptation, and because of its ubiquitous presence on high school drama club schedules from Boise to Buffalo, it's also made its way into countless television commercials, cartoons, film and even other musicals. Here's a sampling of where "West Side Story" has shown up in popular culture over the past half-century:
•Jerome Robbins' choreography and Leonard Bernstein's music for at least three famous "West Side Story" numbers showed up in a big way in a series of 2000 television commercials for The Gap. Those wildly popular spots solidified the popularity of an advertising style that the clothing company launched in the late '90s and still uses today.
•Collegehumor.com, the popular comedy website, produced a slick and beautifully performed 2009 web spoof on the musical called "Web Site Story." The four-minute video was shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, ever so briefly fusing the worlds of Internet and musical theater dorkdom. One song, "Pandora," was modeled on Tony's famous song, "Maria": "Pandora, I just found a site called Pandora ... Type it in and there's music playing / Watch the ads and it's almost like paying."
•Television shows, from "Laverne and Shirley" to "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "Scrubs" have all made obvious references to the show, as have films like "Anchorman," in which two warring gangs of television news teams fight it out on the streets, a la the Jets and Sharks.
Leonard Bernstein's music for "West Side Story" has tended to inspire less tongue-in-cheek tributes, having been recorded by countless artists across the musical spectrum.
Here are Jeff Simon's favorite "West Side Story" jazz albums:
Dave Brubeck Quartet: "Music from West Side Story"
Oscar Peterson Trio: "West Side Story"
Buddy Rich Big Band: "West Side Story Medley"
Here are pop music critic Jeff Miers' top three songs inspired by "West Side Story."
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: "Incident On 57th Street"
This song is positively dripping with "West Side Story" imagery. An early Springsteen epic deeply indebted to both Sondheim and Bernstein.
Todd Rundgren: "Something's Coming"
Prog-rock Bernstein and Sondheim? Hell yeah!
A brilliant interpolation of Simon & Garfunkel's "America" with themes from "West Side Story."