Musical takes new direction while staying true to roots
by Kerry Lengel
The Arizona Republic
"The Book of Mormon" isn't the only big Broadway musical with a "South Park" sensibility. In fact, the scandalous cartoon's influence shows up where you'd least expect it: in a 50-year-old classic, "West Side Story."
The number in question is "Gee, Officer Krupke," in which the street toughs from the Jets, buzzing with adrenaline after the death of gang leader Riff, ridicule the psychologists, sociologists and law-and-order types out to solve America's juvenile-delinquency problem.
It was a scene that the late Arthur Laurents -- who wrote the book to the musical as part of a dream team with composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins -- struggled with when he directed the 2009 Broadway revival.
David Saint, a longtime friend and collaborator of Laurents who took over as director for the national tour, which visits ASU Gammage this week, explains:
"He was trying to accomplish something on Broadway, and it never quite got there. He said to me, 'I just can't seem to get (the actors) to understand how vaudeville can be used to mask their fear and anger over what's just happened, so that it's got a dark humor to it that's almost sick.'"
Rehearsing a touring cast that included several performers still in their teen years, it occurred to Saint that vaudeville was too archaic a point of reference, but "South Park" was just about right.
"It's almost shocking the irreverence that comes out, but it's masking much darker stuff underneath," he says. "And the minute I said 'South Park,' all of their eyes lit up. So someone starts puking over the body like a character on 'South Park,' they all just went to town with creativity, and the entire rest of the company died laughing.
"Arthur came to see it, and he heard the crew and the designers and everybody laughing hysterically. He said, 'I don't really get that, but obviously it's communicating.' ... The very first (public performance) in Detroit, the audience started screaming at that number, and Arthur just turned to me and said, 'Keep it.'"
The gang's cartoon antics during "Krupke" are just one of the ways Laurents and Saint have updated "West Side Story." Most notably, and controversially, whole swaths of dialogue and lyrics have been translated into Spanish. It's all part of a concerted effort to kick the dust off of an all-time classic, but at the same time to stay true to the roots of a legendary work that reinvented musical theater.
Laurents, who died this May of complications of pneumonia, was 91 when he directed his "West Side" revival, but he was as vital in the rehearsal hall as he had ever been, Saint says.
"He thought he could approach 'West Side Story' and eliminate any of the stuff in it that had been what he called musical-comedy '50s cutes," he says. "It's very subtle, but a lot of things were pruned all through the script, sentences here, sentences there -- 'Ooo-belee-oo, and you can punctuate it with an oo' and phrases like that that he felt made it coy, and somehow distanced it and made it a period piece."
Half a century before, Laurents had clashed with Robbins, the director as well as choreographer, arguing that their musical adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" should be grittier, truer to the reality of Manhattan's mean streets. Laurents also thought the Sharks, rival gang to the Jets, should be more authentically Puerto Rican, and so for his version he enlisted Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway hit "In the Heights," to translate Sondheim's lyrics for "I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That" into Spanish.
The changes got a mixed response from critics and audiences alike, and Laurents ended up switching some of the lyrics back to English months into the revival's two-year run on Broadway. But it wasn't a retreat. "A Boy Like That" was a key song in developing the ethnic conflict, he told the New York Times, and "for people who don't understand Spanish, the impact was diluted."
For Laurents, the revival wasn't about making changes for change's sake, but about making a fresh start with the story. And that's what Saint did when he began rehearsing a new cast for the tour.
"The great thing for us was we had a full rehearsal process," says Ali Ewoldt, who plays leading lady Maria on the road. "We started from the beginning and really got to create our own characters, and David Saint made it very clear that there was no pressure to try to fit into a mold that someone else had created, and really to put our own spin on the characters and develop our own chemistry."
While Laurents had handed off directing duties, he continued working with the new cast.
"If you had any questions about what the script means or what you think this moment should be, the man himself who wrote the damn thing is sitting right in front of you," says Kyle Harris, the University of Arizona-trained actor who plays Tony -- the Romeo to Maria's Juliet -- on the road.
There was the ladder scene, for example, where Tony tells Riff that he's leaving the Jets, just before singing his big solo, "Something's Coming."
"You look at it as face value, like, 'OK, Tony wants something else in his life,'" Harris says. "But what Arthur really intended is that Tony is breaking up with Riff. He's like, 'Whether they're lovers, whether they're best friends, he's telling him, "I do not want to be a part of this life anymore. I need to move on."' So it just gave a lot more weight to the scene, a lot more than just brushing it off the shoulder, let me sing my song."
Laurents' best advice for Ewoldt, she says, was to tell her that, despite her lack of experience, Maria is actually "the smartest person in the room," a young woman of passion and conviction and not just an innocent ingenue. She said it freed her to find new depths to the character.
"He was amazing," she says. "He was so sharp and so smart, and very, very honest. He would say himself that he had a reputation for not being polite and for speaking his mind.
"Thankfully for us he was very pleased with the work that we were doing."
It is easy to forget, after 50 years of community-theater and high-school productions, how revolutionary "West Side Story" was when it premiered Sept. 26, 1957.
"It starts with the fact that there was no overture, which was a standard feature of every Broadway musical. It just began with this scene on a playground of these punky kids snapping their fingers and dancing around their turf," says Misha Berson, theater critic for the Seattle Times and author of "Something's Coming, Something Good: 'West Side Story' and the American Imagination," published in June (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, $19.99 paperback).
"It was gritty and urban. Musicals at that time were mostly boy-meets-girl, very positive, upbeat musicals, and in 'West Side Story,' the three very attractive leading men die. So this was not standard fare, and some people who saw it were not happy with it. Stephen Sondheim said there were walkouts at every performance."
Two other instant classics of the era were "The Music Man," which was named best musical at that season's Tony Awards, and "My Fair Lady," the previous winner. Both were much more traditional, and both were much bigger hits than "West Side," which ran nearly two years and racked up 732 performances -- a more-than-respectable total, but about a quarter that of "My Fair Lady."
Yet the very fact that "West Side Story" challenged convention made it exciting. It told much of the story not through songs and dialogue, but through dance, marking the rise of the choreographer-director. And, Berson says, it was the first "youth musical."
"'West Side Story' was different in that it took the serious concerns of young people, like bigotry, very seriously, and it really probed them," she says. "It was really about teenagers; it focused entirely on them. And then you move on and you get 'Hair,' you get 'Rent,' you get 'Spring Awakening.' All of these shows are possible to some degree because of 'West Side Story' paving the way."
The dream team
The idea to reimagine Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as a conflict between New York gangs came from Robbins, a choreographer on the rise in both ballet and musical theater. He proposed it in 1949 to Bernstein, the energetic young symphony conductor who had worked with him on the musical "On the Town." Bernstein in turn recruited Laurents, who had recently put himself on the Broadway map with a war drama called "Home of the Brave."
They worked on the project off and on, but it wasn't until Bernstein and Laurents found themselves in Los Angeles, working on separate projects, that "West Side Story" started to take shape. The original versions of the Jets and Sharks were to be gangs of immigrant Jews and Italians, a conflict from a previous generation that had already been well-explored.
But a newspaper article about Chicano gangs in LA sparked the idea of tapping into the "Great Migration" of Puerto Ricans to New York City. Thus were born the Polish-American Tony and the Puerto Rican Maria, a Romeo and Juliet for the 20th century.
Bernstein decided he needed some help with the lyrics and took a chance on Sondheim, a promising but unproven songwriter more than 10 years younger than the rest of the team.
"From all their accounts, it was an extremely dynamic and robust partnership," Berson says. "They really clicked. Yes, they were all on their own geniuses, they were all men who were not ego-deficient, but their different talents meshed with the fact that they were in some ways very much alike.
"The three older collaborators were the same age exactly. All four of the men were Jews of Eastern-European stock and New Yorkers at the time, and they had a shared sensibility. They all wanted to bring something quite different to Broadway, something that had not happened before."
And they succeeded. Though three of them were already established, acclaim for "West Side Story" propelled all of the collaborators to legendary status. Minus Bernstein, they reteamed for "Gypsy," while Robbins' credits include "Fiddler on the Roof" and Laurents went on to a diverse career as director, playwright ("The Bird Cage") and screenwriter ("The Way We Were ").
"I don't know of another musical where all four of the creative forces, the book, the lyrics, the music and the choreography, all four of those people went on to become huge icons in musical theater," says Saint, artistic director of the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, who directed many of Laurents' later plays and became his close friend and collaborator.
"It became bigger than all of them. Steve Sondheim, this is the show that has been more successful for him over the years, certainly in terms of monetary rewards, than anything he's written. But he didn't write the music, he only wrote the lyrics. (And) Bernstein wanted to be remembered as a great classical composer, but he said, 'I'm very aware that on my tombstone it will say, "The man who wrote 'West Side Story.'"'"
The big screen
Of course, "West Side Story" didn't truly achieve iconic status until the release of the film version, whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated next month. Starring as Maria was Natalie Wood, the former teen idol who came to fame in " Rebel Without a Cause."
Clocking in at 2½ hours, the movie was a smash and went on to win 10 Academy Awards, including best picture. No movie musical has won more Oscars.
"I grew up on the movie, absolutely loving it, and loving Natalie Wood playing Maria," says Ewoldt, whose credits before "West Side" include "Les Misérables" on Broadway.
"It was one of my first introductions to musical theater."
While the Puerto Rican accents were less than authentic and some of the camera effects have become dated, the film stands up remarkably well. With Robbins co-directing (with Robert Wise), it succeeded in capturing the street-savvy dynamism of his choreography and showcasing Bernstein's rich, complex music in a way that most adaptations from Broadway musicals did not.
"They were very smart about how they rolled it out," Berson says. "You had these first-run releases that were almost like theater performances, where you had an intermission, you had this beautiful glossy program that you got in the lobby. And the film was very widely acclaimed."
"Most people know 'West Side Story' from the movie," Saint says. "What's fascinating for me is, even on the road, so many people will come up to me and say, 'Why did you change this, why did you change that?' Well, we didn't. The movie changed it.
"This isn't just a show to them. It's part of their heritage. People literally say, 'No, you don't understand, my whole childhood was shaped by this. When we were young we formed little Jets and Sharks and we sang these songs.'"
How big of a cultural touchstone is "West Side Story"? Saint recalls watching President Barack Obama's State of the Union address earlier this year, when, in a show of civility following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Democrats and Republicans literally crossed the aisle to sit among one another.
"And you have Anderson Cooper on CNN saying, 'I guess it's for the good, but it's a little bit like watching the Jets and the Sharks dance together at the gym.'"
Those kinds of references to "West Side Story" are testament to its staying power, Berson says.
"The show is a not without its flaws, but it is a unique cultural document," she says. "It speaks to its own time, but it also speaks to ours. It's part of the American cultural zeitgeist and has been for 50 years, and probably will be for a very long time."
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or 602-444-4896. Follow him at Facebook.com/LengelOnTheater or on Twitter @KerryLengel, and read his blog at stagedoor.azcentral.com.