Ballsy—replacing “thee” and “thou” with “deze” and “doze.”
Yet Elizabethan English went Noo Yawk-ese when Romeo and Juliet was reimagined in 1957 as Broadway’s groundbreaking West Side Story—complete with feuding Montagues and Capulets transformed into singing Jets (American gang) and Sharks (Puerto Rican gang), leaping balletically across gritty streets, graffiti-smeared playgrounds and sooty tenement rooftops. And snarling over the romance of Tony/Romeo and Maria/Juliet, mooning over each other on her fire escape/balcony.
More than 50 years after it debuted, a 2009 revival—directed by then-91-year-old Arthur Laurents, the original’s playwright (who died in 2011)—updated the classic that’s now on tour.
Here, tour director David Saint, Laurent’s associate director on Broadway, provides insights and anecdotes on the iconic musical born of a legendary collaboration between Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim:
On the original stage version vs. this revival: “A musical where the first act ends with two of your leads dead and at the last curtain your other lead is dead was unusual, so [Laurents] added more musical comedy stuff to take the edge off because the audience was not used to it at the time. People are used to seeing more serious things onstage [now], so he wanted to remove anything that made it cutesy or musical comedy.”
On critics’ comments that gang members in this revival are less thuggish than the original’s: “[Laurents] wanted to emphasize that they’re not hardened criminals, but kids brought up in a violent world. When Riff and Bernardo are killed at the end of Act I, they’d had fights, but it hadn’t been taken to this level where people are killing each other so it is a shock and they have to grow up very quickly. That’s part of the tragedy.”
On why the Sharks occasionally speak Spanish in the revival: “There’s a lot between Anita and Maria about assimilation. Anita, in the first act, very strongly wants to become assimilated, where she sings, ‘I like to be in America.’ After Bernardo is killed, she starts to think maybe Bernardo was right and they don’t belong here, and it’s peppered more with Spanish. Maria tends to stick more to straight English because of her love for Tony and being part of his world.”
On eventually reducing the Spanish quotient: “When we started in Washington, D.C., before Broadway, anytime the Sharks were alone amongst themselves, they spoke Spanish. But we found there was too much information vital to the plot that if the audience didn’t speak Spanish they would miss. We tried subtitles and that didn’t work so we went back to a mix of what some people would call Spanglish. We were careful to make sure that any information needed to follow the story is in English. It’s just little things now in Spanish.”
On the still-hot-button immigration issue raised by the show: “Latinos come up to me, older women, crying and saying, ‘Thank you for bringing more authenticity to our story.’ One of our first stops was Omaha, Nebraska. I was told that since 2001, the rate of immigration of Latinos into Omaha is the highest in the country, so it’s a much more relevant issue even in Omaha than I would have thought. At the same time, opening night in L.A.—the nexus of all people, with all the Mexicans there—a guy came up to me and said, ‘How dare you, in America—speak English, goddamit!’ I thought, the message of this piece got through to you, didn’t it?”
On Sondheim publicly dissing his lyrics: “He’s happy some of the lyrics of ‘I Feel Pretty’ are in Spanish now. He said, ‘Oh good, at least I won’t have to listen to them in English anymore.’ Steve was in his 20s when he wrote this, it was his first time on Broadway and he hadn’t written the music. Steve’s [later] musicals started to become much more cynical and reflect more of who Steve was. Arthur’s examples were, when you listen to ‘A Boy Like That/I Have A Love,’ you can see Bernstein’s influence was, ‘I have a love’ and Steve’s was, ‘A boy like that could kill your brother.’ They were a very good pairing, but in some other places like ‘Tonight’ where Steve had to be more blatantly romantic and idealistic, that is not what Steve likes to identify with.”
On depicting the gang rape of Anita by the Jets, which was only implied in the original: “It’s much clearer now. When the guys all hoist [Jet member] A-Rab up in the air to put him on top of Anita on the floor, we pulled his pants down, so you saw his naked butt. The producers said it went too far. We still have him undo his pants, but you don’t see any nudity. But it has to be something that traumatic and ugly for Anita to do what she does, which is to cause Tony’s death by telling them that Maria is dead.”
On an offensive aspect of the 1961 movie: “[Rita Moreno, who played Anita] told me she was ashamed. Here she was, a full-blooded Puerto Rican, and they told her she had to put on what they used to call Texas Dirt, which is this grimy, gold body makeup. Rita said it was almost like wearing blackface. By the same token, the Jets in the movie have this absurdly laughable, peroxide blond hair. They looked like Ken dolls, these kids in the streets of New York.”
On the possibility of a film remake: “There have been many production companies that have been dying to do a new version of West Side Story. And one of the things they want to do is try to do a much more realistic version.”
7:30 p.m. Feb. 26-March 1, 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 2-3, The Smith Center, $24-$129, 749-2000, TheSmithCenter.com