Jun 15, 2021

From the Review Files: Laurents Gets His Revenge on 'West Side Story'

Karen Olivo and cast of the 2009 revival. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Is West Side Story really all that? I've always been much more smitten with the score than with any other aspect of the show (let alone the overrated film, sorry not sorry). Last year I had occasion to review Ivo van Hove's controversial new staging for America magazine, but I still recall the show's previous Broadway revival, a very mixed affair which I reviewed for The Sondheim Review in 2009. I excerpted the review in a previous post; below is the review in its entirety. For the record, the show ran from March 2009 to January 2011.

The librettist’s job may be the most thankless in musical theater: On hand to supply the crucial architecture of story and to spackle the edifice with patches of dialogue, they are otherwise forced to stand aside as the structure they’ve built gets filled in with the songs and dances that give the musical theater its raison d’etre. Adding insult to injury, reviews tend to notice the libretto only when it is found wanting, while credit for a show’s success usually goes to the choreographer/director, the composer, or the star.

If ever a libretto stood in shadow, it was Arthur Laurents’ stark gang-war update of Romeo and Juliet for the century-splitting 1957 musical West Side Story. The idea, after all, had originated with Jerome Robbins, and arguably reached its true fruition in Leonard Bernstein’s vibrant, sense-rattling score—not only its series of deathless songs, with lyrics by a young, crafty Stephen Sondheim, but the sinuous, brawling dance variations with which Robbins definitively dramatized the story’s sex and violence.

Laurents is now having a revenge of sorts, and it is indeed a dish served cold. The new West Side Story he’s directed on Broadway whirs and struts, and occasionally retains its power to startle. The dances, restaged vigorously by Joey McKneely and executed with style and sweat to spare by a tireless company, are nearly worth the price of admission; they remain the show’s enduring treasure, and make us long for a string of dance shows worthy of the town’s best hoofers. But unlike last year’s Broadway revival of Gypsy, in which Laurents’ salutary focus on the book only burnished its glow of perfection, this new West Side Story suffers noticeably from a relentless foregrounding of the show’s weakest link. There’s a good reason this book stayed in the shadows, after all.

Sondheim’s famous discomfort with his sophisticated lyrics for “I Feel Pretty”—a problem addressed if not solved in the new production by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deft Spanish translation—cuts to the heart of West Side Story’s story problems. Would Maria, an “uneducated Puerto Rican girl,” really sing such tricky internal rhymes in English, Sondheim memorably posited? “She would not have been out of place in Noël Coward’s living room,” he quipped. Fair enough, but once you pick at that loose thread, the whole cloth starts to unravel: What gritty lower-class teen, Puerto Rican or otherwise, would sing a note or dance a step of West Side Story?

Once Laurents goes there—makes concessions to “realism” by having the Sharks speak and sing partly in Spanish, by making the Jets superficially dirtier and shaggier than before (they don’t even wash up for the dance), and by adding an extra jolt or two of violence—we have no choice but to go there with him. And that’s when we start to wonder: Why do the Sharks get idiomatic Español while the Jets remain saddled with “frabbajabba” and “spit hits the fan”? Why this slab of Spanish in one scene, and that swathe of English in another? For a form as marvelously artificial as musical theater, it’s death for an audience to start to think this way.

In the world of opera or ballet—forms with which West Side Story has marked affinities, and in which it could stand with some of the greats—we might not mind the thin characterizations, the precipitous emotional leaps, even the half-baked social criticism. By this measure, Laurents’ book is no worse than, say, the libretto of La boheme. But if Laurents really wants us to fix our attention on his script—“trip to the moon,” “loving is enough,” and all—then he can’t blame us for noticing that what may have shocked audiences in 1957 seems quaint now, and that in grafting Shakespeare’s plot to a mid-century urban setting he replaced the Bard’s language with sub-Odetsian hokum and added little in the bargain.

We should be able to get past this, of course, and maybe a visionary director without such a clear axe to grind—Bartlett Sher, while we’re wishing—could have taken us there. Indeed, for whole scenes at a time, we can see past Laurents’ buttonholing to the better production that might be built around Karen Olivo’s long-limbed, tempestuous Anita, or Curtis Holbrook’s volatile skinhead Action, or even Josefina Scaglione’s doll-pretty Maria, though she’s under-directed here and hopelessly dampened by Matt Cavenaugh’s arch, milquetoast Tony. Indeed, much of the dance at the gym and “Cool,” and all of Olivo’s “America,” could be lifted whole into that dream West Side Story.

So might a fair amount of Miranda’s Spanish dialogue and, in particular, his lyrics. Though they stick out somewhat sorely in Laurents’ conception, “Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”) and “Hombre Asi” (“A Boy Like That”) deserve a long life beyond this production. So, most definitely, does West Side Story.