Arthur Laurents Follows a Director's Route Back to 'West Side Story'

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008

NEW YORK -- You can tell he's loving it. In a relaxed, even pussycattish frame of mind, the legendarily exacting Arthur Laurents is taking "West Side Story" -- the landscape-changing musical he helped to birth in 1957 -- for another potentially revolutionary spin.

Eager to put a novel stamp on a show he feels has not always been astutely handled (he abhors, for instance, the "bogus" Oscar-winning 1961 movie version), Laurents is tinkering with his new Broadway-bound production in intriguing ways.

Some of them reflect his role as the musical's book writer: More emphasis is being given simply to telling the story, to conveying the depth of feeling between its star-crossed characters, Tony and Maria, and among all their Jet and Shark compadres.

But the bigger news at the National Theatre in Washington, where the musical begins its out-of-town tryout tomorrow, is what's on the tip of Maria's tongue: She now sings one of the show's signature tunes, "I Feel Pretty," in Spanish. ("Siento Hermosa"!) It is, in fact, a wholly new approach, this bilingual "West Side Story." Other songs and scenes involving the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang stand-ins for the Capulets in this urban updating of "Romeo and Juliet," are being translated for linguistic verisimilitude, too (with English surtitles). No less a talent than Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony-winning star and creator of the exuberant Latino musical "In the Heights," has been recruited to rework song lyrics in Spanish.

"What the show's about hasn't changed. The theater has changed," Laurents says during a break in rehearsals here at a studio in Times Square a few days before the company moved to Washington (where the original "West Side Story" had its initial tryout). The change Laurents means is in theater's inclusiveness and sophistication about the country's cultural diversity, a shift in perspective that has helped him find his rationale for returning to the work.

"You can't have actors with high school Spanish," he explains. Remember the movie, with Natalie Wood playing Maria with an accent so put-on ("Por favor, 'Narrrrrdo!") that she came across as San Juan by way of Palm Springs? Nothing of the sort was going to happen this time. After a long search, Laurents cast a young Argentine unknown, Josefina Scaglione, whose abilities he was smitten with when he was shown a clip of her singing on YouTube.

"I see no point in doing a revival of anything," he says, "unless you have a fresh look at it."

So here he is, immersed not only in the Herculean task of putting a musical on its feet, but also of discovering a new way to make it work. Considering that he is coming off another taxing directorial assignment -- the highly regarded revival of "Gypsy," also with a Laurents libretto, and starring Patti LuPone -- you are allowed to wonder where a 90-year-old gets the stamina. Until, that is, you talk to some of the cast members and determine that for some people, the drive to perfect a vision may impart as many life-extending properties as Lipitor.

"He cuts right through it," Matt Cavenaugh, who plays the revival's Tony, says of Laurents's directorial style and energy. "It sometimes can be tough to hear, but hey, you know, it focuses you and you know exactly what to go for."

Laurents professes to know, too. "I'm going for the emotion," he says, as he details his efforts to draw out of a young cast -- several as young as 17 -- the power of this elemental story. "It's about love and how it's destroyed by the world we live in." Will audiences be blubbering by the curtain call? one wonders. Laurents grins mischievously. "You might," he says. "You might."

The risk, of course, is that you won't. Despite its one-of-a-kind qualities -- the liquid Leonard Bernstein melodies, the crystalline Stephen Sondheim lyrics, the restless Jerome Robbins choreography -- "West Side Story" has had a relatively undistinguished life in revival. (Theater lovers may recall it lost the Tony for best musical in 1958 to "The Music Man.") While making musical theater out of the gritty story of warring groups of thugs, one Puerto Rican, the other Polish and Italian and Irish, has proved timeless for high school drama clubs, the 51-year-old musical has not held up quite as formidably in the three times it's been revived on Broadway, the last in 1980.

That may be in part because of the special impact of the hugely successful film, which cemented for generations of audiences a look and aesthetic that now seem to Laurents dated and synthetic. "I thought the whole thing was terrible," he says. "Day-Glo costumes and fake accents! Boys with dyed hair and color-coded jeans doing jetes down real streets!"


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