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

While the hit movie soundtrack popularized the Bernstein-Sondheim score, the film, patterned on the stage version, appeared to be weighted sentiment-wise in favor of the white boys. The Jets were featured in number after number, including the comedic showstopper, "Gee, Officer Krupke." The darker-skinned Sharks, with their sinister glowering and chip-on-the-shoulder contempt for their adoptive homeland, don't get a single song of their own in the stage version; the movie, at least, managed to add them to Anita's celebratory production number, "America."

Karen Olivo, who made a splash last spring as a leggy love interest in "In the Heights," was cast as Laurents's Anita. One of many actors of Latino origin in the show, she says she always loved "West Side Story" but also felt a pang about its one-sidedness. "Every time you've seen 'West Side Story,' you've seen it from the perspective of the Jets," she says.

It was the man with whom Laurents spent 52 years, Tom Hatcher, who encouraged him to direct productions of "Gypsy," still running on Broadway, and "West Side Story." And Laurents credits Hatcher, who died in 2006, with providing the inspiration for the tenor of the show that's evolving at the National.

"Tom went to Bogota and saw 'West Side Story' in Spanish," Laurents recalls. "And he came back and he said, 'When you see it when the hometown language is Spanish, then the Sharks are the heroes and the Jets are the villains. Why don't you have the Sharks speak Spanish when they would?' It was his idea."

When Laurents had time to contemplate the project, he came across a script from a production that had been performed in Spanish. To his surprise, the script had notations scribbled in the margins. They had been written by Hatcher.

"It was like a message," Laurents says. He wells up for a moment and can't speak.

At last, he says: "It does something, when you work from love. You give love, and you get it back."

It's apparent that the cast members quickly have become close; also, that their director closely guards his own contribution, doesn't want it playing second fiddle to athleticism and musicality. "From the onset," Cavenaugh says, "he's been very clear that he always wanted the story to come first. So he's been quite bold in his attempts to make sure the story is always front and center, in terms of how we are singing the tunes and dancing the dances, so that there's more of a payoff than just a beautiful melody."

"I think the best thing about the show is the music, which is gorgeous," Laurents says. Sondheim, the other major surviving member of the creative team, was of course consulted about Miranda's lyric translations: "Steve insisted on [retaining] rhymes and inner rhymes," the director says. For his part, Laurents has made some dialogue cuts. "I'm on good terms with the author," he explains.

In the interest of emotional logic, there are changes in musical staging in numbers such as the satirical "Krupke." Considering what the Jets who sing it have just gone through, watching Riff and Bernardo die in the rumble, the parodying of authority figures in the song appeared to Laurents too showbiz, too self-conscious. The staging will now be less fussy, in an effort to heighten the tension among the young men.

"It was stuck in the museum," choreographer Joey McKneely says of the musical. He has the job of faithfully re-creating but also subtly reinterpreting Robbins's dances. "Arthur says, 'We can reexamine everything. I'm the author.' So that was very helpful."

McKneely mentions the mournful procession, with Tony's body borne by boys from both gangs, that traditionally forms the show's final tableau. The moment felt artificial and unconvincing to both Laurents and McKneely: Surely, the remains of a New York City crime victim would not be moved until the authorities completed their investigation.

"I looked at him and said: 'Why do we have to?' " McKneely recalls. "A lot of it is letting go of the past."

To Laurents, there's no point in simply embracing what was. The last time the musical showed up on Broadway, in 1980, it was Robbins's production. "It was not good," Laurents says, "because it was a replica. And you can't replicate it."

Still, despite the effort to pull it from its dusty pedestal, this "West Side Story" will in crucial ways lean on the past. Laurents says he knows to trust what's eternal in the piece. As he observes of the teenage girls who sing exuberantly along with Maria in "Siento Hermosa": "They are the same, in any language."

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