When I attended the Broadway revival of “West Side Story” in March 2009, I remember walking up the aisle of the Palace Theatre at intermission. Standing in the back was Arthur Laurents, the legendary director of that revival.
Looking spry as ever at age 92, Laurents had helmed the original production of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim landmark musical 52 years earlier and here he was once again overseeing a major production.
The success of that 2009 revival prompted a national touring production of “West Side Story” that will make its way to the Civic Center Music Hall this week for eight performances. The production brings to a close Celebrity Attractions' 2012-13 season.
Laurents lived two more years after he put the finishing touches on the most recent Broadway revival, long enough to see Karen Olivo take home a Tony Award for her role as Anita and the pleasure of knowing that his final Broadway outing would run for 748 performances.
David Saint, who worked with Laurents for 23 years and also became the executor of his estate, directed this national touring production based on the 2009 Broadway revival. One of Laurents' innovations for that production was having the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Ricans, speak and/or sing part of their scenes in Spanish.
“I think it was a great idea but it took a lot of finessing to get the right balance,” Saint said recently. “Our rule of thumb was that if there was any plot point spoken in Spanish that a non-Spanish speaking audience would miss, we took it out.
“I think it gave the piece more relevance since you often hear a mix of Spanish and English in today's society. We had Latino parents come up to us in New York and thank us for adding Spanish to the production. They appreciated that sense of authenticity so much.”
Loosely based on Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” transformed the Montagues and Capulets into the Jets and Sharks, rival New York City gangs. Star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet were recast as Tony and Maria.
The 1957 original was groundbreaking in its blending of narrative, music and choreography. Directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, “West Side Story” used dance not only to create mood, but also to illustrate the gangs' escalating tensions.
Bernstein's score was equally innovative and far reaching. The music carefully underscored the story's drama, from the poignant mock-wedding ceremony at the dress shop to the soaring “Maria” in which Tony proclaims his infatuation with Maria.