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.
“What we really did stylistically with ‘West Side Story' was take every musical theatre technique as far as it could be taken,” Laurents wrote in his autobiography. “Scene, song and dance were integrated seamlessly; we did it all better than anyone ever had before. We were not the innovators we were called but what we did achieve was more than enough to be proud of.”
Given the yearnings of people discovering love for the first time, productions of “West Side Story” tend to be cast with young actors. And while that's prudent from the standpoint that Tony and Maria should appear youthful, the show's musical and dramatic challenges are enormously demanding for young performers.
“For a lot of the actors in this touring production, it's the first real role they've played professionally,” Saint said. “And while a lot of these kids have been dancing since they were 4-years-old, most haven't spent nearly as much time acting.
“But since they were open and willing to learn, a director could teach them good habits and give them a way in that was honest and truthful. It not just about glitzy song and dance stuff; the story has to have a real truth to it.”
The outspoken Laurents could be difficult to work with and was never shy about expressing his views, much to the chagrin of actors. And while Saint said his agent warned him about working with the highly opinionated Laurents, the two associates developed a mutual respect for each other.
“If you know what you're doing and you have respect for people you work with, they won't be difficult,” Saint said. “I found Arthur to be one of the smartest people in the business I knew. He was incredibly honest. People are often worried about saying what they feel but Arthur never did. It was always about the work. I found his notes and insights incredibly helpful.
“I didn't take bits of wisdom from working with Arthur; I took huge chunks. I still hear him in my head a lot. He told me that honesty is incredibly intimidating because most people aren't completely honest. That kind of persistence with the truth was Arthur's hallmark.”