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A CurtainUp Review
West Side Story

West Side Story's Lyricist-For Hire by Elyse Sommer

A Boy like that who'd kill your brother
Forget That boy and find another
One of your own kind —
Stick to your own kind!
&mdash Anita (These lyrics to the song "A Boy Like That" are now sung in Spanish.
West Side Story
Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's the Jets vs. the Sharks once again but in a new Latino-enhanced fight that will determine whether West Side Story retains its status as a landmark musical. Author Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins collaborated brilliantly, if also heatedly, on this musical inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. They created a show in 1957 that has stood the test of time and remains as one of the musical theatre's most emotionally embracing musicals. Emotions run both caliente and frio in this close to perfect revival in which Puerto Rican Spanish has been integrated into the spoken text and sung lyrics.

The Spanish element perceptively and significantly distinguishes this revival from the last Broadway revival in 1980 as well as from the numerous other professional, high school and community theater productions put on around the world during the past 42 years. This refreshed staging proves how strongly the basic vision of the collaborators holds up in the face of political, social or demographic changes; perhaps even more so in the inherent universality of the musical's theme— the power of romantic love to defy family and the world (as it mirrors Romeo and Juliet) remains its driving force.

The passing of time may have actually helped West Side Story's relatively dated view of New York's juvenile gang culture. While no admirer of the musical is likely to be overly concerned with this, there has been considerable buzz created by the changes made by Laurents, who at the age of 91 also decided it was time for him to be at the helm of this revival. Whatever 21st century resonances have been impressed or augmented, West Side Story remains a terrific and exciting show.

An expressionistic rather than a realistic toughness has always girded Laurent's conception. This gives almost any respectful staging a lot of leverage, perhaps none more sensible a touch than having the Puerto Rican characters speak in colloquial Spanish. If the bi-lingual approach might seem like a revelation, the interpolation of it sounds totally natural and organic to the libretto. Amazingly when Maria (Josefina Scaglione) sings the lilting waltz "Siento Hermosa" (formerly rendered as "I Feel Pretty") with the support of her girl friends, what was once faintly anachronistic now resonates with a newly vibrant sense of Latina sisterhood.

Much credit is due In the Heights writer Lin-Manuel Miranda for integrating Latino Spanish so expertly into the libretto. Apparently English supertitles (projected translations) were tried in Washington and quickly deemed unnecessary. The only other song in which Spanish has completely replaced English is "A Boy Like That," Anita's passionately sung rebuke to Maria for choosing a native New Yorker over a Puerto Rican. Her rage is more intensely empowered by her cultural identity.

Perhaps even more courageous are the stretches of Spanish dialogue that now work splendidly to further define the Jets in a community that treats them as intruders and second-class citizens. In Laurents' care and firmly committed direction, the tragic underpinnings that gird the plot remain as passionately considered as are the tender and soaring romantic episodes. Laurents and choreographer Joey McKneely (who has reproduced Robbins' original choreography) have fired up the large and terrifically lean, mean and good-looking company into a formidable confederation of Jets and Sharks.

The violent rumbles seem more violent than ever, the pulse-quickening challenge dance at the gym, Tony and Maria's lyrical escape dream ballet and all the other integrated dances embrace the show with both moments of grace and bolts of danger. For all its tinkering, the success of this revival is that it remains in synch with the heartbeat of the original. One can assume that little tinkering has been done with the original choreography although the gang members are perhaps more ferociously and evocatively engaged in the rape scene.

It may be a character stretch from playing Joe Kennedy Jr. in Grey Gardens to Tony in West Side Story, but Matt Cavenaugh makes the transition relatively well with the required good looks and an excellent voice that beautifully fulfills the needs of the octave-spanning "Maria." Twenty-one-year-old Scaglione, a trained opera singer who hails from Argentina, cannot be faulted for being hermosa or singing like an angel. There is, ironically, nothing about her looks that is remotely Latino. Go figure. Perhaps a change of makeup would do the trick. While both Cavenaugh and Scaglione give the impression they are a pair of ill-fated preppies on spring break, they are dramatically and musically gifted enough to draw us into their enveloping passion.

It may not be a stretch for the tall, leggy and sexy Karen Olivo, who originated the role of Vanessa in In the Heights, to give the role of Anita its fiery and feisty due, especially in the exhilaratingly danced "America." Cody Green, as the antagonistic Riff, has the option and uses it to steal the thunder from everyone in every scene in which his "Cool" explodes. George Akram as the vengeful Bernardo, and all the accompanying gang members give an unchallengeable accounting of who they are at this moment in time.

Also excellent are Greg Vinkler as the besieged drug store proprietor, Michael Mastro, as the funnier-than-usual high school principal, Lee Sellars and Steve Bassett, as the biased and racist law enforcers. Additional pleasure is derived from the lush sound of the 28 musicians, under the direction Patrick Vaccarielo, who are not only in the pit but also in two of the front side boxes. James Youman's mostly grey settings may not serve as an invitation to visit the upper West Side, but the various locations from the street to under the highway expressionistically provide a formidable frame for this forever stunning musical.

Other West Side Stories reviewed at Curtainup
West Side Story (Berkshires-MacHaydn, 1997)
West Side Story (Berkshires-Barrington Stage 2007)
West Side Story 50th Anniversary Production(London 2008)

West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents
West Side Story
Book and direction: Arthur Laurents.
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Original Choreography: Jerome Robbins

Choreography by Joey McKneely (based on the original by Jerome Robbins)
CAST The Jets: Curtis Holbrook (Action), Tro Shaw(Anybodys), Kyle Coffman (A-Rab), Ryan Steele (Baby John), Eric Hatch (Big Deal), Joshua Buscher (Diesel), Pamela Otterson (Graziella), Marina Lazzaretto (Hotsie), Nicholas Barasch (Kiddo), Kyle Brenn (Kiddo At Wed & Sat Mat Performances} Amy Ryerson (Mugsy), Cody Green (Riff), Mike Cannon (Snowboy), Matt Cavenaugh (Tony), Lindsay Dunn (Velma), Kaitlin Mesh (Zaza), Sam Rogers (4h)
The Sharks: Yanira Marin (Alicia), Karen Olivo (Anita), Mileyka Mateo (Bebecita ), George Akram (Bernardo), Peter Chursin (Bolo), Joey Haro (Chino), Danielle Polanco (Consuela), Michael Rosen (Federico), Kat Nejat (Fernanda) Isaac Calpito (Inca), Manuel Santos (Indio), Tanairi Sade Vazquez (Lupe), Josefina Scaglione (Maria), Manuel Herrera (Pepe), Jennifer Sanchez (Rosalia), Yurel Echezarretat (Tio)
The Adults: Greg Vinkler (Doc), Michael Mastro (Glad Hand ), Lee Sellars (Krupke), Steve Bassett (Lt Schrank)
Swings: Haley Carlucci, Madeline Cintron, Kristine Covillo, John Arthur Greene Chase Madigan Angelina Mullins, Christian Elan Ortiz, Michaeljon Slinger
Scenic Design: James Youmans
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Musical Direction: Patrick Vaccariello
Music Coordinator: Michael Keller
Keyboard Programmer: Randy Cohen
Orchestra— Patrick Vaccariello Associate Conductor: Maggie Torre Concertmaster: Martin Agee; Violins: Paul Woodiel, Rob Shaw, Victoria Paterson, Fritz Krakowski, Dana lanculovici, Philip Payton; Cellos: Peter Prosser, Vivian Israel, Diane Barere, Jennifer Lang; Bass: Bill Sloat; Reed 1: Lawrence Feldman; Reed 2: Lino Gomez; Reed 3: Dan Willis; Reed 4: Adam Kolker; Reed 5: Gilbert DeJean; Lead Trumpet: John Chudoba; Trumpets: Trevor Neumann, Matt Peterson; Trombone: Tim Albright; Bass Trombone: Jeff Nelson: French Horns: Chris Komer, Theresa MacDonnell; Piano: Maggie Torre; Keyboard: Jim Laev; Drums: Eric Poland; Percussion: Dan McMillan, Pablo Rieppi
From 2/23/09; opening 3/19/09.
Monday to Saturday @8pm, Wednesday and Saturday @2pm; after 3/24: Tuesday @7pm, Wednesday to Saturday @8pm, Wednesday and Saturday @2pm and Sunday @3pm Tickets: $46.50 - $121.50.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
Palace Theatre 1564 Broadway (212) 307-4100
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway (212) 307- 4100
Tickets ($121.50 - $46.50)
Performances: Tuesdays at 7 PM; Wednesday Saturday at 8 PM; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM and Sunday at 3 PM.
Previews began 02/23/09. Opened 03/19/09
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/17/09
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Prologue /Jets and Sharks
  • Jet Song /Riff and the Jets
  • Something's Coming /Tony
  • The Dance at the Gym /Company
  • Maria /Tony
  • Tonight /Tony and Maria
  • America /Anita, Rosalia and Shark Girls
  • Cool /Riff, Jet Boys and Jet Girls
  • One Hand, One Heart /Tony and Maria
  • Tonight Quintet/Company
  • The Rumble
Act Two
  • Siento Hermosa (I Feel Pretty)/Maria, Rosalia, Consuela and Fernanda
  • Somewhere /Kiddo, Tony, Maria and Company
  • Gee, Officer Krupke /Action and the Jets
  • Un Hombre Asi (A Boy Like That I Have a Love / Anita and Maria
  • Taunting /Anita and the Jets
  • Finale/ Company

Being hired as Leonard Bernstein's co-lyricist of West Side Story was Stephen Sondheim's big break. It was a marriage of sorts since it involved several years of close collaboration.

While Bernstein and Sondheim had a lot of fun during this time, bonded as they were by their mutual passion for word games, it wasn't a match made in heaven. Bernstein's ego and busy schedule caused some bumps; more important were their differences about Bernstein's way with lyrics.

As Meryl Secrest described it in her excellent Stephen Sondheim, a Life (she actually met Sondheim while working on an equally fine bio of Bernstein), the initial stylistic differences were prompted by the lyrics Bernstein had already written which tended to be "very purple." Sondheim, being the junior partner, had to go easy and with great tact to make changes. He wasn't any more happy with some of his own lyrics. He particularly disdained "One Hand, One Heart" which he told Secrest had everyone burst out laughing during the out-of-town tryouts—everyone, that is, except Bernstein who listened, and wept to the end each time.

Another song Sondheim described to Secrest as embarrassingly full of mistakes was "I Feel Pretty." He simplified it on the advice of Sheldon Harnick who thought that an uneducated Puerto Rican girl singing "It's alarming how charming I feel" might "not be unwelcome in Noel Coward's living room." However, the rewrite was ignored and the song remained in the show unchanged —until now when, as s part of the linguistic update, it's become "Siento Hermos"

The dissatisfaction with his work on the show notwithstanding, the young lyricist-for-hire realized, as did everyone else involved, that something very good was happening. Sondheim loved the show's theatricality and though he and Arthur Laurents currently are hardly bosom buddies, he admired Laurent's awareness that the characters didn't call for a lot of dialogue and his willingness to have the already short book "cannibalized." This made Sondheim no longer in a position of illustrating a book with music but, "embarked on the much more difficult process of integrating dialogue with thoughts that could be sung or even danced and mimed." According to Leonard Bernstein, Laurents encouraged him as well as Sondheim to "take it, rake it make it a song." And so they did. The "cannibalization" of the book led to the prologue, which originally featured a lyric, being entirely danced. It also led to the addition of "Something's Coming" for which Sondheim actually wrote some of the music.

The darkness of West Side Story no doubt influenced much of Sondheim's later work but as one anecdote has it, his father upon reading the script with an eye on investing in the show asked his son "Not many laughs, are there?" Sondheim's own financial stake in the show could have been a lot bigger without a few hastily spoken words that came about like this: When the show opened to raves, Bernstein, realizing that Sondheim was upset about not being mentioned, generously made him the solo lyricist but when he offered to also reconfigure the royalties (from 3% and 1% to an even split), Sondheim said "Don't be silly. I don't care about the money." That hasty reply cost him a pretty penny though he hardly needs a bailout to compensate for that 1% of lost revenues. In 1959, he wrote the lyrics for another Laurents hit, Gypsy, and three years later got the first of many composer-lyricist by-lines for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Actually, he did write a complete show, Saturday Night, even before West Side Story, but it didn't have a production until 1997 in London and a year later at Second Stage in New York (a version with additional songs is headed to London's West End).

Now, that Sondheim is a septuagenarian, it seems fitting that the amazingly spry 91-year-old Arthur Laurents has enlisted one of our youngest musical theater talents, In the Heights composer-lyricist, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to translate part of his book and Sondheim's lyrics into Spanish.
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