Same as it Never Was: A Re-Vamped WEST SIDE STORY Hits Broadway

Same as it Never Was: A Re-Vamped WEST SIDE STORY Hits Broadway

More than fifty years ago, four musical theater giants – composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins and playwright Arthur Laurents – joined forces to create West Side Story, an unforgettable Broadway snapshot of a very particular time and place. The time and place in question? New York City in the 1950s.

When Mr. Laurents, at age 91, set out to direct the current Broadway revival of this legendary love story, he found the social and physical landscape of New York dramatically altered. The Upper West Side lot-and-tenement battleground through which the Jets and the Sharks once stalked is long since razed, replaced by high-rise luxury apartment buildings and, yes, Lincoln Center. Manhattan’s Puerto Rican population, then an alienated minority of fewer than 100,000 people, has burgeoned into a thriving community of more than 780,000, and Latino New Yorkers, once marginalized from the mainstream, now have access to Spanish-speaking television and radio stations and bilingual public schools. Clearly, a modern production of West Side Story faced a steep challenge – how to ensure that the play would feel relevant to a 2009 audience without compromising the story and spirit that have moved generations of theatergoers.

The New Broadway production of West Side Story.

One innovation introduced in West Side Story that opens tomorrow is the decision to have the Puerto Rican characters – including the Shark gang members as well as star-crossed lover Maria (here played by Argentinean ingénue Josefina Scaglione) and her confidant Anita (Karen Olivo) – speak much of their dialogue – and sing some of their famous songs - in Spanish. To accomplish this feat, producers enlisted the help of In The Heights writer Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate some of Mr. Sondheim’s iconic lyrics. Sondheim himself raised no objections, and theatergoers attending performances today shouldn’t be surprised when “I Feel Pretty” is transformed into “Siento Hermosa.”

Mr. Laurents also sensed that time had softened the rough edges of both the Puerto Rican and Caucasian gangs depicted in the musical – while 1950s drama critics like Brooks Atkinson had found them savage, repellent and genuinely frightening, these figures sometimes seem quaint and comic in later productions. Care has been taken in the revival to ensure that the essential brutality of these characters’ lives and conduct is unmistakable.

But despite the updates and revisions, the re-thinking and the translation, the essential story of West Side Story never changes – it remains the tragic love story of Tony and Maria, and their hopeful quest for peace and compassion.

For more information about the current Broadway Production of West Side Story, you can visit the production's official website.

For more information or to license, visit West Side Story on MTIShows.

To “click” with other West Side Story fans, visit MTI ShowSpace.