Why does an old musical like West Side Story get revived? Is it because we’re nostalgic to see it again, or because it’s still relevant to our own era? Arthur Laurents, the 91-year-old Broadway legend who wrote the script of West Side Story and is directing a revival, thinks it’s the latter. Or at least he thinks he can make it so by adding some new twists. The revival, due to open on Broadway in March, retains the famous Leonard Bernstein music and the Romeo and Juliet-inspired plot about rival street gangs. But now the characters occasionally give each other the finger, and the Puerto Ricans sometimes speak and sing in Spanish. According to an interview that the show’s choreographer, Joey McKneely, gave to the Washington Times, it’s part of an attempt to “remove the musical comedy aspect” and “give it a bit more edge.” Or, to put it another way, it’s part of an attempt to tell us that the expensive new production will give us something we couldn’t get just by renting the movie.
That meant adding more violence and sexuality, and allowing the gang members to act more like real thugs than they could get away with in 1957. It meant going for more authenticity by having the members of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, communicate in their own language. Lin Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the hit musical In The Heights, was hired to translate some of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish, and Spanish dialogue will be used in several scenes. Laurents has said that he felt the show had too much emphasis on the American gang, the Jets, and that by giving the Sharks their own language, there would be more of an equal balance between the two cultures. One of the actors in the show, Joshua Buscher, told atimetodance.wordpress.com that he thinks the use of Spanish also helps clarify the main conflict of the story: “What it does is make that barrier of the Americans versus the Puerto Ricans even wider.”
West Side Story is hardly the first revival of a classic musical that tried to make its source material more relevant. The Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific was widely hyped for restoring lines that were cut from the original script for being too frank about racism, and generally taking a more adult approach than either the original production or the film. And while some of these rethinkings work, many others just create an awkward tension between the new, edgy elements and the songs and dances that the audience has actually come to see. Pal Joey, the 1940 musical comedy, has been revived with a new book that makes one of the supporting characters openly gay and tries to add in some darker, tougher material from the John O’Hara stories the show is based on. The revival has been widely criticized for trying to graft these edgy elements onto a score and story that were never more than mildly edgy; the attempt to add contemporary “realism” just makes an old musical look like more of a period piece, not less.
West Side Story may wind up having a similar problem. Even as Laurents tries to make it relevant, everything else about it belongs to the world of 1957. So even with all the talk of a new, gritty approach, characters in the preview performances were reportedly still using many of the ’50s euphemisms from Laurents’s original script and Sondheim’s lyrics, like “gloriosky” and “buggin’.” And because of the way the show is written, the American gang still gets most of the big songs and dance numbers, which inherently defeats Laurents’s attempt to make the Sharks as important as the Jets. The only way to make the show totally uncompromising would be to rewrite it from beginning to end—but then it wouldn’t be West Side Story anymore, and no one would come.
So even with the revisions and updating as a selling point, the attraction of this revival will be the things that haven’t been changed: McKneely has re-created Jerome Robbins’s choreography from the original version, and the music is still the same. Although Buscher also told A Time To Dance that “some of our audience can’t speak Spanish, so they get frustrated,” the language issue doesn’t really matter: with a musical, it’s the non-verbal material that endures. Even Stephen Sondheim thinks so. At a gathering in New York last week, Sondheim said he’s relieved that some of his weaker lyrics will no longer be in English, and that “there are other songs I wish were in Spanish.” It could be the best of both worlds: keep the dialogue and lyrics, but make sure fewer people understand them.