Reflections on Latest Version of West Side Story

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David Saint

When Arthur Laurents asked me to be his Associate Director on the newest version of his landmark musical West Side Story, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. After all, I had directed seven premieres of Arthur’s works over the past 14 years. Several of those had been at a theater I run in New Jersey, the George Street Playhouse. Arthur and I had developed an incredibly productive working collaboration during that time.

However, this was West Side Story! This was a musical many have dubbed the greatest musical of all time. In 2002 the American Film Institute had ranked the film version third in the Top 100 Most Romantic Movies of All Time (just behind Casablanca and Gone With the Wind.) And now, more than 50 years since its creation, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, the two remaining living creators of this masterpiece, were about to “revise” it or “revive” it with an eye and ear towards dusting off the period feel and bringing its timeless emotional appeal full throttle to the present.

The plan was to remove much of the coy musical comedy theatre jargon of the ’50s, like girls saying “Oobley ooh” and “Oobley ooh doo” or gang members uttering “say uncle.” This would help to take the gangs more seriously as troubled youths who were a product of this world of bigotry and violence which Arthur had set out to create; ones capable of horrific acts in the tragedy of the story.

Cast of WEST SIDE STORY

At the same time, replacing the “created street jargon” of the original, the ” frabba jabba,” “cracko Jacko” and the notorious “Krup you” with contemporary “F-bombs” would have opened another can of worms, one which ultimately would have grounded any poetry in the tragedy, so those particular phrases were kept.

In addition, because both the world and the world of theater have changed since 1957, it now seemed appropriate at certain moments that the Puerto Rican Sharks should speak among themselves in their native Spanish tongue.

Hence the careful process of refinement began. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the young  award-winning author of In the Heights, was brought in to translate some of Arthur’s dialogue and Steve’s lyrics into the correct Puerto Rican street dialogue, a language which became a combination of their Spanish from home and their newly learned English on the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The lyrics themselves offered another challenge. Most of the lyrics in question occurred during “I Feel Pretty,” “A Boy Like That/ I Have a Love” duet and the Sharks’ part of the “Tonight Quintet.” A number like “America” was kept completely in English because the headstrong character of Anita was determined to be assimilated into the New York culture and therefore would speak and sing in the language of her new residence. (Interestingly, the scene which precedes the song between Anita and her boyfriend Bernardo and their followers would be a mix of the Spanish and English, to directly reflect the Tribalism/Multiculturalism debate of Bernardo and Anita, respectively.)

Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt

But translating Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics into Spanish proved a daunting task. For not only were his lyrics so colorful and specific but the rhyme scheme and scansion had to be honored, sometimes even involving internal rhymes in the middle of a line.

Clearly, to honor the poetry, the Spanish would not be a literal translation but one that represented the spirit of the meaning instead.

When the production began out-of-town previews in Washington DC, another challenge emerged. Should the use of super-titles, as used in the opera world, be employed? And if so, was the literal translation of the new Spanish lyrics to be projected on screen or the English of Sondheim’s lyrics? Neither proved satisfactory, and more important, the distraction of projections for so little of the show (less than 15%) was damaging the effectiveness of the scenes.

Eventually, through trial and error over a period of weeks and months both in Washington and New York, a compromise was reached — one which not only seemed to reflect the natural Spanish/English mix of the Puerto Rican community living in New York but also didn’t alienate the non-Spanish speaking audiences and prevent them from comprehending the story. For example, as Maria becomes more assimilated through her love of Tony and Anita feels betrayed in her trust to the point of admitting that “Bernardo was right,” their allegiances change, so their duet needed to be both in English and in Spanish.

Cast of WEST SIDE STORY

When the process reached its completion in New York, several months after the Broadway opening, only about 10% of the show was in  Spanish. However, I believe it makes a great difference.

Most important, this new version boasts an authentic muscularity to its tone, one which also honors the diverse nature of its story and fortifies the atmosphere of prejudice against which this extraordinary love story can play out.

I am honored to have been a part of this process and am thrilled to be directing this National Touring Production.

Production photos by Joan Marcus.

West Side Story, presented by Broadway LA, continues Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 and 8 pm; Sun., 1 and 6:30 pm; through Dec. 19. From Dec. 21 to Jan. 2: Tues.-Wed., 8 pm; Thur., 2 and 8 pm; Fri., 2 pm; Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 1 and 6:30 pm. Tickets: $25-$90. Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Bl., Hollywood; 800.982.2787 or broadwayla.org.

David Saint

David Saint