by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
West Side Story
blazed its way onto Broadway in 1957 and the American musical has never been the same. The concept of adapting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a contemporary story of youthful unrest and racial prejudice among gang members came from Jerome Robbins.
Arthur Laurents wrote the book, Leonard Bernstein composed the score and, earning his first Broadway credit, Stephen Sondheim supplied the lyrics. Robbins directed and choreographed the production.
Bernstein’s eclectic score moves nimbly from jazzy riffs, to aching romantic lyricism, and includes brassy comedic numbers and near operatic tragedy. It remains as fresh and vibrant as it sounded on opening night.
Laurents and Sondheim struggled with approximating the language of the street, while not offending the sensibilities of their audience. Their solution was to create a suggestive patois which hinted at profanity. Lines like “Cut the frabbajabba,” and lyrics like “Gee, Officer Krupke, Krup you,” became the stylized slang of the Jets and Sharks.
That stylized reality also inspired the semi-surreal scenic design, as well as Robbins’ iconic choreography. Dance had long been an important, and even dramatic element in serious musicals. But there had never been a show that fused dance and narrative like West Side Story.
And, as Robbins’ choreographed the highly successful film adaptation of West Side Story, his dances became so much a part of the cultural ethos that a bit of his choreography thrown into the self-referential musical Urinetown brought immediate laughs of recognition.
Richard Israel directs a new production of West Side Story, which played the Valley Performing Arts Center and now moves to the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. He and choreographer John Todd are anxious to bring a fresh and more realistic take to the show.
Laurents tried to reinvigorate parts of the show when directing the 2009 Broadway revival. The major change was the addition of some Spanish-language lyric translations by a pre-Hamilton Lin Manuel Miranda.
Israel doesn’t approach the show as an iconoclast determined to eradicate the original. He has a healthy admiration for the work. “As a piece of musical theatre, it’s the best example of what the genre can do,” Israel explains. “It is the perfect integration of text, music, and movement.”
Todd is especially appreciative of what Robbins accomplished with the show. “Jerry’s work, as a director/choreographer has been an incredible inspiration in my own career. His ability to tell a story through movement is what makes his choreography so interesting. The story that Jerry is telling is so timeless and especially important in today’s political climate. The ability to celebrate our differences and to honor an individual’s choices… is the key to creating tolerance and honor in our society.”
The differences in this production can be better understood when briefly compared with the original Broadway staging, the film, and the last Broadway revival.
NOW PLAYING: WEST SIDE STORY, at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, through May 14.