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Whose West Side Story?

February 13, 2013

In 1957, Arthur Laurents created what rightfully can be called theatrical history.

Along with composer Leonard Bernstein, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and a then newly emerging lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, Laurents unleashed West Side Story on the Broadway-going public. The now seminal work, a musical updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the gritty streets of Manhattan’s lower west side, created a seismic shift in the content, style and nature of musical theater. Nothing like it had ever before been seen and nothing would ever quite be the same again.

Several years before his death in 2011, Laurents made some changes to the musical to “update” it. That version, currently playing at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, indicates that seismic shifts don’t happen twice with the same show.

Purported to be a “darker,” more realistic version, the new WSS incorporates Spanish into the dialogue and song lyrics for the play’s Puerto Rican characters. Laurents also has shifted some of the songs around and added what might best be called a balletic dream sequence, taking the beloved number “Somewhere” away from star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria and giving it to the tomboy character Anybodys. (Huh?)

Okay, it is Laurents’ show, after all. But I don’t think he did his characters or his audiences any favors.

The best parts of WSS – the exciting jazz-flavored Latin-infused score, the Robbins-inspired naturalistic choreography, and the colorfully cadenced late ‘50s bebop lingo – are still there and well handled in the hands of the energetic cast. But Bernstein’s outstanding score would have benefitted from a full orchestra rather than the current 12-piece ensemble and the Spanish song lyrics left us trying to remember the English versions.

In the end, fans familiar with the show as a period piece will still find much to like, as well as a few things to confuse them. Those new to the work and especially younger audiences for whom the update was likely aimed won’t benefit as much as the author intended, to put it kindly.

Public and critical response in 2008, when the new version was unveiled, was much the same. This leads us to wonder whose West Side Story this is supposed to be? Not ours, surely, but there was still enough good things to make the music and message of this version resonate all over again. And maybe that’s all that matters.

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