Same West Side, Slightly New Story
By Tony Buchsbaum
I have always identified with West Side Story. I think this is probably because I'm named after its tragic hero. But there's more to it than that. After all, West Side Story is one of those rare indelible musicals. Whether you see it on stage or in a movie theater, whether you listen to the original cast recording or the soundtrack, it's still a brilliant look at New York in the late 1950s and the stark realities of racism, loyalty, and love. And once you experience it, it never leaves you.
Over the years, the musical has seen its share of revamp and revival, but this year brings something new: a new version. The big change? Some of the material created for the Sharks has been translated into Spanish. After all, would Maria really sing "I Feel Pretty"? Nah. She'd more likely sing "Me Siento Hermosa." Would Anita really sing "A Boy Like That"? Not if she could sing "Un Hombre Asi." The new lyrics were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose recent In the Heights found such deserving acclaim. Are they beautiful? Well, I don't know because I don't speak Spanish—but I can tell you they certainly work well within Leonard Bernstein's music.
The West Side Story revival on Broadway now was directed by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book that framed Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. Laurents—now directing this piece for the first time—has staged this version to be as close to Jerome Robbins' original as he can.
And that's where my problem with it lies.
My question is: Why? I mean, let's say I handed the script for Jaws to Martin Scorsese. Would you really expect him to re-create Spielberg's film? I, for one, would be far more interested in seeing Scorsese's Jaws. Some years back, Gus Van Sant re-created Hitchcock's Psycho. He shot it in color and used a new cast, but everything else he did to essentially copy Hitchcock: the angles, the cuts, even Bernard Herrmann's score. In a word: yawn.
More recently, Scorsese remade Cape Fear—but he didn't re-create the original. Every frame of the Cape Fear remake was Scorsese—and that's how it should be. (He did use Herrmann's score, but that was pretty fascinating.)
Now, I haven't seen the new West Side Story, but I've seen the film, which was co-directed by Robbins—so I'm wondering why I need to see Laurents' re-creation? As with Jaws, I'd much rather see Laurents' own version. To say—proudly—that he has re-created the original seems more an exercise in "let's see if we can do it" rather than the more creative "wouldn't it be cool if we did this?" Granted, Laurents' idea to use Spanish lyrics in certain spots was inspired—but gimme more! Arthur Laurents, you're too good to simply re-create! C'mon!
As for the music—which is newly available on CD—it's beautiful. Insightful. Heartbreaking. It's West Side Story, for goodness' sake! Matt Cavenaugh makes Tony his own. Josefina Scaglione brings out Maria's Puerto Rican spice, perhaps for the first time—as does Karen Olivo in her Tony-winning turn as Anita. Each is unforgettable.