I won’t go on at length about West Side Story because I don’t think I need to. We all know what it is, we all grew up with it in the background (or foreground) of our consciousness, I daresay most of the people reading these words right now know the score by heart, know the credits of its creative team and even know a good deal of the show’s creative history.
So let’s cut right to the chase.
There are two things about this production that are touted as its distinguishing features (they’re touted not only in the press, but by librettist-revival director Arthur Laurents himself in his new book Mainly on Directing, released, of course, to coincide with the opening, and which deserves an essay to itself—which I’ll write soon if I can find the time.
Those two things are: (1) A more realistic, gritty approach to the acting; hotter sexual tension between the leads, more genuinely edgy and volatility between the gangs, more a real sense of genuinely dangerous streets—as opposed to a replication of the original production sensibility, which, half a century later, is too tame, too prettily danced, too “soft” to pass muster with a more knowing, more jaded audience; a sensibility that, indeed, has thwarted every major NY revival since. (2) Really a subset of the first: the introduction of Spanish into the text: entire scenes and songs performed in Spanish to heighten the verisimilitude, and the sense of contrast between the cultural factions.
All anybody asks me is how well those things work. So to get right to it:
For the most part, Mr. Laurents is correct about cultivating and casting for a more veriié acting style. Unlike Des McAnuff’s imposed “realism” on Guys and Dolls, the grit here befits the material’s intent—to be a modern day parable on the consequences of prejudice and clique violence—and in coming from the author…well, as we all know, that’s not always the signifier of a correct choice, but Laurents favors clarity and truth over novelty. In isolated patches, the dialogue, especially the made-up slang, may seem a little precious for the approach (Laurents never flat-out says this in his Directing book, but implies repeatedly, via anecdotes about solving sensibility challenges for new audiences, that with the exception of minor tweaks, he considers these older, classic [my word, not his] works to have fixed texts), but by-and-large the experiment is a successful one. Certainly it resurrects the show and renews its viability as a live theatre event, something I’d thought almost impossible because of the poetic lines and frabba-jabba slangoid. (All the performers, especially the leads, are indeed as good as the most positive “dish” has asserted—Cody Green’s vehement Riff, Karen Olivo’s smokin’ Anita, Josefina Scalione’s sensual Maria, George Akram’s razor-suave Bernardo; even Matt Cavenaugh’s Tony. I say “even” because he seems to have been hit with some criticism for blandness, but I didn’t see that at all. In comparison to the others, his energy is a bit more contained [which I distinguish from restrained], but he also infuses Tony with a streetwise ‘tude I’ve never seen in the character before, and reminds me of a young Michael Nouri, which is all to the good. Across the board, singing and dancing are on par with the acting.)
Did I just say Laurents as author is clued into truth? Because now we come to the use of untranslated, un-super-titled Spanish, in select scenes and at select moments. Where it’s truthful, absolutely truthful, is in the energy it creates, the dramatic tensions it encapsulates and releases. It was absolutely correct for Laurents to experiment with it, because it helped him take West Side Story to a new level.
And once it had done so in rehearsal, he should have—well, “should,” let’s just say I think he would have done well to have—dropped it after it had done its job. It comes off as more a literary conceit (i.e. a self-consciously symbolic stroke) than a new millennium triumph. Even though there’s an attempt to adjust for realism, the universal question—why, when foreign language characters are alone among themselves, are they dramatized in anything other than English?—is constantly begged. Furthermore, you can’t just translate lyrics as you can prose. They have to rhyme and scan, thus the transpositions can perforce only be adapted. If you recognize any Spanish at all, and I do, some, you know (for example) that whatever Maria’s singing up there, it’s not “I feel pretty…for I’m loved by a pretty wonderful boy.” It’s happy and peppy and it’s in the same sandbox. But it’s not the same lyric. So I sit there thinking, I wonder what she is singing, exactly? And thoughts like that are, of course, death, because they yank you right out of the story, and make you conscious of a director and actors at work.
Happily there’s not a preponderance of this. And when West Side is in English it’s probably West Side better than anyone has seen it since the original.
trade-offs go, that’s not so bad, cats…
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