Josefina Scaglione as Maria and Matt Cavenaugh as Tony. Click here to enlarge. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK – "West Side Story," the great American musical, has been revived on Broadway for the first time in decades and, although I have some reservations about this new production, it certainly has ignited the Great White Way's spring season. The show's enormous popularity is bringing record audiences to the Palace Theater and the box office grosses are hitting over a million a week, right up there with less artful commercial successes like "Wicked."
Seeing this "West Side Story," one finds it hard to believe that when it first premiered in 1957, its creators – composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins and book writer (and the revival's 91-year-old director) Arthur Laurents – never expected it to be a universal success. The creators of this musical masterpiece gave it only a few months on Broadway. They felt sure, before it opened, that the closing could not be far behind. So, they lavished on it all their art and made no concessions to popular favor. This unified creative integrity resulted in a work of unique genius. The fact that the creators weren't on speaking terms with one another by opening night is a testament to the toll theatrical collaboration takes on the artist's ego and temperament.
Jerome Robbins came up with the idea that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet could be set to song and dance. He first titled the show, "East Side Story," and it was about a Catholic girl and a Jewish boy and set over an Easter weekend. Later, when Mr. Laurents joined the team as librettist and read about fractious gang wars on Manhattan's West Side, the title was changed to "West Side Story" and the storys emphasis shifted to the warring gangs of the Puerto Rican Sharks and the American Jets.
As director and choreographer, it was Robbins who felt that words were not enough to tell such a story, nor even words with music. Dance would be the key to his "West Side Story." Robbins proceeded to provide more than just dance interludes for the show; he choreographed the entire production from beginning to end. Everything on the stage, including the terrifying gang rumble that ends Act One, was expressed in rapid movement. In a certain sense, the original "West Side Story" is a great modern ballet set to music which catches acutely and brilliantly the moods and tempos of this tragic story.
Mr. Laurents's book stays close to the fable of Romeo and Juliet, adapting it to the 1950s New York setting. As director of this new incarnation of the show, Mr. Laurents makes the musical into more of a play with music and dance interludes. This is unfortunate. Last year, Mr. Laurents had great success rethinking the 1959 musical "Gypsy" as a play interspersed with musical numbers, but, as brilliant as "Gypsy" is, it is constructed more as a regular 1950s book musical than the dance-centered "West Side Story," and lent itself to such a revision. With "West Side Story," Mr. Laurents's approach tends to dissipate the impact and flow of the show, making it more conventional than the iconoclastic work of art it is.
Joey McKneely, who has been staging the show in Europe for years, recreates Robbinss choreography acceptably. Two set numbers turn out exceedingly well "Cool" and "The Rumble." Mr. Laurentss main, and well-publicized, contribution to this revival is a bilingual one. He has two songs, "I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That," as well as some of the Sharks dialogue, sung in Spanish. Lin-Manuel Miranda, of "In the Heights" fame, translated. Neither effort provides much authentic flavor, though, and neither will confuse non-Spanish-speaking members of the audience.
Where this "West Side Story" really excels is in its music; this production is musically magnificent. A full Broadway orchestra plays Bernstein's plangent score impeccably. The beauty, luster, warmth and meaningful rhythms of Bernstein's greatest popular score are produced in revealing brilliance. In this production, Bernstein's contribution to the total beauty and meaning of the story matches that of Robbins.
Mr. Laurents has cast the new production adequately. "West Side Story" has never been an easy show to cast since it requires triple-threat actors who must act, sing and dance all brilliantly. He lucked out when, on YouTube, he discovered the Argentinean Josefina Scaglione, who is luminescent as Maria, sings beautifully and acts and dances with modest talent. As Tony, her Polish-American love, Matt Cavenaugh is handsome but a bit bland; reminding one of Richard Beymar in the 1961 film version of the show. No one could ever believe he was once a gang leader. Miss Scaglione and Mr. Cavenaugh do achieve some chemistry when they sing two of Bernsteins most beautiful love songs, "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart."
Karen Olivo plays Anita, Maria's confidante, who is in love with Maria's brother Bernardo (George Akram). The role of Anita is a big assignment, since it was originated to perfection by Chita Rivera on stage, and Rita Moreno in the film. Ms. Olivo is an excellent actress and an okay dancer and singer, and she brings intense life to the show's dazzling "America" number.
This is not a perfect "West Side Story" by any means. Its real genius shines through only fitfully for the new generation of theatergoers – brought up on such pop fare as "Wicked," "Hairspray," "Grease" and "Legally Blonde" – who are flocking to see it. This "West Side Story," with its stark, dramatic tale of love and loss, must be a revelation to them: it is their first adult Broadway show.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.