Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Whirs and Struts

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Whirs and Struts

Article excerpt

West Side Story revival retains its power to startle, but it's not perfect

The librettist's job could be the most thankless in musical theatre: On hand to supply the crucial architecture of story and to spackle the edifice with patches of dialogue, librettists are otherwise forced to stand aside as the structure they've built is filled in with the songs and dances that give the musical theatre its raison d'être. Adding insult to injury, reviews tend to notice the libretto only when it is found wanting, while credit for a show's success usually goes to the choreographer/director, the composer or the star.

If ever a libretto stood in shadow, it was Arthur Laurents's stark gang-war update of Romeo and Juliet for the century-splitting 1957 musical West Side Story. The idea, after all, had originated with Jerome Robbins and arguably reached its true fruition in Leonard Bernstein's vibrant, sense-rattling score - not only its series of deathless songs, with lyrics by a young, crafty Stephen Sondheim, but the sinuous, brawling dance variations with which Robbins dramatized the story's sex and violence.

Laurents is now having a revenge of sorts, and it is indeed a dish served cold. The new West Side Story he's directed on Broadway whirs and struts - and occasionally retains its power to startle. The dances, restaged vigorously by Joey McKneely and executed with style and sweat to spare by a tireless company, are nearly worth the price of admission; they remain the show's enduring treasure, and make us long for a string of dance shows worthy of the town's best hoofers. But unlike last year's Broadway revival of Gypsy, in which Laurents's salutary focus on the book only burnished its glow of perfection, this new West Side Story suffers noticeably from a relentless foregrounding of the show's weakest link. There's a good reason this book stayed in the shadows, after all.

Sondheim's famous discomfort with his sophisticated lyrics for "I Feel Pretty" - a problem addressed if not solved in the new production by Lin-Manuel Miranda's deft Spanish translation - cuts to the heart of West Side Story's story problems. Would Maria, an "uneducated Puerto Rican girl," really sing such tricky internal rhymes in English, Sondheim memorably posited? ("She would not have been out of place in Noël Coward's living room," he has quipped.) Fair enough, but once you pick at that loose thread, the whole cloth starts to unravel: What gritty lower-class teen, Puerto Rican or otherwise, would sing a note or dance a step of West Side Story?

Once Laurents goes there - makes concessions to "realism" by having the Sharks speak and sing partly in Spanish, by making the Jets superficially dirtier and shaggier than before (they don't even wash up for the dance) and by adding an extra jolt or two of violence - we have no choice but to go there with him. …

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