Revisiting the West Side

By Charles Kaiser

Originally published on Advocate.com March 20 2009 12:00 AM ET

The most vibrant
musical portrait of 20th-century Manhattan ever written was
magnificently reborn last night on the stage of the Palace
Theatre as
West Side Story

once again took Broadway by storm.

This superb new
production is directed by the tireless 91-year-old Arthur
Laurents, who also wrote the book for this gem from 1957.
Almost everything here is better than it was in the original,
including the new bilingual songs and dialogue, the spectacular
new sets by James Youmans, and even the very slightly tweaked
Leonard Bernstein score, which has always been the glowing
heart of this creation.

A week ago
West Side

was already a huge commercial success, with an advance sale of
$14 million -- the largest ever for a Broadway revival.

Created by four gay
Jewish men -- collaborating with Laurents and
Bernstein on the musical were lyricist Stephen Sondheim and
choreographer Jerome Robbins --
West Side

remains the unsurpassed creation of gay American culture in the
1950s, although its collaborators have always insisted that
their understanding of prejudice was more informed by their
Jewishness than by their sexuality.

WEST SIDE STORY CAST AND ARTHUR LAURENTS X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

It was the suggestion
of Laurents's partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher,
who died in 2006, to make this modern-day
Romeo and Juliet

bilingual, rendering some of the dialogue of the Sharks in
Spanish. A couple of the original songs are also translated,
including "I Feel Pretty" (now "Siento
Hermosa"), with new lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who
wrote last year's Tony Award-winning
In the Heights.

The result is a greater
feeling of verisimilitude and emotional honesty, especially
when Anita and Maria sing a wrenching half-Spanish,
half-English "A Boy Like That"("Un Hombre
Asi").

Another splendid
Laurents innovation is the use of a young boy, redheaded
Nicholas Barasch, to sing the beginning of
"Somewhere" in the beautiful dream sequence in the
second act -- a singing role previously filled by a soprano in
the orchestra pit.

Anita is played with
enormous power by Karen Olivo, another
In the Heights

veteran, and this production's Maria is the most persuasive
newcomer to Manhattan ever, partly because she is portrayed by
Josefina Scaglione, a stunning 21-year-old opera singer who
"hails directly from Argentina," as the Playbill puts
it. Laurents told me he knew he'd found the perfect Maria
as soon as he saw her: "She's just
incredible."

The chemistry between
Scaglione's Maria and Matt Cavenaugh's Tony is the most
convincing it's ever been. As Ben Brantley writes in today's
New York Times,

"for the first time I could imagine what Tony and Maria's
marriage might be like."

KATHLEEN TURENR AND LAUREN BACALL X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

The Palace was packed
on Thursday night with Broadway royalty, including Mike
Nichols, Lauren Bacall, Elaine May, and Carol Lawrence, who
created the role of Maria in the original
West Side

. At a lavish opening-night party afterward at the Chelsea
Piers, Kathleen Turner, who had been in the eighth row of the
theater, told me, "I liked it very much. This book really
stands up."

Cast members competed
with one another in their praise of the nonagenarian who is the
driving force behind the show. "Arthur Laurents is just
full of love," said Cody Green, who gives a splendid
performance as Riff. "When I tried to write my opening
card for him, all I could come up with was, 'I love
you.'"

"He gives us so
much energy and he's so full of life," said Curtis
Holbrook, whose character Action turns the song "Gee,
Officer Krupke" into "a marathon of felonious
mugging," according to the New York
Daily News

. "I feel so blessed to have worked with Arthur,"
said Holbrook.

Laurents has often said
(correctly) that Bernstein's spectacular score is the best
thing about
West Side Story

. But it is the author of the book who has always been its
engine. In his memoir, the actor Alan Helms remembered
proclaiming at a Manhattan party shortly after the original
production opened that Stephen Sondheim obviously deserved most
of the credit for this Broadway musical.

"A man tapped me
on the shoulder and said, 'You're wrong,'"
Helms remembered. "'The man who deserves most credit
is Arthur Laurents.'"

"How would you
know?" Helms asked the stranger.

"I'm Steve
Sondheim," the man replied.