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Revisiting the
West Side

Revisiting the
West Side


West Side Story is magnificently reborn on Broadway and Charles Kaiser attends, rubbing elbows with theater royalty including writer-director Arthur Laurents, Kathleen Turner, and Lauren Bacall.

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.

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."

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.

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Charles Kaiser