- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

In the 1590s, William Shakespeare gave the world his version of Romeo and Juliet.

In the 1950s, those immortal young lovers torn by interfamily rivalries got a new look when a powerhouse creative team took Shakespeare’s tale and wrought another masterpiece and named it “West Side Story.” Leonard Bernstein composed a soaring score, Stephen Sondheim added rapturous lyrics, choreographer Jerome Robbins created go-for-broke choreography, and playwright Arthur Laurents’ eloquent script gave the famous story a modern thrust.

This team elevated the bitter family rivalry to a major element in the plot in the form of New York City street gangs. This wildly successful musical had its world premiere in Washington; now it is back, more than 50 years later and playing again at the National Theatre through Jan. 17 before it moves to Broadway.

In this new version, the songs and dances are essentially the same, but there is a radical rethinking of what the play is about.

“We’ve tried to remove the musical comedy aspect,” says Joey McKneely, who has been restaging the Robbins dances, “tried to give it a bit more edge.” Remarkably, the power in this version, according to Mr. McKneely, is the work of Mr. Laurents, who is the director, a role initially held by Mr. Robbins.

“Arthur is completely responsible for the tone,” Mr. McKneely says. “It’s amazing; he’s over 90 years old, but he’s been at the reins setting everything with such vitality.

“This was created in 1957. It was the McCarthy era, a time of censors in Hollywood. Now we live in a world where there are no taboos, we openly discuss very intense issues.”

He gives as an example the rape scene, a stark, pivotal moment in the show.

“Before, they gave you the impression of an attack; they didn’t show you a rape. Now we’re pushing that boundary, which makes it more emotionally riveting.”

In this restaging, there is a harrowing new scene at the end where the lovable Maria reacts furiously to the tragedy her life has become. “That is all Arthur’s,” Mr. McKneely says. “That’s a directorial scene.

“Dancers are trained better and younger these days, although most of them are not trained as actors. But Arthur has created this emotional world, and they’re really bringing emotion to the piece that carries over from dance number to scene back and forth.”

It also was Mr. Laurent’s idea to have the Puerto Rican group speak in Spanish, with English translations floating above those scenes. While the work of the original creative team remains intact, Mr. Sondheim’s role as librettist is somewhat diminished. Mr. McKneely acknowledges that “Stephen Sondheim is a living author, and it’s important to him that his stuff gets seen, too.”

I interviewed Mr. Robbins and Mr. Bernstein in 1980, when “West Side Story” was revived here 22 years after its premiere.

At that point, Mr. Robbins described it as a “period piece” capturing the spirit of the ‘50s, while Mr. Bernstein said, “I wish I could say it was a period piece: I wish there were no such things anymore as gangs and street warfare and knifings and rumbles, but, alas, there’s more racial strife, more ethnic division. We’ve had civil rights laws - great achievement for blacks during the ‘60s, but we still have a problem.”

For Mr. Bernstein, who always wanted to write the great American opera and never felt he did, the reaction to his great achievement in “West Side Story” was one of his most important, moving experiences.

“We didn’t know till opening night here in Washington whether we had a complete fiasco or a success,” he recounted. “What happened is history. I’ll never forget [Supreme Court Associate Justice] Felix Frankfurter in his wheelchair, tears streaming down his face, saying, ‘American opera has been born; a great statement has been made.’”

Now another era is finding its world reflected in this iconic work and doing so by looking at the world anew.

Mr. McKneely affirms what this new production is bringing to the discourse: “Arthur has said from the beginning, ‘Everyone has always seen great dancing and great music and great singing from ‘West Side Story.’ What they have not seen, until now, is great acting.’”

WHAT: “West Side Story”

WHEN: Through Jan. 17

WHERE: National Theatre

TICKETS: $51.50 to $96.50

PHONE: 800/442-7400

WEB SITE: Nationaltheatre.org

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