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'West Side Story' gets a new accent in an update

Posted Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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West Side Story

Tuesday through Sunday at Bass Hall, Fort Worth

7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

$38.50-$99

817-212-4280; www.basshall.com

'West Side' stories

Most seasoned theatergoers know West Side Story well. But if you do not remember the Eisenhower administration, you may not be up to speed on this legendary musical. Here are some of the most basic facts, and a few lesser-known bits of trivia, about this show.

Wait - I've seen this somewhere before

If the plot of West Side Story seems familiar, it should. It is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, moved to some of Manhattan's meaner streets. But instead of warring families, the Montagues and Capulets are the Puerto Rican and Anglo (or, more exactly, first and second generation European immigrant) communities who object to the love affair between the Hispanic Maria and her white beau, Tony.

A hit - but not the biggest hit

West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 to strong reviews and ran for 21 months -- something that was no surprise, given the team who created it. But when it came time to dish out the awards for that opening season, WSS was beat out for Best Musical by another classic show, Meredith Willson's The Music Man, which took the Tony and New York Drama Critics awards in that category. But the lack of top awards had little impact on the popularity of the show. It has enjoyed three Broadway revivals (including the 2009 version that provides the basis for this current touring production), for a total of more than 2,000 performances on the Great White Way.

On the big screen

West Side Story got the full Hollywood treatment in 1961 in a film version starring Natalie Wood. The musical was a hit with movie audiences as well, so far more people know it from its celluloid incarnation than from the stage version. It was the second highest grossing film of 1961 and won 10 of the 11 Oscars for which it was nominated in 1962, including Best Picture. It occupies the 41st spot in the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest Films. The only musicals placed higher are The Wizard of Oz (sixth) and Singin' in the Rain (10th).

Anybody got a compass?

In its earliest incarnation (in 1949), West Side Story was titled East Side Story because the two sides involved were Irish Catholics and Jews. After years of false starts, as the members of the creative team would sporadically cross paths, change the basic plan (a Los Angeles setting for the story was considered at one point) and then get distracted by other projects, it was finally determined that show would pit Puerto Ricans against Anglos in Manhattan.

Sources: IMDB.com and IBDB.com

The original creative team

West Side Story was created by one of the illustrious gathering of artists ever seen in the credits of a Broadway show: Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography) and Leonard Bernstein (music). And this touring production is very directly linked that group, since both its director, David Saint, and choreographer, Joey McKneely, worked with Laurents on the 2009 Broadway revival of the show and had ties to Robbins and Sondheim.

Here is a brief look at one of the greatest quartets ever assembled for a Broadway show.

Arthur Laurents (1917-2011) was writing radio plays when he was approached to provide the book (or story) for West Side Story. He followed this first musical book with one for another Broadway classic: Gypsy, in 1959. His Hollywood credits were as impressive as those for Broadway. He provided the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), plus The Way We Were (1973) and The Turning Point (1977).

Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930): Few composers of the American musical theater are more universally respected than Stephen Sondheim. He is justly famous for complexly composed, cerebral musicals such as Company, Sunday in the Park With George, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. Mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim is often credited with having reinvented the Broadway musical.

Jerome Robbins (1918-1998): Robbins' list of credits as a choreographer and director is staggering. He performed one or both of those roles on West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, The Pajama Game and Fiddler on the Roof. He collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on a number of shows, including the ballet Fancy Free (1944) and the musical On the Town (1944). Interestingly, he shared a Best Director Oscar with Robert Wise for West Side Story, despite being fired from the film because his rigorous approach (and the time it required) was threatening the budget.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): The most widely recognized member of this quartet of musical theater titans, Bernstein is probably much better known for his enormous contributions to classical music in the 20th century, especially in his role as conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1971. He was a larger-than-life figure on and off the podium, and his long list of successes includes a few Broadway musicals.

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The term that keeps coming up is "grittier."

"This is a West Side Story for a new generation," said choreographer Joey McKneely, describing the touring production of that classic musical that moves into Bass Hall for an eight-performance run, beginning Tuesday. "This is not a carbon copy of the original production. This show has a very different look and feel. It is less stereotypically 1950s. It tries to bring more reality to the gangs and has a much grittier feel to it."

Indeed, this new production is edgy enough that Performing Arts Fort Worth, which is presenting the production, felt the need to put the following advisory on the Bass Hall website: " West Side Story is recommended for ages 13+. Please be advised that there is strong language, violence, and some sensitive subject matter that is true to the story and plot. Parental Guidance is suggested."

This touring production was born out of the 2009 Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book (or story) for the original production. The new production enjoyed more Broadway performances than the 1957 original and the other two revivals.

"Arthur went back and took out some of the references that made it sort of a musical comedy in the 1950s," said David Saint, who directed this touring production. "He felt that the world and theater had changed since then and that people could have it a little less sugarcoated. This love story takes place in a hostile environment of bigotry and violence. The biggest difference is that Arthur wanted it to be a little bit grittier and more hard-hitting."

That 2009 revival, on which Saint served as associate director, also had more Spanish dialogue than the original. But that change has undergone some tweaking.

"It [the Spanish] alienated some of the English-speaking audience because they missed plot points," said McKneely. "But I believe that you do understand the scenes where they speak Spanish. It gives a more authentic feel to the Sharks as a group of Puerto Rican immigrants."

Saint said it took a while to arrive at the right mix of Spanish and English in this production.

"The Spanish was a long process to find the right amount," he said. "We had too much, then too little. And now, hopefully, just the right amount."

But, on the whole, this touring production will reflect that 2009 revival rather than the original.

"It's a little bit tricky because this production is based on the production Arthur did on Broadway," said Saint, who was so closely associated with Laurents that he was named executor of his estate when he died in 2011. "I have some freedom, but I also want to stay true to Arthur's vision. But I feel I knew Arthur well enough that I know what he considered most important."

McKneely was in much the same situation. He re-created the original choreography of Jerome Robbins for this production.

"[The choreography] is still 99 percent Jerome Robbins. There is just a little tweaking," said McKneely, who had worked with late choreographer. "It's about keeping it very emotional and keeping the level of dance as high as possible. I really try to bring the intensity and work ethic he brought to the material."

But rather than feeling hemmed in by Robbins' blueprint, McKneely found his task to be a joy.

"I'm really passing it down directly from the creator. It is so exciting to teach this material to young dancers and young actors, and watch how they blossom in front of my eyes. When I exposed these levels of emotions to the dancers and tell them you can dance to these emotions, I am amazed at how they soak it up and how they are so grateful to be given an opportunity to do such magnificent material. And it does change their lives," said the New Orleans native.

For Saint, the production provides a way to honor the memory of Laurents.

"This is the man who wrote the books to two of what many consider to be the greatest musicals ever written: West Side Story and Gypsy. He is probably the smartest man I ever met," said Saint, who has directed 11 Laurents-penned shows.

And being in possession of Laurents' personal papers has brought some goose-bump-inducing moments, such as the time he opened an old piano bench to find a yellowing piece of paper bearing a song and the notation, "To Arthur, This is a good one Daddy-O. Love, Lenny."

But given the enduring appeal of this musical, legendary maestro Leonard Bernstein might have talking about the entire show.

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