This is the West Side Story that Arthur Laurents always wanted to do.
Its contemporary attitude matches the sharp edges of Leonard Bernstein’s music — the jangles, the tension, the screaming strings and horns. Its Jets and Sharks are not the prettied-up punks found on screen and stage in the 1950s and ’60s. They are dangerous, scratching out life and fighting to their death for a grimy slice of New York real estate.
“I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things,” Laurents has often said in talking and writing about the Broadway revival and subsequent national tour. “And the truth is, they’re all killers — every one of them. I wanted to do a much tougher West Side Story.”
Laurents, now 92, a playwright, librettist, stage director and screenwriter since 1945, has that right. He’s painted this masterpiece of American musical theater his way, and has, for the most part, done so to acclaim. Here’s what some along the road to Atlanta have said:
- The Omaha [Neb.] World-Herald: “Laurents … has done a masterful job of staying true to the 1957 version while punching up the realism with more Spanish, tougher gangs, even a less hopeful ending. Laurents was ruthless about removing anything that felt dated or false.”
- The Detroit News: “This mesmerizing show feels newborn fresh in the care of a youthful cast that brings the whole theatrical package — singing, dancing and acting in a seamless blend of skills and storytelling… Perhaps because issues of skin color, religion and language continue to isolate us from each other, much as they did half a century ago when West Side Story first appeared, this joyous and tragic musical has retained a keen edge of relevance.”
- The Oakland Press: “This West Side Story is spectacular. It’s more than a revival; it’s a renewal of everything that made the original production so unforgettable.”
In the published version of his original script, Laurents used the word “nice” to describe one of the Jets, and “slightly whacky” to describe Jets ringleader Riff —hardly adjectives associated with killers.
“I don’t think any of them are nice,” Laurents says now. “What I thought 50 years ago, I certainly don’t think today. If you never change the way you think, if you stand still, you’re dead. A lot of my ideas have changed, and this whole production is radically different from what it was back then. It would have to be.”
One thing hasn’t changed. The character of Anita (played here by Michelle Aravena) is very much a focal point. As the girlfriend of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo, and best friend to lovesick Maria, she witnesses more than any other character the joy and pain the world can offer.
She has some groundbreaking footsteps in which to follow. The great Chita Rivera first played Anita, creating the role on Broadway in 1957. Debbie Allen played the role in a 1980 revival and Karen Olivo, who played Anita in the current Broadway revival (shuttering Jan. 2), won a Tony Award for her work.
Luckily, Aravena knows the show, and her role, well. She played Jets wannabe Anybodys at age 14 in summer stock. She played a Shark girl at La Scala, the famous opera house in Milan, Italy, a decade ago. And she did Anita in 2007 at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
She’s glad to be back in Anita’s skin. “I love when you get to revisit a role later in your life,” the speed-speaking Connecticut native says. “There are so many more things you can bring to it.”
Words like “fiery,” “feisty” and “sassy” come to Aravena’s lips when describing her Anita. “She’s very prideful,” the actor says, “proud of her people and heritage but she doesn’t believe in the gangs, in the fighting, in the separation.”
Laurents’ vision, she says, reflects more accurately what life is like today — much more dangerous than life was in the ‘50s, with young people who have much more anger.
The show also speaks, she says, to the youthful type of theatergoers who favor shows such as Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys.
“We have really, really young audiences, and this is an old musical,” she says. “I think Arthur was incredibly smart when he said that this piece is timeless, because it certainly is.”
West Side Story plays the Fox Theatre from Jan. 25 to 30.
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she’s found a joyous second career as an artistic associate at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre. Visit synchrotheatre.com.