‘West Side Story’ gets makeover

Laurents makes gritty changes to classic

More than a half-century after its Broadway debut, following countless tours, high school and college stagings and international productions, producers are set to do something rather radical with the latest Rialto revival of “West Side Story”: They’re tinkering with it.

That may raise eyebrows among theater purists wary of fiddling with a ubiquitous classic, but at the helm of this new $14 million production is one of the show’s creators, book writer Arthur Laurents.

As the director of the new production, Laurents aims to showcase the darker shades of the tuner, concentrating more fully on the performances.

“The original production wasn’t about acting,” he says. “It was about dancing and singing and style. My basic feeling was that in 1957, the gangs were loveable little things. That wasn’t true. They were vicious little killers.”

Oh, also: Some of it will be in Spanish.

At least initially, the creative risks seem to be paying off. In the first week of previews, which began Feb. 23, the tuner racked up more than $1 million from seven perfs, making it one of only two shows to top a million in a frame mostly dampened by the usual winter decline in tourism. Producers Kevin McCollum and James L. Nederlander peg the advance at $14 million.

The wide appeal of the beloved musical, which officially opens March 19 and features 40 onstage performers and a hefty orchestra of 29, surely factors into those sales. The tuner — with a slew of now-familiar songs by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Laurents — looms large in musical theater history (as does the 1961 pic adaptation), but hasn’t played the Rialto since a 1980 revival.

The new staging stars Matt Cavenaugh (“Grey Gardens”) and Argentine discovery Josefina Scaglione as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria, with “In the Heights” alum Karen Olivo cast as the latter’s confidante, Anita.

Auds on the lookout for familiar “West Side” elements will see Jerome Robbins’ original choreography reproduced.

But sometimes they’ll be hearing the words in an unfamiliar language. The revival’s collaborators are incorporating Spanish-language dialogue and songs for the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang of youths that squares off against the American-born Jets in the New York-set update of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Even though they are braced for some surprised audience members, particularly during the preview period, producers believe that Laurents, coming off of his Tony-winning revival of “Gypsy,” will lend instant credibility to the project.

“He brings a knowledge to it I don’t think anyone else can bring,” Nederlander says.

In its original version, “West Side” is often thought to offer little more than a stereotypical portrayal of the Sharks. The Spanish, suggested by Laurents’ late partner Tom Hatcher after seeing a production of “West Side” in Bogota, helps to remedy that.

“The show is written from the Jets’ point of view,” Laurents says. “But when you hear people speaking and singing in their own native language, they take on more weight.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of “In the Heights” (also produced by McCollum and “West Side” cohort Jeffrey Seller), provides the translations of dialogue and a few songs.

” ‘West Side Story’ is the only show I know better than ‘In the Heights,’ ” Miranda says, adding that a large part of the eight-year development process for “Heights” centered on the question of how much Spanish is too much for Broadway auds.

The writer-performer, who directed a production of “West Side” in high school, believes the new bilingual elements pump up the conflict that’s already there. “The most interesting change is that the chasm between these two gangs is doubly accentuated,” he says.

Producers and creatives also note the fact that language has become an increasingly prevalent concern in the last 50 years, with new media helping to make the world smaller and the Latino population in the U.S. fast on the rise.

“You’re riding the subway cars, and everything’s in Spanish,” Laurents says. “That wasn’t so in 1957.”

During the production’s tryout in D.C. over the holidays and now in Gotham previews, creatives are still experimenting with striking the right balance between the two tongues.

Supertitles were tried, then nixed. A couple of songs were sung entirely in Spanish in Washington, but now in New York, “A Boy Like That” switches between the two languages at an emotionally charged moment.

With sales strong so far, and now that the current staging of “Guys and Dolls” has opened to downbeat reviews, “West Side” has become the revival to watch this season, particularly since those high sales, according to McCollum, aren’t just nice — they’re a necessity.

“We’ve spent top dollar,” he says. “These truly are the numbers we need to do in this environment.”

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