Version of 'West Side Story' based on 2009 revival

Posted: March 27, 2012

THE "WEST Side Story" that checks into the Academy of Music on Tuesday is unlike any production of the iconic musical ever seen in this area. It's based on the 2009 revival directed by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the show's book, and the differences will be noted almost immediately by those who have seen previous versions of the set-in-1950s-New York adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet." Instead of the opening ballet-inflected dance to "Prologue," the members of the working-class street gang the Jets simply walk onstage and glare at the audience.

"I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things," Laurents said in an interview distributed by the company producing the show's current tour. "And the truth is, they're all killers - every one of them. I wanted to do a much tougher 'West Side Story.'?" Laurents died last May at 93.

Laurents also changed the finale, during which the body of Tony, the Jet who falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks' gang leader, is carried offstage by members of both gangs. "I never believed that ending for a minute," he insisted. "They all have this great epiphany and everybody's happy? This new ending gives a little hope, but that's it. I also think it's smaller and more personal."

There are other differences as well, but it's likely the most noticeable - and controversial - was Laurents' decision to have the members of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, sometimes speak and sing in Spanish.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived and composed the hit musical "In the Heights," was recruited by Laurents to translate the songs. In the interview, Laurents described the English-to-Spanish strategy as "an experiment."

" 'A Boy Like That' was originally in Spanish and it was very effective - for people who knew the show," said Laurents. "But once you got past that audience, people had no idea what was being sung. So now the song is in both languages, first in English then in Spanish. We did the same thing with 'I Feel Pretty.'?"

Michael Callan, who created the role of Jets' leader Riff in 1957, questioned the wisdom of the bilingual strategy.

"They're doing it that way, and that's not a good thing," the Philly native said during a recent phone chat with the Daily News. "I think if you don't know Spanish. But that was Laurents' vision." n

- Chuck Darrow

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