Stage & Dance

Latest Broadway incarnation of 'West Side Story' updates 55-year-old musical for the 21st century

David Saint watched West Side Story writer Arthur Laurents try to explain the song Officer Krupke to the cast of the 2009 Broadway revival of the 1950s show.

The Act II number is a bit of comic relief after several major characters in the story of love among rival ethnic gangs in New York have been killed in a fight.

"Up to this point in the story, these gangs had been in fights, but they weren't killing each other like this," Saint says. "Arthur said the way to alleviate or to channel that shock was through vaudeville, because it had to go that big and that almost black comedy. I remember Arthur said that to the Broadway cast and blank faces, just blank faces, because he was talking to 22-, 23-year-olds and actresses who didn't know what vaudeville meant."

Fast forward a few years and Saint was directing the national tour of West Side Story, which comes to the Lexington Opera House this weekend.

It was his turn to address Krupke, "and I said to the kids, 'I think the essence of what I am talking about is when there is so much anger and rage ... and when you can use comedy to vent that, it's like what they do on South Park.' The minute I said South Park, their faces lit up like light bulbs — bing, bing, bing, bing, right across the room."

Now they knew how to approach this vaudevillian number for the 21st century.

It was a lesson Laurents, who died in 2011, and Saint learned numerous times bringing West Side Story, originally produced in 1957, back to the stage. Yes, it's a classic. Yes, it boasts iconic songs and characters and was hermetically sealed in a beloved 1961 film.

But in the 21st century, they found West Side Story was simultaneously dated and ahead of its time.

"People were stunned by it," Saint says of the show, which brought gang violence to Broadway, a place that generally preferred to focus on sweetness and light in the mid-20th century. "But, as with many things which were ahead of their times, it became a huge classic."

West Side Story originally came out in a version that had to soft-pedal the violence and killings and took racial and cultural differences lightly, all the way to casting white American actress Natalie Wood as the Puerto Rican leading character, Maria, in the movie.

As Laurents brought the revival to the stage in 2009, Saint, the literary executor of Laurents' estate, says there was a consciousness that it was coming back in a culture where gang violence has been explicitly explored in all media and that recognized cultural diversity is essential with a show like West Side Story.

"Even talking to the casting directors that had cast productions of West Side Story in the past, it had never been a concern that the people who play the Shark parts speak Spanish," Saint says.

To him, it was essential, so the script was redone with parts spoken in Spanish.

In addition to making the Puerto Rican parts more authentic, Saint says, attention was devoted to making the drama more direct.

Originally, "there were quite a few idioms, jargons, language, scenes that were written into the piece to sort of ease the public's way into this new, powerful drama and make it a little more accessible to their notions of the Broadway musical," Saint says. So for the revival, Laurents "went through with a fine-tooth comb and cut a lot of that for this production because, he said, 'the world has changed and the world of theater has changed.' We're used to seeing a lot. The sky is sort of the limit now as to what can be talked about. So he took out anything he thought compromised his vision of this powerful, hard-hitting story."

For people who have gotten to know West Side Story through the movie, the changes are stark. But Saint says they have been mostly well-received. After getting some surprising brush-back from audience members in Los Angeles, including for the Spanish, the director says he has been gratified to see the production embraced by audiences in places such as Omaha, Neb.

Saint has been interested to note he is updating an ages-old story. West Side Story is based on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which itself was based on previous stories over the centuries.

"This is a story that, unfortunately, has been around for hundreds of years," Saint says. "And I say unfortunately because nothing's changed."

And the changes he has made to the classic show are meant to highlight that.