A touring production of the revival of the enduring American musical visits Seattle's Paramount Theatre Jan. 10-15.
“West Side Story” is coming to town. And director David Saint promises that this new touring version of the landmark musical is still set on the grungy streets of 1950s Manhattan, where the “Romeo and Juliet” — like romance of Maria and Tony, and a turf war between feuding Jets and Sharks gangs, unfold to a sublime Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score, and the inspired choreography of Jerome Robbins.
But the big revival of “West Side Story” opening at Paramount Theatre on Tuesday isn’t an exact replica of the musical phenom that debuted on Broadway in 1957.
That’s because Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for this long-running phenom, decided at age 90 to direct “West Side Story” for the first time — and do it his way. (Robbins staged the show initially and codirected the movie version.)
Laurents tapped director Saint, whom he met in Seattle some 15 years ago, to help him realize his own vision of “West Side Story.”
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“I was working as associate artistic director at Seattle Repertory Theatre under Dan Sullivan. I directed eight plays there in eight years,” recalls Saint.
“Arthur was at the Rep working on a new play, ‘My Good Name,’ and one day I bumped into him in a Queen Anne bookstore. We had a seven-hour dinner that night and really hit it off.”
The two later collaborated on many theatrical projects: Saint staged a dozen scripts by Laurents, a touted screenwriter (“The Way We Were”) and director (“La Cage Aux Folles”) as well as playwright. Saint’s been plenty busy running his own company (New Jersey’s George Street Theatre). But when his elder friend and mentor urged him to be his assistant director on the first Broadway revival of “West Side Story” in 30 years, Saint couldn’t refuse.
Laurents wanted this rendition to be a grittier, sexier, darker take on youth angst and bigotry. “The big goal was to make both gangs tough. I thought in the original version the gangs were played like adorable little thugs, and they’re killers,” Laurents told The Hartford Courant.
He also, controversially, wanted the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, to periodically sing and speak in Spanish.
This retooled “West Side Story” was a 2009 box office hit on Broadway. And when Laurents died after a brief illness last May, Saint directed the show’s national tour on his own — and became sole executor of Laurents’ literary estate, a job he calls “overwhelming.”
Over his long, stellar career, Laurents’ caustic wit and brutal candor famously alienated many of his colleagues. But the mild-mannered Saint, a respected and prolific theater artist in his own right, wasn’t intimidated by that “unvarnished” frankness.
“When Arthur first asked me to direct one of his plays, my agent and a lot of other people told me, don’t do it! They said Arthur eats directors for breakfast. But we never had a problem. When asked what he thought, he bluntly told you the truth, and he was very, very smart. I became his closest friend.”
“West Side Story,” an early triumph for Laurents, would also be his swan song. But the ever-popular show lives on — in theaters worldwide, and the popular imagination. “It has such powerful subject matter, which never dates,” Saint says. “It was created and executed by four geniuses at the height of their young powers. There’s never been anything else like it.”
For his revival Laurents took liberties with his own script. Notes Saint, “There were a lot of moments and lines in the show that Arthur considered too cutesy, or too typically musical theater. He felt the world had changed in 50 years, and the theater had changed too.”
Laurents’ most buzzed-about move was to convert some dialogue and song lyrics into Spanish (with lyricist Sondheim’s consent), with help from Lin-Manuel Miranda (the young Latino star and co-creator of the hit musical, “In the Heights”).
“Only 18 percent of the dialogue and lyrics were translated,” reports Saint. “But then we’d sit in the audience and hear moments where the plot was lost if you didn’t know Spanish.”
The team heard grousing from critics and theater patrons. And as the run went on, some of the Spanish was restored to English. “I think we have a good balance now. It’s about 10 percent in Spanish, but not anything essential to your understanding of the story.”
For the tour, Saint “wanted to re-create Arthur’s production but have some freedom, too. For instance, Arthur was never happy with the Jets number, ‘Officer Krupke.’ The song is sardonic black humor, but I wanted to show how the jokes and lines like ‘My mother is a junkie,’ also express the real horror of these kids’ lives.”
Saint told the touring cast the song was “using vaudeville as a way to vent the Jets’ rage, fear and anger. They had no idea what vaudeville was! But when I said ‘South Park,’ their faces lit up. They got it.”
Saint keeps close tabs on the tour, and for a recent Denver run, tweaked two more Spanish lines back to English. He also stays on the lookout for young talent to cast as replacements in the large, starless company.
“Ross Lekites, our current Tony, is terrific, a natural tenor,” advises Saint. “And our Maria, Evy Ortiz, [has] Puerto Rican [heritage], and brings a lot to the role.”
Saint says he loves and misses Seattle, but doubts he can drop in on the weeklong run of “West Side Story” at the Paramount. In addition to producing new shows at George Street, he is managing a play contest endowed by Laurents (in memory of his longtime partner, Tom Hatcher). And he’s fielding film and stage requests for Laurents’ literary properties.
“I probably had five meetings with the people from ‘Glee,’ who used parts of ‘West Side Story’ on their show.” A musical based on the film ‘The Turning Point’ and a Barbra Streisand film of the show “Gypsy” [both based on Laurents works] are also on the table.
Much odder is a proposed animated version of “West Side Story” — “using cats as the characters, like ‘The Lady and the Tramp,’ ” Saint says.
One wonders what the sharp-witted Laurents would have made of that.
Misha Berson: email@example.com