Tuesday, April 3, 2012

An Interview with the Late Arthur Laurents

 An Interview with the Late Arthur Laurents
(1917 - 2011)
Original Book and Director of West Side Story on Broadway

In the opening moments of the revival of West Side Story, before a note is played, before a word is said, before a step is danced, before a finger is snapped, Riff, the leader of the Jets stands center stage and glares out at the audience. The look is sullen, menacing. He’s joined by other members of his gang, who project that same intimidating look. Then Riff snaps his fingers and the Prologue begins. But the effect of the Jets staring down the audience remains unsettling. And that’s precisely what director Arthur Laurents had in mind.

“I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things,” said Laurents, the director of the Broadway revival that the national tour is based on. “And the truth is, they’re all killers – every one of them. I wanted to do a much tougher West Side Story.” 

He’s entitled: he created those characters, together with composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. Laurents wrote the book for the landmark 1957 musical, and over the course of more than a half century, his views about the material have evolved. In the published version of the original script, he used the word “nice” to describe one member of the Jets, and “slightly whacky” to describe Riff – hardly adjectives associated with killers. “I don’t think any of them are nice,” said Laurents. “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.”

Laurents has directed a West Side Story for the twenty-first century. It’s not that the show has been updated; rather, it’s been infused with a contemporary sensibility and the knowledge of what has and has not changed in this country over the past 50-plus years. Maria and Tony still fall in love and are still doomed, unable to escape the warring factions that circumscribe their lives. Maria is the sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang fighting a turf war with the Jets. And Tony, a former Jet who has left the gang but cannot break free of its hold, is propelled into the battle in spite of himself. Bernstein’s gorgeous music still soars; Robbins’ dynamic choreography, reproduced by Joey McKneely, remains invigorating. But Laurents has added more grit to an already gritty show, and heightened the romance. He also has the Puerto Rican characters sometimes sing and speak in Spanish, which not only gives them a bit more authenticity, but reflects the sounds of New York City today.

In fact, the initial impetus for this revival was Laurents’ desire to explore how the dynamics of the piece would shift if the Puerto Rican characters spoke in their native language. He believes that in this country, most audiences view the Jets as the good guys and the Sharks as the bad guys. But when his life partner, the late Tom Hatcher, saw a production of the show in Bogot√°, the reaction was very different. “Tom told me that when Spanish is the hometown language, the Sharks become the heroes and the Jets become the villains,” said Laurents. “That interested me, although I think both gangs are the villains. I said to Tom, ‘What if there was some way to equalize the gangs?’ And Tom said, ‘What if the Sharks spoke and sang in Spanish at those moments when they would in life?’ And that was it. That’s when I became interested in directing the show.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived, composed and wrote the lyrics for In the Heights, was asked to translate some lyrics, and parts of the dialogue were also translated into Spanish. Laurents said that, from the start, the use of Spanish was “an experiment”; when he felt that audiences did not understand what a song was about, he restored at least some of the English lyrics. “‘A Boy Like That’ was originally in Spanish and it was very effective – for people who knew the show,” he said. “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.’”

Laurents said he “directed the musical as though it were a play,” emphasizing the acting as much as the singing and dancing. He cast very young actors, both on Broadway and on tour, which adds an additional level of poignancy: it not only makes Tony and Maria’s situation more heartbreaking, but is a constant reminder to the audience that the simmering hatred, the violence, is being perpetrated by kids, by lost youths on the verge of wasted lives. Every member of the cast, regardless of the size of his or her role, had to create a full-blown character. “On the first day of rehearsals, I told them, ‘I want every one of you to know why you have ended up in a gang,’” he said. “‘Don’t tell me what you’re thinking. Don’t show me what you’re thinking. Just think it, and I will get it.’ And that’s what’s happened.” 

George Akram, who originated the role of Bernardo on Broadway, says that Laurents trusted the actors     to find their way into their parts on their own, but willingly provided as much or as little guidance as each individual needs. “It’s so important to have a director that gives you the freedom to bring something to the table,” says Akram. “I’m really grateful for that. When I had questions – and this was true for everybody – Arthur would explain why the character does what he does. He once gave me a note about the first scene, when Lt. Schrank comes in and yells my name. I’m not paying attention to him, because I’m talking to the Sharks. The way I reacted was very aggressive. Arthur said that in the ’50s, I couldn’t be so aggressive or sarcastic to the police, because they would just grab me and put me in jail.”

While always mindful of the period in which the show was created and originally took place, Laurents added some new details that give the piece more of an immediacy, that underscore the musical’s timelessness. Early on, a policeman brandishes a gun, an action not in the original version. “I was heightening the violence,” said Laurents. “I wanted you to be aware, right from the beginning that this isn’t kidding.” The very topical word “abstinence” is uttered, pointedly and sarcastically. The costumes by David C. Woolard are purposely independent of any particular decade.

“Arthur told us that we’re not pretty boys, like in the movie” says Akram, who has been enthralled by West Side Story since seeing the film as a youngster in his native Venezuela. “He told us that the way the Jets and Sharks look when the movie ends is the way we have to look at the beginning of the show. We have to look tired, we have to look like gang members. And gang members don’t wear gel in their hair, their hair isn’t slicked back. From the start, we are screwed up in our bodies, and that’s something we have to project.”

If something didn’t ring true to Laurents, it was changed or cut, like the “yeah” that usually punctuates the end of the “Jet Song.” The ballet has been tweaked and truncated. He restaged the show’s closing moments, eliminating the processional in which the Jets and Sharks come together to carry off Tony’s body. “I never believed that ending for a minute,” he said. “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.”

The evocative set by James Youmans suggests an airless, claustrophobic neighborhood that engulfs its inhabitants. “I wanted the set to suggest that the characters are trapped,” said Laurents. “These people live in a black-gray world of nothing, but it’s all they have. And my staging of the opening is totally different, because I want it to reflect that. I told the cast, ‘You have nothing but this piece of street, and you’re not going to let anyone take it away from you. You’re fighting over something undesirable.’”  

Laurents’ changes may make the show speak more clearly, more truthfully, to contemporary audiences, but even without them, the material remains evergreen. Falling in love with the “wrong” person has led to bloodshed for centuries, long before Shakespeare wrote about it in Romeo and Juliet, the play that inspired West Side Story. Hatred and prejudice and suspicion of other cultures has always been, and continues to be, one of the main reasons wars are fought – not just gang wars. It’s impossible not to think of the great divide in this country when Lt. Schrank orders the Sharks to leave Doc’s drugstore. He says, “Sure; it’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But it’s a country with laws: and I can find the right. I got the badge, you got the skin. It’s tough all over.” 

“I think people kid themselves how much better things are today,” said Laurents. “It’s better, but not all that much. I’ve received hate letters because of the Spanish in this production. Underneath, the prejudice remains, and I think most people know that. So you hear a couple of these lines in West Side Story, and the show seems more contemporary now than ever before.”

West Side Story will play at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center April 24-29.
Tickets start at $53 and are on sale now at foxcitiespac.com.

 Article provided by West Side Story

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