A 'West Side Story' With A Different Accent

Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh i i

Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh, in a rehearsal room, play Maria and Tony, West Side Story's answer to Juliet and Romeo. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh

Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh, in a rehearsal room, play Maria and Tony, West Side Story's answer to Juliet and Romeo.

Joan Marcus
Arthur Laurents

Arthur Laurents, the Broadway legend who staged last year's acclaimed revival of Gypsy, directs the bilingual revival. hide caption

itoggle caption

Hear The Original Cast

A cast recording for the new West Side Story revival won't be recorded until well after the Broadway opening. Until then, here are full versions of the three classic songs excerpted in Susan Stamberg's radio story:

Cody Green and Company i i

Cody Green (center) stars as gangleader Riff in Arthur Laurents' new production. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Cody Green and Company

Cody Green (center) stars as gangleader Riff in Arthur Laurents' new production.

Joan Marcus

A week before her first performance, the young star of a new production of West Side Story was still slightly fuzzy on some famous lyrics.

To be fair, she hadn't been warned that NPR would be asking her to sing.

And more important, there's no reason she should know those words.

Because in this much-anticipated Broadway-bound revival, 21-year-old Josefina Scaglione sings Maria's "I Feel Pretty" this way:

Hoy me siento
tan hermosa
tan preciosa que puedo volar
y no hay diosa en el mundo que me va a alcanzar.

That's right: This revival, directed by West Side Story librettist Arthur Laurents himself, is a bilingual one.

'A Really Fresh Approach'

A retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set against a background of gang warfare, pits the Puerto Rican Sharks against white juvenile-delinquent Jets. In the new version, the Jets speak and sing in English, the Sharks in Spanish with English surtitles.

"I don't think there's any point in doing a revival unless you have a really fresh approach," Laurents says.

The gangs still sing and dance their hatreds and frustrations on the raw pavements of New York. But Laurents has re-thought every character he created.

For instance: In 1957, the lively Anita sang her dismissive "I want to live in America" in English. And though she's Puerto Rican, she still does in this new production, bilingual concept or no.

"Anita, who wants to be American, would speak English — she would insist on it," Laurents explains.

Meanwhile, Anita's lover, Bernardo — leader of the Sharks and a proud Puerto Rican — would speak only Spanish.

But "after Bernardo is killed, Anita won't speak English," Laurents says. "She goes back to Spanish."

And it's in Spanish that young Maria, the Juliet character, mourns the death of her brother Bernardo, even as she affirms her love for his non-Puerto Rican killer.

Small Divides, And Large, No Matter The Dialect

Scaglione — the show's lovely Maria — is Argentine. But she and the all-Hispanic Sharks had to work on their Spanish accents nonetheless.

"I speak Spanish," she explains, "but I had to learn to speak it the way a Puerto Rican would speak it. So, for example, I say shhevar" — for the verb llevar, to take something — and Puerto Ricans would say jehvar."

Another change: Laurents has re-framed "Gee, Officer Krupke," a hilarious vaudeville number in the original. In this grittier West Side Story, after two of their friends are killed, the Jets' taunting song sounds darker.

"I don't know how funny it is, and I don't care," Laurents says. "It's another expression of the kids who understand what society thinks of them."

Even though they don't speak Spanish, the Jets understand what the Sharks think of them. Cody Green, who plays Jets leader Riff, says the language barrier adds to the friction.

"If you don't understand what's being said, it gets a rise out of you," Green says. "It creates this tension between the two gangs. ... They don't speak the same language."

With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story had its world premiere at the very same theater where this Broadway-bound revival opens — the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Now, any 51-year-old musical runs the risk of seeming dated in revival. But as Laurents observes, some things never change. Young people still join gangs. Kids still kill each other.

What has changed, Laurents feels, is theater — as it reflects changes in society's values.

"In '57," he says, "those kids were portrayed as loveable little thugs. Not in this version."

A Legend In Action, With Actors A Third His Age

His actors know West Side Story from the movie version. But they realize they're being directed by a theatrical legend.

Laurents was not only part of the team that created West Side Story — he also wrote Gypsy, not to mention the novels that became the films The Way We Were and The Turning Point.

He was in his 70s when most of this cast was born.

But his Maria and Riff say Laurents is great to work with.

"He's so nice," says Scaglione. "Such a nice person."

"He makes you feel so comfortable," Green echoes. "If we knew any more [about the span of his career], it would make us nervous, probably. ... You can look at it on paper, but to understand the grandeur of it is impossible. So we're really lucky."

Laurents feels lucky, too. The nonagenerian is excited by the chance to re-set his venerable creation. Theater has to be exciting, he argues — otherwise, what's the point?

"I'm tired of leaving at the intermission," Laurents says. "You know — make me stay in my seat!

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.