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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Just a week before her first performance in Washington, D.C., the young star of a new production of "West Side Story" was slightly fuzzy on some famous lyrics.

(Soundbite of song "I Feel Pretty")

Ms. JOSEFINA SCAGLIONE: (Singing) I feel pretty and witty and bright, and I da da da...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: To be fair, there was no warning she'd be asked to sing. And more important, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports there's no reason this singer should know the lyrics.

SUSAN STAMBERG: No reason because in this revival of "West Side Story," 21-year-old Josefina Scaglione does Maria's song this way.

(Soundbite of song "I Feel Pretty")

Ms. SCAGLIONE: (As Maria) Hoy me siento, Tan Hermosa, Tan preciosa que puedo volar. Y no hay diosa en el mundo que me va a alcanzar.

STAMBERG: This revival is bilingual. The romance of "Romeo and Juliet," told 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.

Mr. ARTHUR LAURENTS (Author, "West Side Story"): I don't think there's any point in doing a revival unless you have a really fresh approach.

STAMBERG: Arthur Laurents wrote the book for the original "West Side Story." Now he's directing the revival. The gangs still sing and dance their hatreds and frustrations on the raw pavements of New York. But Laurents has rethought every character he created.

(Soundbite of song "America")

Unidentified Actress: (As Anita) Puerto Rico, You ugly island, Island of tropic diseases.

STAMBERG: In 1957, lively Anita sang in English. This is the original cast album. And though she's Puerto Rican, she still does in this new production.

Mr. LAURENTS: I realized that Anita, who wants to be American, would speak English. She would insist on it.

STAMBERG: But Anita's lover, Bernardo, leader of the Sharks and proud Puerto Rican, would only speak Spanish.

Mr. LAURENTS: But after Bernardo is killed, Anita won't speak English. She goes back to Spanish.

(Soundbite of song "I Have A Love")

Ms. SCAGLIONE: (As Maria) (Spanish sung)

STAMBERG: And in Spanish Maria mourns her brother Bernardo's death as she affirms her love for his non-Puerto Rican killer.

(Soundbite of song, "I Have A Love" from "West Side Story")

Ms. SCAGLIONE: (As Maria) (Spanish sung)

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

Ms. SCAGLIONE: I speak Spanish, but I had to learn to speak it the way a Puerto Rican would speak it. So, for example, I said "shevar" - that is to take something. And Puerto Ricans say "jehvar." Not sh, but j.

(Soundbite of song "Gee, Officer Krupke")

Unidentified Actors: (As The Jets) Gee, Officer Krupke we're very upset, We never had the love that every child ought to get.

STAMBERG: Another change - Arthur Laurents has reframed this song, a hilarious vaudeville number in the original. In this grittier "West Side Story," after two of their friends are killed, the Jets' take on Officer Krupke is darker.

Mr. LAURENTS: Some of them are disgusted by it. But some of them, it's their defiance. And I don't know how funny it is, and I don't care, but it's another expression of the kids who understand what society thinks of them.

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

Mr. CODY GREEN (Actor): If you don't understand what's being said, it sort of gets a rise out of you. It creates this tension between the two gangs because they don't understand each other. They don't speak the same language.

(Soundbite of song "The Rumble")

STAMBERG: 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 revival opens, the National in Washington, D.C. Now a 51-year-old musical runs the risk of being dated. But Arthur Laurents says some things never change. Young people still join gangs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAURENTS: Kids just kill each other.

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

Mr. LAURENTS: In '57, those kids were portrayed as loveable little thugs. Not in this version.

STAMBERG: The actors know "West Side Story" from the movie version. But they realize they are being directed by a theatrical legend. Arthur Laurents was not only part of the team that created "West Side Story," he also wrote "Gypsy" and novels that became the films "The Way We Were" and "The Turning Point." He was in his 70s when most of this cast were born, including his Maria and Riff.

Mr. GREEN: We...

Ms. SCAGLIONE: He's so nice and such a nice person that he makes it like...

Mr. GREEN: Yeah, he's such a wonderful person. He makes you feel so comfortable.

Ms. SCAGLIONE: So comfortable.

Mr. GREEN: And if we knew any more, we would be - it would make us nervous, probably. But because we didn't bear witness to everything he's accomplished, we just, sort of - you can look at it on paper, but to understand the grandeur of it is impossible. So we're really lucky. And...

Ms. SCAGLIONE: We're so lucky.

Mr. GREEN: Yeah.

STAMBERG: Director Arthur Laurents feels lucky, too. At the age of 91, he's excited by the chance to reset his venerable creation. Theater has to be exciting, Arthur Laurents says. Otherwise, what's the point?

Mr. LAURENTS: I'm tired of leaving at the intermission, you know. Make me stay in my seat.

STAMBERG: The revival of "West Side Story" has its first performance at Washington's National Theater tonight and runs through January 17, then Broadway. It's a good bet audiences and director Laurents will remain in their seats, cell phones off for the duration. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of overture from "West Side Story")

MONTAGNE: That was a bit of the orchestra rehearsing for tonight's opening in Washington, D.C. At npr.org you can get a look at some of the cast members. You can also hear a 50th anniversary celebration of "West Side Story." And from NPR West, this is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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