Preview: “West Side Story”

  • Carol Rosegg photo
From the April 12, 2012 edition

In 1957, the word “Spanglish” would have been met with blank stares. Spanish simply wasn’t a language that most Americans came in contact with outside of classrooms.

That year, when Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein premiered “West Side Story” on Broadway, audiences might not have responded as well if Puerto Rican heroine Maria had professed her love for Tony en espanol.

The Upper West Side — the once-gritty setting for the musical based on “Romeo & Juliet” — has long since been gentrified, and we’re so used to hearing songs in a mix of English and Spanish that we barely notice. Actors like Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and, heck, even Will Ferrell perform their craft in both languages. It made sense to Laurents, the playwright, to get with the times for the musical’s 2009 Broadway revival.

“[He] decided that by adding Spanish to some of the Puerto Rican characters, it was a way to make them more authentic, to make the audience relate to them more, to make the characters relate to each other more on stage,” said Michelle Aravena, who plays Maria’s fiery friend Anita in the touring production of the revival. “It gives it another level that ‘West Side Story’ never had before.”

She pointed out that Spanish is sprinkled only here and there, so non-Spanish speakers still will have no trouble following the storyline.

The only other changes from the original production are subtle ones meant to make the scenes more realistic, Aravena said. Now, for instance, the Jets and Sharks gang members are covered in cuts and dirt, as if they’ve been fighting in the streets.

“Arthur wanted to find a way to make this version a little bit darker, a little bit grittier, a little bit more specific,” Aravena explained.

The rest of the production, though, is exactly the way we fell in love with it: Jerome Robbins’ thrilling choreography, Bernstein’s hip yet poignant music and a tale of forbidden love taken straight from Shakespeare.

“West Side Story” has become a classic, but it’s not entirely a good thing that the tale is so timeless.

“Whether we want to admit it or not, we still deal with a huge sense of racism in our society, and the human race all in all fears the unknown, which is what this story is all about,” Aravena said. “Arthur Laurents said it best in rehearsal when [he was asked how to describe the play in one sentence and] he said, ‘Struggle to find love in a world of bigotry and hate.’”