August 2, 2009

West Side Story 2009

In 1957, a musical opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City that changed musical theatre forever. Three legends, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and in his Broadway debut a soon-to-be legend, Stephen Sondheim, mixed facets of talent to create the perfect gem that is West Side Story. The operatic quality of the voices, the ballet-type dance sequences (how do they move that way in jeans?), and the raw and horrifying ending are not exactly your father’s Broadway musical.

My parents had the original cast album featuring Carol Lawrence as Maria and Larry Kert as Tony, and the show-stealing Chita Rivera as Anita. My earliest memories recall my parents playing wonderful long-playing albums of that show and others. My parents owned a blond wood cabinet RCA Victor hi-fidelity player “hi-fi” with one speaker, a turntable on the inside, and storage for about 50 albums.

Imagine West Side Story, the Music Man, Brigadoon, Carousel, and My Fair Lady all playing on the Broadway stage at the same time! West Side Story, based loosely on Romeo and Juliet, deals with racism between Italian Americans and Puerto Rican Americans in 1950s New York City. Like the story of the Capulets and the Montagues, the tale of the Sharks and the Jets transcend time.

West Side Story has been revived for Broadway several times, including a 1980 run. Writer Arthur Laurents was reportedly unhappy with this revival, and at age 90, revived the play that opened at the Palace Theater on March 19, 2009.

I saw this revival from a house seat this summer. While standing in the TKTS line to take potluck for Hair, Avenue Q, or South Pacific, my friend suggested I walk across 7th Avenue to the theatre and see what the box office had left. Two half-price house seat tickets!

Arthur Laurents’ idea for this revival kept the original show with a twist. Many songs and much dialogue are in Spanish, giving the production a fresh and authentic look. The 20-something opera-trained soprano who plays the role of Maria, Josefina Scaglione, is amazing in her range and the clarity of her notes. Tenor Matt Cavenaugh, who plays Tony, reminded me of Mandy Patinkin, whose interpretations held notes longer than I expected. However, I was not disappointed in his Something’s Coming or Tonight, as he sang from deep inside and projected pathos.

I could not possibly have seen Chita Rivera as the original Anita as I was a few months old. Karen Olivo, who played the feisty, sexy Anita, is, I believe, more like Rivera than she is like Rita Moreno. Moreno played Anita in the familiar movie version of West Side Story. Olivo builds an emotional bond with her audience – first her joy In America and then empathizing with Maria and Tony even after Anita’s lover Bernando is killed by Tony. Then after an attack by the Jets, her own anger and humanity bubble over and she tells the Jets falsely that Maria is dead. Olivo was rewarded for her performance with a Tony this spring.

Before the movie Bucket List made the phrase popular, I like many others, had a “life list” that I have been expanding since I was in high school. Seeing great new musicals and old ones (in revival) on Broadway is high on my list, so cross off West Side Story. (That marrying Paul McCartney thing did not work out, but I got the better man anyway, in my Darien the Librarian.) Quoth the raven.