West Side Story Brings New Flavor On The Road

It started with a Colombian production of a Broadway classic. West Side Story, a beloved musical of both stage and screen, being sung entirely in Spanish. For the location, it was an obvious choice, but for New York City, not as much.

Enter the partner of West Side Story’s original book writer, Arthur Laurents. After seeing the international adaptation, he asked, “Why not have the Sharks speak Spanish where they would?” That question ultimately led to a major revival of the musical on Broadway, featuring a handful of lyrics sung in Spanish. “I don’t believe in reviving anything unless you have a fresh approach,” Laurents said at the time of the recent revival.

It was most likely the first time American audiences had a chance to hear Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in a foreign language. In fact, the last time theatergoers had a chance to even see the musical on Broadway was in 1980, leaving an entire generation with Hollywood’s musical adaptation as one of the only windows into the world of the Jets and the Sharks.

That film version enamored Hollywood enough to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and translated the original stage production’s choreography by Jerome Robbins into “one of the best uses of dance in movie history,” according to critic Roger Ebert.

Rita Moreno, who turned down an opportunity to audition for the original Broadway production – she blames that mistake on “cold feet” – became the fiery Anita on the big screen, and puts much of the musical’s success on the notoriously strict choreographer. “I will be eternally grateful that I had Jerome Robins in my life,” she said to the Chicago Tribune. “He just made you do things you didn’t know were possible.”

Robbins’ moves have been faithfully re-created for the current tour by Joey McKneely, while Anita gets a new take by actress Michelle Aravena. Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt portray troubled lovers, Tony and Maria.

What audiences are now getting on stage as West Side Story travels across the country is a slightly grittier interpretation of the original musical, selectively used Spanish lyrics, Latino actors, and subtle tweaks to previously comical moments that have been made in order to stop the Jets from looking like “benign, lovable misfits,” as Laurents feared today’s audiences would perceive them.

Chicago audiences will have a chance to see just how much has changed in the latest production of West Side Story when the National Tour plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre from July 19 through August 14, having already made its way down the west coast.

I originally wrote this article for BroadwayDirect.com.