A bilingual version of West Side Story gives the Sharks their due

By Ed Pilkington in New York

The Guardian (UK) (16 December 2008)


No 'fake accents' this time: Natalie Wood as Maria in the 1961

film version of West Side Story. Photograph: Kobal


After a break of 51 years, West Side Story, the gritty urban remaking of Romeo and Juliet, has returned to the stage where it opened in 1957, though this time it has been reworked to give the Puerto Rican Sharks their due.


The revival had its first preview in Washington DC's National Theatre, the same space where it saw a preliminary run before moving to Broadway in 1957. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, and Leonard Bernstein's score, transformed musical theatre, dragging it from sanitised make-believe onto the harsher reality of the streets.


The idea of reviving the show is hardly new. First came the Oscar-winning 1961 film with Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony, shot in the soon-to-be demolished streets of the Upper West Side where the Lincoln Centre now stands. There were further stage revivals in 1964 and 1980, neither very memorable.


But there is a buzz surrounding the latest effort. It is directed by Arthur Laurents, a 90-year-old veteran of musicals who has the distinction of having been the author of the book of the original West Side Story.


Added excitement comes from the bilingual reworking of the libretto. When Maria sings I Feel Pretty it comes out as: "Hoy me siento/Tan Hermosa/Tan preciosa que puedo volar/Y no hay diosa, en el mundo, que me va a alcanzar."


Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the recent hit musical In The Heights, which focuses on a poor neighbourhood of Manhattan's Washington Heights faced with gentrification, was recruited to rewrite the lyrics. The Sharks sing in Spanish, with English surtitles, while the delinquent Jets sing in English.


Laurents was given the idea of a bi-lingual show after his companion, Tom Hatcher, who died two years ago, saw an all-Spanish staging of the musical in Colombia in which the Sharks – the Capulets of Shakespeare's play – were transformed into heroes, the Jets into villains.


Laurents intends to make the new version darker and more threatening than previous stagings, certainly more so than the film, of which he is disparaging. "I thought the whole thing was terrible. Day-Glo costumes and fake accents!" he told the Washington Post.

To avoid the awkwardness of Natalie Wood's imitation of a Puerto Rican accent, Laurents has cast a young Argentine, Josefina Scaglione, in the role of Maria. He first heard her singing on YouTube.

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