Through violence (and revision), love must survive in 'West Side Story'

Vikram Patel

When you think of "West Side Story," the 1961 movie comes to mind. Jets rapping in their jokey vernacular "cracko-jacko," Shark actors wearing brownface and speaking accented English to each other, and everyone singing, dance-fighting and having a jolly good time. For most, the killing and culture clashes are merely background conversation pieces, not the heart of the story.

But the new version coming to Anchorage Jan. 14 is not your father's "West Side Story" (unless your father is about 5 years old). "West Side Story" is getting real.

Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original 1957 Broadway production (featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), rewrote the script and produced a 2008 revival of his hit musical, which eventually went on tour. Director David Saint recently told Play that Laurents made two significant changes in his rewrite.

First, Laurents made the script "a harder, leaner, more raw-edged version of what you saw in the 1950s. He took out dialogue that was too cutesy," said Saint.

Second, Laurents preferred that both the Jets and Sharks be seen as villains; otherwise, the show would be ironically bigoted. Laurents' since-deceased life partner Tom Hatcher suggested a more bilingual script, and Laurents ran with the idea, converting about 10 percent of the dialogue and lyrics into Spanish. As Laurents told the New York Times in 2009, the infusion of Spanish "gives the Sharks infinitely more weight than they have ever had."

But it did not come without controversy. After Saint opened with the new version of the script in Los Angeles, "a man came up to me after the show and asked me if I was the director," said Saint. "I said 'yes,' and he threw his ginger ale at me. 'How could you do that to this show? We are in America, speak English, goddammit.' It seems he did not understand the message of 'West Side Story.'"

Eventually, Laurents took some of the Spanish back out of the script because audiences were having trouble understanding the story.

Laurents died in 2011 at age 93. But director David Saint has kept his friend's vision alive. Laurents "was generous and made me the director, but I had to honor and recreate his vision. I am very faithful to what Arthur wanted," Saint said. "Arthur was a brilliant man. Not just smart, but socially aware, someone who fought against social injustice at every turn."

After a 22-month run on Broadway, Saint took "West Side Story" on the road, continuing as director. His company has toured throughout the United States and abroad. During this run, many fans have told Saint how "West Side Story" moved them and, at times, changed their lives. "One interracial couple told me that they saw the movie version in the '60s when they were teenagers, and it gave them permission to pursue their love," said Saint. "They are still together."

Saint's primary concern about "West Side Story's" visit to Anchorage this week? The weather.

"With this year's tour, we are spending less time in each location. The cast is nervous about the effect that sudden climate changes can have on their voices and bodies," said Saint. "In Denver and Salt Lake City, the air is so thin that we have oxygen backstage. This is a very physical show. Last week, they were using their stamina in Florida. Now we are heading to Alaska."

One of these cast members is MaryJoanna Grisso. She stars in the show as Maria, whose brother is the leader of the Sharks and who falls in love with Tony, one of the Jets. "This is my dream job. I first saw 'West Side Story' when my mom, a music teacher, showed us the movie in music class in fifth grade," said Grisso. "I fell in love with the character of Maria and learned her songs as performance samples later in school."

Grisso was cast as Maria shortly after graduating from college. Two years later, she's part of a very young cast. "They are all under 25." said Saint. "The show is very physically demanding. They are basically professional athletes."

Despite her busy tour schedule and preparations for 13 upcoming shows in Anchorage, Grisso took time to answer a few more questions for Play:

Play: The director of the 1957 original version of "West Side Story," Jerome Robins, forbade off-set interactions between performers who played Jets and Sharks in order to increase the appearance of genuine dislike between the gangs. Does your production use such tactics?

Grisso: No, we are a big family, and are friendly off-stage. But at rehearsal, we do exhaustive exercises to reinforce that separation. Even as we sit and get notes from our director, we sit separately, as Sharks and Jets. And you pull from those experiences. On stage, you feel that camaraderie. I love my Sharks, you know? I mean, I love the Jets too, but we really get into the mentality of the gang life.

Play: If you actually avoided all the Jets, do you think you would feel like you were actually in a gang?

Grisso: It would be hard to live in that every day. That's the great thing about being an actress. You can live those feelings on stage, but when you are done, you can step back and live your own life.

Play: What's the secret to performing night after night for so long?

Grisso: Water, sleep, rest and never getting sick. And being careful with warming up your voice. Otherwise it's impossible to do your job.

Play: What advice can you give to aspiring performers?

Grisso: If they want it, they can do it. If you spend the time to take voice lessons, practice and get involved in the theater and the arts, then there is a place for you. Never give up. There are times when it's hard and you feel like you won't get a job and that there isn't a part out there for you, but there is.

Play: Why should people come see your show?

Grisso: Because everyone can relate to it. "West Side Story" is about love, and how love has to survive in a world of bigotry, hate and violence. It's about cultures clashing, about people standing up for what's right. Not to mention that it has incredible singing, acting and dancing in it.

By Vikram Patel
Daily News correspondent