Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It ain't just a question of misunderstood

I know I never got around to elaborating on my review of the new Broadway revival of West Side Story earlier this year. In fact, it seems I didn't even link to it when I reviewed it for Commonweal, probably because it was available only to subscribers. By now I'm sure you've subscribed, in which case you can read the whole thing (I paired it with In the Heights, since -- as I noted back when I reviewed the latter on Restricted View -- there are many points of comparison). But if your Commonweal subscription hasn't kicked in yet, here's a paragraph I wrote about West Side Story that will give you the gist:
The current revival of West Side Story at the Palace Theatre was preceded by intriguing buzz: this version promised to revitalize the show by putting the Puerto Rican characters -- the Sharks -- on equal footing with the “American” Jets. In the Heights’s Miranda was recruited to translate some dialogue and lyrics into Spanish, and the Sharks would be played by Latino actors (not a priority in the ’50s). Unfortunately, the revival doesn’t live up to its hype. In fact, under the direction of ninety-one-year-old Laurents, West Side Story feels creakier than ever. The dancers simply go through the motions of Robbins’s choreography, and most of the musical numbers miss their mark. The costumes look improvised. The sets look cheap. The much-vaunted revisions turn out to be inconsequential -- the staging and acting are so limp that it makes little difference when, for example, Josefina Scaglione delivers Maria’s over-familiar final speech (“How many bullets, Chino?!”) in Spanish rather than English. Meanwhile, the score -- surely the best reason to revisit West Side Story -- is ill-served by the technological changes that have come to Broadway. The orchestra, stuffed beneath the stage, is muted and muffled, and the singers -- especially Matt Cavenaugh as Tony -- are too dependent on their mikes. Karen Olivo (a standout in the original cast of In the Heights) easily steals the show as Anita, but she is the lone bright spot in a disappointing evening.
I've been meaning to go into more detail here, but reliving the experience was simply not high enough on my priority list. Today, though, a new article in the New York Times has inspired me to return to the subject and comment on just one of the bad decisions that went into this production. The headline alone made me laugh ruefully: "Some 'West Side' Lyrics Are Returned to English." Took them long enough!

As I mentioned, the advance publicity for this production of West Side Story was focused on the fact that some of the dialogue and lyrics would be in Spanish -- as translated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, lending his flair for authenticity to the now-dated work of conspicuously non-Hispanic dramatists Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. And as Patrick Healy relates in the NYT, the result was not as affecting as had been promised. It turns out it's actually a problem when the show reaches an emotional climax -- as when Anita sings "A Boy Like That" -- and the audience can't understand a word of it! Who knew!

Director and bookwriter Arthur Laurents certainly should have known, considering he had the entire out-of-town tryout period, plus the last five months (!) on Broadway, to figure it out. The weird thing is, they did figure it out, at least to some extent, before I saw the show (just after opening night). I know because by that time they'd put a lot of the English back. So the show didn't live up to its "bilingual" hype, and the Espanol that was left was more obviously gimmicky. Hearing the Sharks speak or sing in Spanish now and then just made you wonder why they weren't speaking Spanish the rest of the time.

Of course, as is the rule in these NYT arts-section pieces, the story is mainly a PR vehicle. And if you've seen the production you'll probably find this as hilarious as I do:
Mr. Laurents and one of the show’s lead producers, Jeffrey Seller, said the decision was not made lightly. “Through this entire production, Arthur and I have had a terrific dialogue that’s motivated by a singular question: Can we do better?” said Mr. Seller, who produced the show with Kevin McCollum and James L. Nederlander.

“Arthur and I went back to the show in midsummer to see how it was playing,” he continued, “and we reached the conclusion that we could provide a bigger dramatic wallop if we incorporated more English back into ‘A Boy Like That,’ without gutting the integrity of the Spanish that carries the Sharks through the show.”
Ha, "integrity." Tee hee, "carries the Sharks through the show." Even when you're flat-out admitting it was a bust, you still can't shake that PR-speak. But what really made me laugh here was the first paragraph, because the best way to describe this production of West Side Story, at least as I experienced it, was that it looked like no one on the creative team had ever asked, "Can we do better?" It was obvious the question "Can we do this cheaper?" had been asked many times, but "better"? I'm skeptical that this is true. Especially because if having "A Boy Like That" be sung in English is better -- which it definitely is, especially since Karen Olivo is hands-down the best thing about this show -- this change should have been made, oh, five months ago. (Why'd they wait so long? I can only assume it was because they'd sold the show on the strength of this "innovation," so they couldn't wipe out all the Spanish right away. The bigger question for me is, why bother at all, five months in?)

This West Side also left me with the impression that the director hadn't actually watched any recent performances, since there were other obvious issues that could have and should have been fixed before it opened. So that made the other stuff in this article about Arthur Laurents's high standards quite risible to me. Now, I know this revival got a few inexplicably glowing reviews (I'm looking at you, John Lahr: was that a joke?!) and many other undeservedly mixed ones. So perhaps you'll say my judgments are all subjective. But here's something that isn't just my opinion: the night I saw the show, a lot of people in the orchestra section stood and started to leave after "Tonight," the musical number near the end of Act One. Note that I said near the end -- there's a scene, a major scene, immediately after it. But people all around me who hadn't memorized the scene breakdown assumed "Tonight" was the Act One finale, because the way it was staged felt like an act-ender. On top of that, there was a lengthy set change immediately after the song -- and this in a show that had few such set changes (and, as I mentioned, a pretty chintzy-looking set overall). And so the action stopped and the stage was blank. I guess it was supposed to be a dramatic pause. But a lot of people in the audience -- including, briefly, me -- thought it was intermission. And the scene change took so long that some of them actually made it to the lobby before it became clear that this was not the case. (They must have been really confused during Act Two.) Other people spent the first minute of the actual final scene of Act One clambering back to their seats, or standing awkwardly at the back of the orchestra to watch. It was, how shall I put it, not an ideal situation... and I'd bet a ton of money it wasn't the first or last time that happened. How, as a director or producer, do you witness that and not do something to fix it? Because I'll tell you, that was one thing they definitely could have "done better."

I won't get myself worked up picking apart John Lahr's review, not after all this time -- suffice it to say, it reads to me as though he wrote it on opposite day. But this I must call out:
Now the ninety-one-year-old Laurents is laying his claim to ownership: in this bold makeover, the story rules. ...By eliminating blackouts between scenes, Laurents also adds to the story’s tension.
I don't have a copy of the West Side Story libretto; I will give Lahr the benefit of the doubt and assume that it says [blackout] after each scene. However, in staging shows on Broadway today, especially musicals, blackouts between scenes are very much the exception and not the rule. Even in a revival of a classic musical, it would be idiosyncratic to actually have blackouts between scenes today -- something like shooting a movie in black-and-white. Mechanical sets have made all that a thing of the past. When the action stops, it's intermission. Which is why, as I've just explained, the audience I saw the show with assumed intermission had arrived when the action stopped. I guess it wasn't a "blackout," exactly, but it was a stage wait, and it fell in exactly the right place to completely kill the story's tension. So, in short, Lahr is not only ignoring a blatant shortcoming of this production, but actually praising the production for the lack of said shortcoming, as if every other musical on Broadway were stopping the action at regular intervals and only Laurents were clever enough to do away with that convention. What the heck, John Lahr.

Finally, here's another for the "don't blame the audience" file. In giving their reasons for making the switch, Seller (the producer) noted that he was surprised how many audience members didn't know West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet very well. "'It means we have to work a little bit harder in making sure people understand the show better,' Mr. Seller said." Listen: people shouldn't have to know the show when they arrive in order to understand it while they're watching it. It helps with Elizabethan comedies and foreign-language operas, sure. But this is a Broadway musical. It's not really hard to follow... unless your production is poorly directed. And if people can't tell that you want them to stay in their seats -- let alone on the edge of their seats, waiting with bated breath for the next scene -- and, instead, get the impression that they are free to go outside for a smoke, that's a sign your show is not quite ready for prime time, no matter how much of it you're prepared to translate back into English.


Sarah said...

I am relieved that my feeling of...underwhelm-ment?...after seeing this production recently is not unique. This is probably my favorite musical, but when my SIL and I were talking about the production on our way home, we kept finding things we didn't like about it; we thought we'd liked the show, but what we like is the songs, and everything else around the songs in this case was weirdly paced, undersung (we saw a lot of understudies that night, but still), and distracting (the translation to Spanish sounded cool on paper, but didn't work in practice, and didn't jibe with some of the dated lingo..."Krup you" brought the house down back in the day, but it's 2009).

Mollie said...

Yes. "Dated" is the key word when you're dealing with WSS, I think, and any successful production will have to acknowledge that. You can't just say "We're making it edgy!" unless you're prepared to rewrite the whole show. (Looking at it alongside "In the Heights" makes that especially obvious.) In this case I'm not even sure whether the production was supposed to be set in the '50s...