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Q & A With Arthur Laurents

He speaks candidly in rare interview

Editor's note: Arthur Laurents, whose long trajectory on Broadway and in Hollywood is well known — among his works are West Side Story, Gypsy, and the movies Anastasia and The Way We Were — died at age 93 at his residence in Manhattan, in May, 2011.

En español | Arthur Laurents, the original librettist for West Side Story, is bringing a new production of his landmark 1957 musical to Broadway this spring.

But the 91-year-old isn’t offering just another staging of the critically acclaimed script that won two Tony Awards and spawned the Oscar-winning 1961 film. This time, he says, “I’m going for emotional reality.”

In this production, the stage will rumble with a much more realistic portrayal of life in a section of Manhattan’s West Side known as Hell’s Kitchen, tempered with the redeeming power of love.

“Theater is a contact with people, it’s alive,” says Laurents. “Love is the most positive force in the world. If you can bring that out, then the negative gets subdued.”

From his home in Quogue, New York, the noted author and director tells AARP Segunda Juventud about this version’s genesis, and why it’s time for another West Side Story.

Q: Everyone refers to the new West Side Story as a revival. But you don’t use the word revival when speaking about it. Why not?

A: It’s not a revival. It’s really a new production. Why replicate something that’s been done before? This is very different.

Q: In what way?

A: It’s going to be bilingual. And I’m going to show a different attitude in these kids. Both sides were villains. They’re so poor, they fight over who’s king of the hill of this particular block. It makes them vicious. That attitude is not restricted to any one nationality. The gang members were all out-and-out killers.

It’s not an easy task to show all that—how different they are superficially, linguistically, but actually they’re the same. They’ll have more feelings, more passion, than was disclosed at that time. These kids were never adorable, they were always vicious and a terrible example of what society had done to them. They were products of the culture. If you’re made to live like an outsider, it’s very tough.

Q: Why wasn’t that reflected in the original musical?

A: Because of our own bias and the cultural conventions of 1957, it was almost impossible for the characters in West Side Story to have authenticity.

[This time] I insisted on casting people who are of a Latino background, or who are from Latin America [for the parts of the Sharks and their girlfriends]. They can sing it, they can act it, and they can dance it. They also know prejudice, what it feels like.

Q: So you’re striving in this new production to give context to why they became the gangsters we’ll see on stage?

A: Yes. I don’t think they knew intellectually that they felt this terrible desire for something. They’re really desiring love. Love from everyone. They were constantly told from everyone that they were terrible and a disgrace. Both sides, the kids in the Jets and the Sharks, suffered this. Everyone called them hoodlums in those days. If you’re a kid from that kind of economic background, you’re “dirty”—you have these feelings about yourself, about life.

Q: The musical was a huge hit, and the movie was lavished with a whopping 10 Academy Awards. Yet some people, particularly some Puerto Ricans, thought West Side Story stereotyped them. What are your thoughts about that?

A: A few years ago, in Amherst, Massachusetts, a high school was going to present West Side Story. Kids of Puerto Rican background boycotted it. They said the show presented a stereotypical view of Puerto Ricans. We were upset, [because for us] the show was against prejudice.

When one woman, one of the people protesting the high school production, was asked, “Did you see the show?” she said, “I saw the movie.”

I never liked the movie. It presents the most stereotypical view of Hispanics, Puerto Ricans. They’re given bogus accents, bogus dialects. You watch it and don’t believe it for a second.

Q: How did the idea emerge to do a new production of West Side Story?

A: Tom Hatcher, who was my partner for 52 years, told me he saw West Side Story in Colombia … [and] in Colombia, the Sharks were the heroes. The audience was cheering for them. Tom said, “Why not have the Sharks speak Spanish?”

I took the script in Spanish and had the whole thing gone over by Lin-Manuel Miranda; he wrote the score for In the Heights. I wanted a Puerto Rican to look at it, to advise us. He knows the Puerto Rican dialect.

Q: How much Spanish is there in this version?

A: It’s totally bilingual. Some parts are only in Spanish, with translations that will be provided in English. When Maria and Anita are alone, they speak Spanish. They sing in Spanish. It’s a conversation between friends.

[But] the musical will have a new look and sound that is more than just bilingual. We wrote it in 1957; everything was different then.