Back on Broadway: West Side Story, Guys and Dolls

One compensation of New York City life is that even the unpleasant parts come wrapped in legend. Your commute to Brooklyn might be a drag, but hey, Walt Whitman did it before you, and immortalized it in a poem. For generations, no art form has done more to make the city a place of fables than the Broadway musical. From Rodgers and Hart's "Manhattan" in 1925 to "Christopher Street" in "Wonderful Town" to "Another Hundred People" in "Company," songwriters haven't just reflected their madcap city—they've helped to define it. (Article continued below...)

Now, just when New Yorkers are in the midst of a spiritual flogging—upstaged by Obama's Washington, humbled by Wall Street's collapse, perplexed by real-estate prices that are almost reasonable—the two greatest New York musicals have returned. If staged well, "West Side Story," with its native-born and Puerto Rican gang warfare, distills the violence, frustrated dreams and tragic undertow of this immigrant town. And "Guys and Dolls," with its hustlers and zealous (though badly outnumbered) religious believers, captures the ingenuity of New York's street poetry, the hard-edged sense of humor that is constantly demanded of people forced to navigate these sidewalks every day. Both of the revivals take liberties with the material, in hopes of speaking more directly to our vexed moment. Each tells a very different story about the way we live in the nation's artistic capital now.

The chief novelty of the revival of "West Side Story" directed by Arthur Laurents, the show's 91-year-old librettist, is that considerable chunks of the sad tale of Tony and Maria are now spoken and sung in Spanish. When this happens the first time, in a scene between Maria (Josefina Scaglione) and Anita (Karen Olivo, who just became a great big star), your eyes flick instinctively to the proscenium arch for a translation to appear. It doesn't. This prompts two thoughts in quick succession: (1) Hey, you have to know Spanish to understand what they're saying. (2) Wait—why don't I know Spanish?

Having the Sharks speak in their native tongue is a gimmick—and a dubious gesture toward realism, considering the show's hardened killers still face off in un-Crip-like shades of orange and purple, and sing quaintly of what happens when "the spit hits the fan." But it's a brilliant gimmick. It reminds us that 52 years after the premiere of this tragedy about New Yorkers failing to understand one another, at a time when a quarter of the city's households are Spanish-speaking, we still don't entirely grasp what's being said around us.

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But fear not, gringos. The excitement and emotional force of this revival don't need translation. Laurents makes shaky choices here and there—this is not going to be anybody's favorite version of "Gee, Officer Krupke"—but his revival does justice to the twin sources of its power: Leonard Bernstein's music, which balances symphonic grandeur with the punch of pop music, and the immortal dances of the show's original director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins (reproduced here by Joey McKneely). They give Act I a 15-minute stretch of overpowering beauty: the mambo at the gym (those flying bodies, those jabbing arms), then Tony and Maria's quiet first meeting (such an eloquent translation of Romeo's "Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!/For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night"), then "Maria" (sung with extraordinary sweetness by Matt Cavenaugh), and finally "Tonight" (the lovers on a balcony high above a city street, but with an empty void behind them—an abstract gloom that makes the lyric doubly poignant).

We've had half a century to get used to all of this. But even after the film and the hundred thousand high-school productions and the commercials that use "Somewhere," the show still feels fresh. Partly this is due to some savvy casting. If you haven't seen many fawning Q&As with the celebrities who were hired to punch up ticket sales, it's because there aren't any. A few names in the Playbill are familiar, but mainly this show will give its actors the biggest (and, if there's any justice, most glowing) notices of their young lives.

The revival also seems lively because of a tough-mindedness that's surprisingly current. By darkening a show that was pretty dark to begin with, Laurents has made it foreshadow more clearly than ever the worldly-wise future work of its lyricist, an upstart named Stephen Sondheim. "West Side Story" dares to insist that some problems cannot be solved quickly or wished away. At a moment when the news keeps us full of great hopes and fears, it feels irreducibly right for New York to have a story this bittersweet back in the heart of Times Square, where it belongs.

"Guys and Dolls" should, by rights, be an even greater boon to a gloomy town. This 1950 riff on stories by Damon Runyon may be, note for note, the funniest musical ever written, the inspired collaboration of songwriter Frank Loesser, librettist Abe Burrows and original director George S. Kaufman. The new revival, like the Spanish-laced scenes of "West Side Story," raises another pair of questions: (1) How did Loesser et al. cram so many good jokes, so many perfect songs, so many plot twists that work like a dream, into one musical? (2) How can a revival get it all so wrong?

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Director Des McAnuff tries to play up the show's New York–ness, using video and other scenic elements to drape itself in Manhattan iconography: not just the sewer where Sky Masterson (Craig Bierko) and the crapshooters sing "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," but a subway entrance, an automat and the Flatiron Building. But the video projections look synthetic, lifeless—like "Grand Theft Auto: Old-Timey Midtown." And the sets look less like seedy old Manhattan than the corporate Times Square of today. That's not a compliment.

All these exertions suggest that the show's creative team doesn't trust the material. So, in its way, does the casting of Hollywood's Oliver Platt and Lauren Graham as Nathan Detroit and Adelaide. Neither is bad, exactly, but they're definitely not right for the roles, and they share a cartoony approach to the rat-a-tat Runyon-speak that makes their street-smart characters sound sorta dumb. Most egregiously, McAnuff has burdened this precision-engineered comedy with an actor playing Runyon himself. It serves mainly to keep the first solid laugh from arriving until (by my watch) 8:13. George S. Kaufman, charter member of the Algonquin Round Table and one of the people most responsible for the wisecracking New York style, would never stand for this.

In its choice of fake history over real history, its reliance on celebrity, even its mania for overbuilding, the revival embodies some of the less attractive values of boom-era New York, a chapter in the city's history that is closing fast. (Maybe this is why it feels so old.) Broadway musicals aren't meant to be sociological studies, of course—they're shows. But if you doubt that a masterpiece can wind itself into the very fabric of the city it depicts, listen closely the next time one of the newer subway trains leaves a station on Manhattan's West Side, and to the familiar melody it inadvertently sings: the first three notes of "Somewhere."

Back on Broadway: West Side Story, Guys and Dolls | Culture