In the current Broadway revival of “West Side Story” the creative team drew widespread notice this spring for having Lin-Manuel Miranda translate some English lyrics by Stephen Sondheim into Spanish, as part of a greater attempt at authenticity for Puerto Rican characters like Anita. Yet this summer the show’s director, Arthur Laurents, and some of the producers found that the Spanish lyrics were not jolting audiences the way they had hoped — nor paying off in the next scene when the white Jets gang members try to rape Anita.I saw this earlier this year, and I -- along with just about everybody -- was really rooting for it to be a triumph. Among other things I'm a huge Bernstein fan, and while I'm not a huge fan of musicals, I'm a huge fan of THIS musical. And I, along with just about everybody, was disappointed with what I saw. Every element of the production is impressive, but it's not the visceral kick to the gut that it could be: instead it's a lot of impressive elements that don't cohere into an electric whole.
After discussions among Mr. Laurents, the producers and some of the actors, most of the lyrics in “A Boy Like That” were converted back to English beginning with last Thursday’s performance; the decision was announced Tuesday. A few lines in “I Feel Pretty,” Maria’s Act II opening number, also reverted to English, although Maria (played by Josefina Scaglione) still delivers most of the song in Spanish.
I never had a problem with the Spanish, but along with everything else it wasn't taken to its full potential. The shift from English to Spanish, I thought, should have been the result of emotional distress: Maria should revert to Spanish with Anita because she's so upset that her clunky English can't get the job done. Instead it was a very ostentatious shift that doesn't serve the play so much as serve the director and producer, who use it to wink at us as if to say: "Aren't we clever in multicultural 2009?"
The fact that changing it back to English has more to do with an audience's reaction (or an audience "getting it") than serving the play speaks volumes about how arbitrary and half-baked the decision was in the first place.