Muy Bien: "West Side Story" Is Back

A scene from the revival of the musical "West Side Story"; Broadway
The landmark musical "West Side Story," which opened more than 50 years ago, has returned to the Great White Way. But something's different this time, as Mo Rocca found out:

"West Side Story" is back on Broadway.

The tale of lusty young lovers, set against a New York City turf battle between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Anglo Jets, was first produced in 1957.

The 1961 blockbuster film made it a cultural mainstay.

But while this revival may look familiar, the "sound" is different.

That's because the Sharks do much of their singing in Spanish. "I Feel Pretty" is now "Siento Hermosa."

Now who would have the temerity to mess with a classic?

None other than the man who wrote "West Side Story"'s script (or "book"), the man directing this revival: 90-year-old theater legend Arthur Laurents.

If you think it's a p.r. stunt - "90-year-old directs major Broadway musical" - it's not.

From the first meeting of the show's full company in November, Laurents was calling the shots … and making it clear what this production is all about:

"Sex," Laurents said. "They are all over each other. It's almost as if, they better get married!"

During rehearsals in Washington, he was nothing but nurturing to Shark and Jet alike, tirelessly working "eight days a week."

"How many hours a day?" Rocca asked.

"Oh, it's endless," Laurents said.

His legendary work ethic is matched only by a notorious reputation for what's politely called "candor."

Laura Benanti, who won a Tony Award for her performance in the revival of "Gypsy," the musical masterpiece authored and last year directed by Laurents, told Rocca, "The first two weeks, I thought he absolutely hated me. And I was terrified of him. And I wanted to quit, 'cause I thought I was awful.

"And then he said he realized that I'm not somebody who needs to be broken down. I'm someone who needs to be built up. And he helped me."

Rocca questioned the director on his reputation: "When I mentioned to a couple of people that I was going to be interviewing you, they said, 'He's a legend. He's brilliant. But he can be really mean.'"

"Uh-huh. I have heard that for many, many years," Laurents said. "At first, it bothered me. And now, it doesn't. Because I know who and what I am."

Laurents was born in Brooklyn, and from the age of 10 knew he wanted to write plays. His earliest efforts received mixed reviews - though Laurents says reviews don't matter.

"I have a saying: If you believe it, you're dead. And I think people who believe in their success or in the reviews or in anything but what they are doing, are unfortunate. I've been very fortunate in an odd way. My first play, "Home of the Brave," was a flop.

In all he's written 24 plays, and counting - plus the screenplays for 8 movies, including Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope." He says he turned down two more offers from Hitchcock.

But he did say "yes" to collaborating with director Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and a 25-year-old lyricist named Stephen Sondheim. The result: "West Side Story."

Hotter than ever, Laurents was asked to write a musical about a stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. But he wanted to write about Gypsy's mother - and wrote what is considered by many the best book in musical theater.

In movies, too, Laurents defied conventional wisdom, with his screenplay for "The Way We Were." It featured Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand as a Jewish Communist and class-A agitator. Hardly a recipe for a blockbuster.

It was a blockbuster.

"Streisand's character, Katie Morosky, is a pain in the butt," Rocca said. "How much of her is you?"

"First of all, I don't think she's a pain in the butt," Laurents said. "She may be a pain in your butt, she's not a pain in mine … and a lot of her is me.

"You have to live what you believe, and to be proud that you have."

"Is that a problem that you think a lot of people suffer from? The need to be liked?" Rocca asked.

"I think they suffer from it enormously," he replied.

That would explain his more than candid memoir - a look back at showbiz pals from Lena Horne to Lauren Bacall to Katharine Hepburn.

"You are blunt," Rocca said. "I mean, you said Katharine Hepburn had no sense of humor about herself."

"Define the word 'blunt,'" Laurents said. "I will define it for you. 'Katherine Hepburn did not have a sense of humor.' Do you want me to say, you know, 'I adored Kate. And she was wonderful. She wasn't exactly the most fun person.'

"Why spend all that time?" he laughed. "She had no sense of humor. Period!"

"And this may be a secret to your longevity. You're not wasting energy with all this - "

"Maybe, indeed. I think people waste a lot of time being evasive and worrying about what should not be worried about. This is not adding to my reputation, I know," he laughed, "but I don't care!"

And then there's his private life …

"I think sex is terribly important," Laurents said.

"Well, speaking of which … "

"Speaking of which, you know, you can go to my book."

Indeed, his memoir, "An Original Story" (Applause Books), may be the longest little black book on record.

"I mean, page after page … " Rocca huffed.

"Yes, I know, pages after page, but it happened. Maybe I'm oversexed. I just like it. Still, at 197! I'm not interested in what anyone does. But I have found that people who don't have any sex life, they don't have much of any other life."

Both the memoir and this revival of "West Side Story" are dedicated to one person:

"Tom Hatcher, my longtime partner - now, that's a hideous word. It's a business word. Relationship is not a business."

"So, you're a writer, give me another word."

"I would say 'lover.'"

They met in Hollywood in 1955.

"He was 12 years younger than I was, and from Oklahoma. And here I am, from New York, and very smartass. He knew more than I did, he was smarter than I was."

The couple were together 52 years, before Hatcher died in 2006.

"I had the most marvelous life that anybody could have with another person," Laurents said. "That, I'm proud of. That's an achievement. 'Cause most people quit on each other. And we never did."

This revival was Hatcher's idea

"He saw a Spanish language production of "West Side Story" in Bogotá, Colombia, and he said, 'Why not have the Sharks speak Spanish where they would?'"

However long this production runs, Arthur Laurents has already moved on.

"I don't look back. I never have. I don't see it. When I'm dead, I'm dead. You live in the now. I'm really not thinking of anything but sitting here talking to you. What's gonna happen with this? I don't know.

"And truthfully," he said with a laugh, "I don't much care!"

For more info:

  • "West Side Story" (Official site)