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A legacy, and 'West Side Story'

Controversy lingers over Spanish lyrics in touring revival

“He was so smart,’’ says David Saint (pictured) of Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for “West Side Story’’ and directed the 2009 Broadway revival. “He was so smart,’’ says David Saint (pictured) of Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for “West Side Story’’ and directed the 2009 Broadway revival. (Jennifer Taylor for The Boston Globe)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Last month, a couple of weeks after Arthur Laurents died at 93, director David Saint was at the playwright’s Manhattan home, going through his papers.

The phone rang, and Saint picked it up.

“And they said, ‘I’m glad he’s dead,’ ’’ Saint recalled the other afternoon, ensconced in his book-lined office, where photos of Laurents sat atop the desk and on a corner shelf.

“And this person said, ‘Why can’t he leave those masterpieces alone?’ ’’ Saint continued. “And then they hung up, of course.’’

The provocation for the outburst? Laurents’s 2009 Broadway revival of “West Side Story,’’ now in the midst of a national tour that comes to the Colonial Theatre Tuesday. An update of the 1957 classic — which has music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by Laurents, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — the revival occasionally puts Spanish dialogue and lyrics in the mouths of the Puerto Rican characters, where English used to be.

The change has infuriated some admirers of the musical, a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet’’ in which the combatants are not Montagues and Capulets but New York gangs fighting for control of a ragged scrap of the city: “the Sharks are Puerto Ricans, the Jets an anthology of what is called ‘American,’ ’’ Laurents wrote in his midcentury stage directions.

“There’s such, still, a strong xenophobia in this country. I cannot get over how blatant it is,’’ sighed Saint, a Needham native. “In some ways, you think, we’ve made such progress since 1957. Things have changed. And in some ways, you think, no, they haven’t.’’

Laurents reportedly received hate mail about the new production, which he directed. Now Saint, his associate director on Broadway and the director of the touring production, gets it instead.

He’s also inherited the in-person confrontations with outraged audience members. They’re a minority, he said, but a vocal one — like the couple who came up to him on opening night in Los Angeles last December and told him, “We’re in America. Speak English. This show was written in English. Speak it in English.’’

“And I thought, you really aren’t hearing what the show is about, are you?’’ said Saint, who graduated from Boston College High School in 1971 and the College of the Holy Cross in 1975. “I think in some ways even trying to see this piece through a new prism is again, somehow, generating the very problems that the piece writes about. By that I mean hanging on to tradition and not allowing anything new, or anyone new, in.’’

Jeffrey Seller, one of the show’s producers, found ample creative justification for the revival in Laurents’s own reason for revisiting the show: in Seller’s words, to “level the playing field’’ for the Sharks by “giving them their language.’’

“It proved an obstacle for some people, and it still proves an obstacle for some people, but you can’t please everybody,’’ Seller said by telephone, arguing that the Sharks “have more cultural integrity’’ in this iteration than they did in the original.

Just how much Spanish to include in the production, whose translations are by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights’’), was an ongoing question for the creative team and producers. In Washington, D.C., in the run-up to Broadway, more of the show was in Spanish than when it arrived in New York. Several months after it opened there, the proportion was scaled back further, though Saint said no more than 15 percent of the musical was ever performed in Spanish.

Now, he said, it’s about 10 percent — and the two songs that had been entirely in Spanish, “I Feel Pretty’’ (“Me Siento Hermosa’’) and “A Boy Like That’’ (“Un Hombre Así’’) are now a hybrid of English and Spanish. There are no supertitles, though the creators experimented with those, too, before deciding they were a distraction.

The change to “I Feel Pretty,’’ Saint said, came in part at the suggestion of Josefina Scaglione, the Argentine actress who played Maria on Broadway.

Sondheim, for his part, has long been sheepish about the fluent English wordplay his young self assigned in that song to Maria, newly arrived from Puerto Rico. “I have blushed ever since,’’ he wrote in “Finishing the Hat,’’ his 2010 book about his lyrics.

But audiences like what they like, and Scaglione told Saint that she could feel their resistance to hearing that song sung in Spanish.

“She actually called me into her dressing room one night and said, ‘Would you talk to Arthur and Steve about this?’ ’’ he said.

Saint was uniquely simpatico with Laurents, whose writing credits include “Gypsy’’ and “The Way We Were,’’ and who was famed for his prickliness. Introduced two decades ago by the actress Anne Meara, Laurents and Saint began to form a friendship the day in the 1990s when they went out for coffee in Seattle and ended up talking for six hours.

A few weeks later, Laurents sent a script to Saint’s agent, suggesting that Saint direct it.

“And my agent said, ‘I’m going to advise against it, because, you know, he eats directors for breakfast,’ ’’ recalled Saint, who rejected the advice. “I did it, and we never had a bad moment.’’

Which does not mean that they didn’t have difficult moments. Laurents became his best friend and a frequent collaborator at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, where Saint has been the artistic director since 1997. Laurents came to almost every play Saint directed, bringing with him his unvarnished honesty.

“Sometimes — and I do a lot of new works — he would come down the aisle and say, ‘David, it’s a piece of [expletive].’ And, you know, that’s tough, because it’s like having mud thrown on your face,’’ Saint said. “But then I’d take a deep breath and say, ‘OK, why?’ And then he’d start talking, and when he started talking, he actually had some great points, and things that I could actually use. He was so smart. And he didn’t mean it as harshly as it sounded.’’

“If I directed a play that he came and he saw and he loved,’’ Saint added, “he would be jumping up and down, saying, ‘David, it’s sensational.’ And you knew that he believed it, that he was telling you the truth. That’s so rare. And I kept thinking, why are people so afraid of that? And they are. A lot of people in this business don’t want to hear the truth.’’

At the end of Laurents’s life, Saint was the older man’s health care proxy, shuttling him to medical appointments. Now he is his literary executor.

Laurents’s illness, and his death last month, coincided with the rehearsal and opening of a play Saint was directing at George Street. By late May, it had been a couple of months since he had visited “West Side Story’’ on tour. So Saint traveled to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, planning to watch a performance, take some notes, and talk to the cast.

“The curtain went up,’’ Saint said, “and I wasn’t prepared at all. It was like this wave of Arthur just came, hitting me so strongly in the face, and I just started crying.

“I was alone — I mean, there were 2,800 people there, but I was by myself — and for 2 1/2 hours,’’ he said, “it was hard for me to even watch, because I realized: This is all Arthur.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

WEST SIDE STORY Presented by Broadway Across America-Boston at the Colonial Theatre, Tuesday through July 9. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayacross america.com/boston

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