Is it time West Side Story got a 21st-century makeover?

This month, 'West Side Story' returns to the London stage in a form unchanged since 1957. Time for a 21st-century makeover? Certainly not, says its original lyricist, Stephen Sondheim...

Two woodwind players sneak in fast with an insistent cross rhythm, expectation shimmers on the air... "Could it be? Yes it could/ Something's coming, some-thing good/If I can wait!/ Something's coming, I don't know what it is/But it is/Gonna be great!"

That's not just Tony's opening number from West Side Story, it's as good a description as you'll find of the entire genre-busting show, the now legendary musical transplant of Romeo and Juliet to gangland Manhattan. And although its latest production doesn't open in London until 22 July, there's one incontrovertible reason why the musical-theatre industry expects it to match that expectation: it's not really new at all. This is less of a production, more a reproduction.

Trevor Nunn and John Caird's Les Misérables may be the same across 38 countries and in 21 languages, but that's because it's still the original production, which has never closed. Revivals are a different matter. Whether you're directing The Taming of the Shrew or Kiss Me Kate, the job is all about presenting the work afresh. But not with West Side Story.

You don't have to imagine what Broadway critics saw – and largely raved about – on its original 26 September 1957 opening night, because an exact facsimile of that is all the lawyers will allow. Not for nothing is this billed as "The 50th Anniversary Production". This is a masterpiece and no one's messing with it.

Back then, its creative quartet boasted two headline names: director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein. The "book" (adaptation, structure and dialogue) was by screenwriter and playwright Arthur Laurents and the lyrics were by a 25-year-old making his Broadway debut.

That 25-year-old, Stephen Sondheim, is now regarded as musical-theatre's greatest iconoclast, who regularly gives the nod to intelligent rethinks of musicals he has written on the grounds that while a director must do what Sondheim wrote, how he or she chooses to do it is up to them. He recently applauded a version of Sunday in the Park with George in London that completely reimagined the show via video projection, and went on to win five Olivier awards. So it's something of a surprise to discover that he is unperturbed by the stringent demands of the Robbins estate. Isn't their policing of the piece in danger of creating museum theatre?

"In that context, 'museum' is a pejorative term," he counters. "Yes, West Side Story is a preserved object that's locked into place. But you could just as easily call it a classic."

This show, he argues, is not like other musicals that stand or fall by their score and book. It's closer to a ballet where every step, moment and movement is precisely notated so that it can be endlessly recreated.

"Choreographed movement is central to its storytelling and structure. Although much of the dance music was technically written by Jerry's assistant Betty Walberg, Jerry's choreography is still so apt because he worked so closely with Lenny [Bernstein], just as they had done on their ballet Fancy Free. Whether another choreographer could match that level of inspiration, I don't know."

Sondheim isn't using 20/20 hindsight to be overly generous. Robbins was, to a great extent, the show's prime mover. It began life in a discussion at his home where he persuaded Bernstein and Laurents to create a contemporary Romeo and Juliet set on the Lower East Side during Easter/Passover with a Catholic Romeo and a Jewish Juliet. Laurents began a scenario for East Side Story but with everybody's diverse commitments, the project foundered. Six years later, poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, when Bernstein was in town to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl, he and Laurents clocked newspaper headlines about teenage Latino gangs and the idea swung into focus.

Anyone watching the musical they made, or the 10-Oscar-winning film, cannot fail to spot that it's driven by dance. At considerable cost to his producers, Robbins demanded double the rehearsal time – eight weeks instead of four – so that he could also choreograph it. And he made damn sure everyone knew it: ever since the initial tryout in Washington, all publicity for the show has to bear the legend, "Based on a Conception of JEROME ROBBINS." The writers' names follow, also in capitals, but beneath them in a separate box comes the killer: "Entire Original Production Directed and Choreographed by JEROME ROBBINS."

That's less surprising when you know that by this time Robbins not only had a string of Broadway hits to his name, but was also one of America's leading ballet choreographers. Though he died a decade ago, the controllers of his estate stick zealously to his will, and reinterpreting his choreography for contemporary audiences remains forbidden.

Until recently, that stipulation stretched to design. Stage design dates as fast as any other kind and, 10 years ago, when the show last toured the UK, Oliver Smith's original sets seemed not so much revived as exhumed. Painted backdrops may have looked beautiful in 1957 but theatregoers are now used to a different aesthetic. And so the estate has relented: the current revival has new sets – lots of scaffolding – costumes and lighting.

Part of Sondheim's antipathy to tampering with the original may stem from his reaction to the film. Robbins wound up with an Oscar for his efforts but he had been sacked less than halfway through the shoot so much of his vision never reached the screen.

Sondheim is clear-eyed about it. "Theatre is about the audience's imagination, movies are not. They could not find a way of translating stage language to film language. I found it all too pretty, with self-conscious scenes of candy-colour-co-ordinated washing and sneakers. Having the gang dance down the street isn't frightening, it's fun. One of my favourite stage images is what Jerry called 'the leapfrog'. Seeing three actual bodies, 450 pounds of beef, leap over people on stage feels menacing. On the screen it just looks like leapfrog."

Sondheim is currently reworking the show for yet another "revival" for Broadway's 2008/09 season directed by Laurents, who is soon to turn 90. With the exception of Maria, firebrand Anita and possibly her brother Bernardo, the Puerto Rican gang of Sharks will now speak only Spanish. "I'm not sure yet how we will work out the lyrics, and how or why they will sing in English, but we're already casting." Robbins's physicality, however, will remain untouched.

The rights holders are evidently of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school. But if they're not careful, West Side Story will ossify. Isn't it time the keepers of the Robbins flame had the courage to let dynamo director/choreographers such as Rob Ashford, Matthew Bourne or Susan Stroman take this masterpiece out of the museum and into the 21st century?

Can't touch this: Four more protected stage masters

Samuel Beckett, 1906-1989

Beckett's literary executors keep his plays in a vice-like grip. The director Deborah Warner was banned from directing his works for more than a decade after her 1994 production of his play Footfalls contravened two stage directions

George Balanchine, 1904-1983

Any company wishing to dance the Russian-American choreographer's work has to win his Trust's approval, which it can, and does, withdraw if it's unhappy. In the past, even the Royal Ballet has not been spared the Trust's wrath

Kurt Weill 1900-1950

If you want to stage a show by Weill, you have to comply with his Foundation, whose executors have been known to haggle over whether a song in one of his musicals should be allowed to be transposed by as little as a semitone

Elvis Presley 1935-1977

Elvis Presley Enterprises banned Peter Schaufuss's "dansical" The King – a hit in Denmark – for using material and Elvis's persona without permission. Schaufuss chose other songs, turned the character into an impersonator and the show went ahead in London. It bombed

'West Side Story' is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, from 22 July until 31 August. ( www.sadlerswells.com), then touring ( www.westsidestorytheshow.co.uk)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border