West Side Story lit up Broadway in 1957. The movie version (1961) won 10 Oscars. The musical included both luminous melodies and a social message about the dangers of urban gangs (born-in-N.Y. "Jets" vs. Puerto Rican immigrant "Sharks"). At the Broadway premiere last month of a slightly updated version, the great songs remained but the semi-move toward contemporary relevance faltered.
For example, both words and costuming were a mixture of 1957 and 2009. Beat slang from half a century ago-"daddy-o"-remains, but early in the musical an effete social worker responds to 21st-century dirty dancing at the school hop by calling out one of today's buzzwords, "abstinence." (The word also appears, once again with the goal of creating audience guffaws, in the second act.) Sharks girls still wear flouncy skirts but Jets girls wear anachronistic form-fitting orange micro-miniskirts.
The change is also in vantage point. The perspective of the Jets dominated the original musical, but here the Sharks and Shark girls-who appropriately speak and sing in Spanish at times-gain equality and more. Lt. Shrank in the original clearly didn't like Puerto Ricans, but the 2009 version emphasizes his racist viciousness and makes the Sharks victims of government oppression.
Subtle language changes do the same: In the original an ex-Jet calls out to a Shark, "Come and get me," but in the new version he adds, "if you don't kill me, I'll kill you"-making the shooting that ensues a form of self-defense. The new version upgrades the intensity in spots: Critic Ed Pilkington noted that "He killed your brother!" in the original becomes the street-worthy "Ese cabron mato a tu hermano!" ("That bastard killed your brother!")
Essentially, though, the musical is still sweet, and that's not bad. So what if most of the gang members seem ready less for a fatal rumble than for a welcome back party in Mr. Kotter's classroom? Caressing love songs such as "Tonight" are still beautiful and well-sung. "I Want to Live in America" sparkles with the mix of diamonds and pyrite that makes up the immigrant experience. And New York City in 2009, unlike in 1957, has bilingual schools, four Spanish-language television stations, and a big Puerto Rican Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.