West Side Story, beloved as it is, poses daunting problems for any director. Even Robbins, in his 1980 revival, was unable to make the drama convincing. The problems generally begin with the dancing gangs, who tend to look about as violent as Mister Rogers. The only threat they might seem to pose is to your sock drawer. Meanwhile, why is fresh-off-the-boat Maria warbling about feeling so alarmingly charming? Is she, as Sondheim has often remarked in criticizing his own lyrics, performing in Noël Coward’s drawing room?
Laurents’s book is lean and muscular, moving the story at high speed while working several clever improvements on the Romeo and Juliet plot. Nevertheless, in approaching this revival, he began by rethinking his own contribution. Much of the dialogue, he decided, would now be in Spanish. “The idea was to equalize the gangs,” he explains, by allowing the Sharks, who are supposed to be from Puerto Rico, their own language. If this justification seems a bit dodgy—the Sharks still have less stage time than the Jets, and many people won’t understand what they’re saying—perhaps that’s because there’s more to the story.
It turns out to be a ghost story, aptly told one afternoon in the gloom of a tech rehearsal at the Palace. We are sitting in the mezzanine as the sound department tests sirens and the musicians warm up with snippets of the unforgettable Bernstein score: the cat’s-paw footfalls of the Prologue, the throbbing drums of the Mambo.
“I can tell you how it happened,” Laurents says eagerly. “For years, people were cruel to Tom as the less notable half of a couple. At least they lusted after him, so there was that. But eventually he stopped acting and became a mini-mogul”—buying, redeveloping, and selling property near a home they had in Quogue, on Long Island. “Over the years, he made a beautiful park there, twelve acres of ‘rooms’ that were once just big trees strangled with bittersweet. After he died, in October 2006”—of lung cancer, at 77—“I went to the park and sat on this one particular bench where we’d always talk. As I thought about how he wouldn’t be there when it burst into bloom next spring, I burst into tears and got out as fast as I could.
“Soon I decided to go on our usual ski trip because I thought it would be very good to be away from society and have a farewell ski. And then one day, I saw him on the slopes.”
Laurents shrugs. With his shiny eyes and fringe of hair, he looks like a garden gnome.
“Yes, literally. And then, when I came home to Quogue and walked into the park, he was there. He still is. I mean, he is and he isn’t simultaneously. We still talk, and yes, I actually speak. As for the answers, well, I’m well aware what his answers would be; I knew him so well. But there are also signs. One day, I found notes in his handwriting in a Spanish translation of West Side Story. That was a sign to do this production. These are not accidents.”
After 52 years together, Laurents understandably sees his partner’s hand in everything he does. Until Hatcher died, Laurents didn’t even have an ATM card. And it was Hatcher who convinced him to direct the LuPone Gypsy, so that Mendes’s version wouldn’t be the last one seen on Broadway in Laurents’s life. Part enforcer, part enabler, part keeper of the flame and of the grudges, Hatcher made Laurents’s writing life possible and somehow still would.
So West Side Story would be partly in Spanish; Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the songs for In the Heights, was hired to provide the translation. Laurents next set about solving the other problems he’d identified. The gangs would have to be fiercer—“It’s the difference between a soft, balletic arm and a hard arm with a clenched fist,” he says. “Same move, different subtext.” The cast would be younger, and the Puerto Ricans, if not Puerto Rican, at least Hispanic. (This wasn’t always easy; Josefina Scaglione, the 21-year-old Argentine who plays Maria, was tracked down on YouTube.) The feeling of the set would be more desolate and, in one of the most powerful changes, so would the central relationship. In the lovers’ understanding that their dreams are futile in the face of larger forces, it is hard not to see Laurents’s own desolation over the loss of Hatcher, and also a reflection of his lifelong pattern of holding family and friends close and then finding them insufficient.
Not to mention collaborators. In order to effect these changes, Laurents had to make all sorts of cuts and alterations in work he did not control.