Robyn Goodman ’69 puts the 'Oeste' in 'West Side Story'

Producer says si, si, to a bilingual remake of Brandeis composer’s masterpiece

Brandeis graduate Robyn Goodman is part of a team of producers who have helped bring the 21st century 'West Side Story' to fruition.

By Theresa Pease

In 1957, when New York audiences filed into the Winter Garden Theater to experience Brandeis music guru Leonard Bernstein’s newest composition, "West Side Story," they were unprepared for what they saw and heard.

Essentially a modern, urban retelling of the Romeo and Juliet tale, "West Side Story" was a story of ill-fated love and bigotry set among rival American and Puerto Rican street gangs in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Its score included several pieces that would become classics of the American musical theater, among them “One Hand, One Heart,” “Tonight,” “Maria” and “Somewhere.” But apart from a couple of rollickingly funny songs — “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” — its score bore little resemblance to anything musical theater audiences had seen before.

The idea of a musical with a serious theme had been tested earlier by composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Ira Gershwin in "Lady in the Dark," a 1941 show about psychoanalysis. It was only with "West Side Story," though, that an American musical tragedy, mixing Bernstein’s music seamlessly with Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, Arthur Laurents’s libretto and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins’s startling blend of street gestures and violent action with ballet and jazz dance, took stage. It was heralded as a landmark theatrical event.

Today, "West Side Story" is again new. After going on to become a top hit movie and to flourish through several New York revivals, the musical has been reborn in a surprising new iteration currently in previews at the Palace Theater in Times Square. And apart from Bernstein’s, the shimmering marquee now features another Brandeis name. Veteran actress and producer Robyn Goodman, a 1969 Brandeis graduate who received best musical Tony Awards in 2004 for "Avenue Q" and 2008 for "In the Heights," is part of a team of producers who have helped bring the 21st century "West Side Story" to fruition. Her role entailed securing a large chunk of the funding necessary to mount the production. Working primarily with backers who had supported her previous hit musicals, she helped meet "West Side Story’s" $14 million budget by racking up private investments of $20,000 and more — no mean feat in a crumbling economy.

“She wouldn’t talk that way”

To grasp what’s so new about this "West Side Story" requires looking back at the old.

Once a boyhood protégé to family friend Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim is distinguished, at 78, as a rare overlap between the great mid-20th-century musical comedy writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Bock and Harnick and the more flashy, less bookish composers and lyricists of today.

But despite critics’ enthusiastic responses to the 1957 version, Sondheim, who was just 27 when the Jets and the Sharks rumbled onto the stage, was never quite satisfied with his Broadway debut.

Years later, having established himself as a giant among composers and lyricists, he told theatrical historian Martin Gottfried that his "West Side Story" lyrics were too clever, too self-consciously entertaining, to be true to the characters — particularly members and friends of the Puerto Rican Sharks gang. Talking about the song “I Feel Pretty” in his 1979 tome "Broadway Musicals," Gottfried wrote, “According to Sondheim, the character [of Maria], a teenager from New York’s slum streets, would never have said, ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel,’ and would hardly have used an internal rhyme. Sondheim may be too hard on himself — all characters use rhymes in lyrics, and we accept expressions in a song that we wouldn’t accept when spoken — but his point is correct. She wouldn’t talk that way.”

How would she talk? Well, for one thing, as an immigrant recently arrived with her family on the scarred streets of midtown Manhattan, it’s unlikely she would have spoken in English.

And, though we are quite sure that was not what Sondheim meant when he criticized his own lyric, two of the four original "West Side Story" masterminds recently reunited to give Maria, the Juliet counterpart, her authentic say — in Spanish.

Scriptwriter Laurents, now 91, apparently shared Sondheim’s misgivings about the authenticity of "West Side Story’s" language. After directing a 2008 Tony Award–nominated revival of "Gypsy" — another musical on which he collaborated with Sondheim half a century ago — he stepped forward to propose and direct a bilingual revival of "West Side Story" that features the Hispanic characters speaking or singing in their native language at selected moments. Sondheim has helped guide the new Spanish lyrics crafted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics for 2008’s Tony Award–winning best musical, "In the Heights," and choreographer Joey McKneely has meticulously re-created and adapted Robbins’s original movement.

The revival — which The New York Times has described as “darker” and “grittier” than the original — opened for a pre-Broadway tryout at Washington’s National Theater, where the musical had its world premiere 51 years ago. New York previews began at the Palace Theater on Feb. 23, with an official opening set for March 19. For months, it has been heralded as a huge landmark on the New York stage. As one observer put it, “It’s the buzz of the theater world!”

“We have come full circle” 

Although the revival of a stage classic was an unusual project for Goodman — who is far more accustomed to discovering little-known playwrights and composers and developing shows from inception to opening night — she says the invitation to be part of theater history was irresistible.

Particularly compelling was her memory of being taken, as an 11-year-old aspiring actress, to see the original production of the show. Also a powerful magnet was her experience working under Arthur Laurents’s direction at Houston’s Alley Theater 40 years ago on a play he had written about the Holocaust.

At a preliminary production meeting for "West Side Story," Laurents — who is, in Goodman’s words, “just as ferocious, acute, demanding and energetic as he was when I was 22” — said to his now-producer, “Robyn, we have come full circle.”

Full circle, indeed. Today a partner in her own production company, Aged in Wood, Goodman began acting as a member of legendary director Morris Carnovsky’s Brandeis ensemble, then went to New York, where she got work in a range of productions, including the off-Broadway hit "When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?" and the TV soap opera "Another World."

Reflecting on the stereotype of starving artists eking out a living by serving food in New York restaurants, she deadpans, “I tried waiting on tables, but I was terrible at it.”

“I think you’re a producer”

Goodman found herself working frequently with famed producer and director Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Public Theater, who chose her to replace Marsha Mason as Lady Anne in a Lincoln Center production of "Richard III" starring Michael Moriarty. And, indeed, it was Papp who first uncovered Goodman’s talent as a producer.

“We were going to do three short plays in England,” she explains, “and at the last minute we found there was no money to send us. So another actress and I called everyone we knew, and we scraped up about $3,000 to get us to London. We produced the plays ourselves, and they were a huge hit. One eminent critic wrote that we had ‘changed the tide of American work being done in London.’”

When Goodman returned to New York, it was with a heap of scripts and ideas for Papp. At her instigation, he produced a female version of Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot" and several works by emerging playwrights. It was in that context that Papp declared, “Robyn, I think you’re a producer.”

With creative partner Carole Rothman, Goodman opened New York’s Second Stage Theatre, which for the past three decades has been helping to launch the careers of playwrights, directors, actors and designers. The title refers to the organizing principle of the company, which was formed to give new life to interesting plays whose premier productions were not widely seen: plays that, as she puts it, “might have run for 12 performances and never been heard of again.” She worked for 13 years with the company, producing 50 shows and discovering a coterie of new playwrights.

For a while, Goodman tried producing for TV and won six Emmy Awards in four years for the soap opera "One Life to Live." Then she returned to the live stage, joining forces with impresario Lynne Meadow to launch the Manhattan Theater Club, where she produced several shows and served as director of artistic development.

From Sesame to Salsa

Since opening Aged in Wood with partners Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, Goodman has had her hand in an array of shows, including "Batboy: The Musical," "Tick, Tick . . . Boom!" "Altar Boyz," "A Class Act" and Metamorphoses. Goodman becomes especially animated when talking about her experience putting together "Avenue Q," which was a kind of profane answer to "Sesame Street," or, in her words, “an adult musical based on the techniques of children’s television.”

What made doing "Avenue Q" so exciting, she says, is that the idea originally came to her in the person of two performers who had simply penned a threesome of eye-opening songs for big, hairy puppets. With titles like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay,” they sparked Goodman’s imagination, and soon she was recruiting a team of writers, director and designers. Before long, "Avenue Q" had a plot, script and score, and its creators carried away a six-pack of Tony Awards, including those for best musical, best book, best score and best direction.

“It was a gratifying experience,” understates Goodman, who repeated the feat in 2008 by pulling down Tony Awards in the best musical, best score and best choreography categories for "In the Heights," a Hispanic-cast musical set in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood and peppered with hip-hop, rap and salsa sounds. She found "In the Heights" when it was in an embryonic state at the Eugene O’Neill Development Center, an incubator for gestating plays in Connecticut, and “happily watched it grow from a sort of lumpy show with brilliant music to an exciting show with brilliant music,” she says.

Casting for conviction

One of the lead performers from "In the Heights," Karen Olivo, is playing the fiery Anita in "West Side Story," and, indeed, all the Puerto Rican characters are portrayed by Hispanic performers. Goodman notes that the casting philosophy was central to Laurents’s vision for the revival, as was the decision to weave Spanish language throughout the text. To make the bilingual approach credible, the librettist-director has the ethnic characters use their native languages when it would be natural for them to do so. Thus, “I Feel Pretty,” a song Maria sings privately with a cluster of her girlfriends, is performed in Spanish, while “America” — in which Anita is making a pitch for assimilation into the U.S. culture — is rendered in English. And, though the setting of the play will remain in the 1950s, Laurents vetted the original script to eliminate incomprehensibly dated expressions.

He also sharpened the violent edges on the gang members. As he told a Playbill reporter, “The musical theater and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters [in the original production] to have any authenticity. Every member of both gangs was always a potential killer even then. Now they actually will be. Only Tony [the American-born Romeo counterpart] and Maria try to live in a different world.”

“'West Side Story,'” Goodman says with a sigh, “I am doing for fun and because I believe my investors will make money. But I think my strongest skills lie in development. I enjoy helping writers and directors realize their vision. The thing that is most satisfying to me is being able to assemble a team of talented people and then help them — by giving them notes, or money or advice, or whatever I can give — to develop their project.”

Theresa Pease is editor of Brandeis University Magazine and a former editor of Playbill in Boston.

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