17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 57


West Side Story (Prince Edward) A Huey P Newton (Barbican)

A weary retread

Sheridan Morley

The imminence of a recession can often be judged in direct proportion to the num- ber of old musicals around; it's about as reliable an indicator as any other, though it is not usually necessary to run for the bank until they announce Forty-Second Street. By that token, so far so good, though we do already have Annie and Oklahoma! and Chicago and Grease and Saturday Night Fever, with Fame and The King & I and The Sound of Music just waiting in the wings. We also have West Side Story back at the Prince Edward some 40 years after it was first seen here, though, by the look of it, in the same production and with the same now somewhat tacky sets.

One of the great advances in musical revivals this last year or two has been the final destruction of the power of the origi- nal choreographer. While nobody would have dreamt of reviving, for example, the Rouben Mamoulian Oklahoma!, though he was indeed its first director back in 1943, it was until recently considered perfectly respectable to leave Agnes de Mille's name on the credits, despite her original routines being restaged by dance directors probably not even born when she first took her sec- ond world war rehearsals. Mercifully all that has changed, and the new National Oklahoma! (soon to move to the Lyceum and then doubtless New York) has been brought to totally new life by Susan Stro- man, just as the current Broadway Cabaret has precious little to do with Bob Fosse or even Hal Prince.

For some unfathomable reason, howev- er, West Side Story is still being revived in its original version, despite the fact that of the original creators Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and the designers are all dead, leaving only an octogenarian Arthur Laurents, who has this month been openly denying Robbins's claim to his 'orig- inal concept' credit, and Stephen Sondheim who has often denigrated his own first Broadway lyrics.

So why now bring into the West End, after months on the road, this weary retread instead of taking the opportunity to have a new team look at the original clas- sic? Even that was not, after all, what Rob- bins originally wanted; his idea had been to set the whole thing in California, have it written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and concern a battle between Catholics and Jews, a kind of musical Abie's Irish Rose. The fact that what emerged in 1957 had a great deal more to do with Laurents and Sondheim and Bern- stein than Robbins himself is only now, a few months after his death, being generally admitted; but we are still stuck with his sec- ond-act 'dream ballet', or a handed-down version thereof, even though its convention was already looking tired back then.

What is going on now at the Prince Edward is little short of disgraceful, though I think it must be some tribute to the ever- lasting power of West Side Story's immortal soul and score that precious few of my col- leagues have bothered to record the fact. Nobody seeing the show for the first time in this exhausted road-revival could have any idea of the power of the original, nor what it meant in the history of the Ameri- can musical; you might as well go to see the movie, which at least has the virtue of showing us what New York looked like before they built the Lincoln Centre and bulldozed the alleyways where the Sharks and the Jets first snapped their fingers in that historic gesture of defiance at just about every musical that had gone before it.

In the era of Rent it is simply not good enough to pretend that 40 years of musical theatre have never happened; whoever thought that West Side Story would end up as a museum piece, as firmly set in con- crete as any of the buildings which have replaced its original mean streets? This is a show, and a score, which desperately needs to be reconsidered for the Millennium; not just because a number like 'I Feel Pretty' would now sit more happily in a revival of Flower Drum Song, but because nobody is ever going to know why West Side Story mattered so much if it goes on getting revived like this. It was the first show to use dance and song to further the plot instead of interrupt it; it was the first to have almost no adults in the cast unless you count the wise old bartender, last seen as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, or the cops who are there to remind us just how oppressive the land of the free really was to its Puerto Rican immigrants. Above all, it was the first great Broadway hit after My Fair Lady, only a few months earlier, low- ered the final curtain on the old book musical which had then been around for the best part of a century. West Side Story was where the modern stage musical start- ed, and it is just awful now to see it looking so arthritic and lame and lacking in any real theatrical energy or pace. Better surely to bury it for a while until some new direc- tor or choreographer has the courage to reconsider it for a new generation. As the Barbican's International Theatre Season, just about the best thing ever to have happened in that City centre fun- palace, draws after six months to its close, Roger Guenveur Smith's A Huey P Newton story will come as something of a shock to anyone expecting a traditionally linear solo show about the co-founder of the Black Panthers. Instead, this is a rambling, ran- dom collage portrait of a man who memo- rably refused to be 'idol or icon or leader or poster boy'. As actor and creator Smith has devised a memorably eccentric stream of biographical consciousness which never really attempts to tell Newton's extraordi- nary story (precious few black leaders have been so sartorially obsessive as to pistol- whip their tailors), but instead leaves us with something infinitely more haunting, the thought of who Newton might have been, as well as who he sometimes was.