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Updated 'West Side Story' comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

Working with Arthur Laurents “was like a tutorial for me,” says director David Saint.

Ruth Eckerd Hall

Working with Arthur Laurents “was like a tutorial for me,” says director David Saint.

David Saint is an accomplished man of the theater, as artistic director of the George Street Playhouse, a respected regional theater in New Jersey, but in recent years he has taken on increased importance through his friendship with the late Arthur Laurents and the playwright's longtime partner, Tom Hatcher.

Laurents was one of the giants of American show business, having written the books for West Side Story and Gypsy, not to mention the screenplay for The Way We Were.

"It has been over two years since Arthur died. It has been seven years since Tom died," Saint said in a recent phone interview. "They were like surrogate parents to me in a way."

Saint is executor for Laurents' literary estate, and now heads up the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation — the first of its kind named after a gay couple, he believes — that awards an annual $150,000 grant to an emerging playwright. He also directed the tour of West Side Story that comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall next weekend.

One of Laurents' final acts was to revive the 1957 musical that set Romeo and Juliet amid the street gangs of New York for which he was part of a legendary collaboration with Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (choreography and direction). He had the idea late in his long life — he was 93 when he died — to incorporate Spanish into the dialogue and song lyrics by the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang that goes to war against the Jets. His book with the Spanish was used in the revival he directed that opened in 2009 and ran for almost two years on Broadway.

"There was a lot of attention paid to the Spanish, but what people don't realize is that Arthur made a lot of cuts and tightening in the dialogue," Saint said. "There were certain lines that smacked of musical comedy in the '50s to Arthur, so he cut a lot of them."

The latest version of the West Side Story revival follows the tour that played the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa in 2011. The current non-Equity tour has been on the road since last fall and has its final performances in Clearwater before going on hiatus through the summer. Saint, who was associate director for the Broadway show, directed both tours. He also had a role in the 2008 Broadway revival of Gypsy that Laurents directed, with Pattie LuPone as Mama Rose.

"Arthur was so smart," Saint said. "Gypsy and West Side Story are his two biggest properties, and he wanted me to know literally scene by scene what was important to him in each piece and what's not, and what the focus should be. It was like a tutorial for me."

Now, as Laurents' executor, Saint is called upon to deal with proposals involving the shows, such as a movie of Gypsy starring Barbra Streisand or another screen version of West Side Story. "I feel so equipped now because I know hands-on what Arthur thought about each scene and each line," Saint said.

The Spanish in West Side Story has been trimmed back. "There's a little bit less," Saint said. "For the entire run on Broadway Arthur would go back once a month and give notes and make little changes. Whenever there was a story point that was missed, he would put some more English back in."

Saint edited Laurents' The Rest of the Story: A Life Completed, published posthumously last year. It is a followup to the playwright's classic, compulsively readable autobiography from 2000, Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood. Loaded with inside dish, it was notable for its account of the relationship of Laurents and Hatcher, who were together for 52 years.

"Arthur would constantly get letters from young gay men around the country," Saint said. "His book gave them inspiration that you can not only be happy in a gay relationship for that long but also successful."

Local cast member

Thomas Mothershed, who plays Officer Krupke in West Side Story, is a graduate of Hillsborough High who grew up performing in community theaters like the Masque Theater in Temple Terrace, Royalty Theater in Clearwater and Richey Suncoast Theater in New Port Richey.

Professionally, he got his start at the old Showboat Dinner Theater (a 1980s production of Carnival) and has worked at Stageworks and Show Palace Dinner Theater. He was in My Fair Lady at Asolo Repertory Theatre in 2011.

"West Side Story has been an awesome gig," Mothershed said from a tour stop in Indianapolis. "I was in a tour of Little Shop of Horrors 20 years ago, and this is completely different. It's not nearly as much of a grind. We travel mostly by bus, but because we're in a show that is an American classic, we are fortunate in having longer (runs) and not so many one-nighters."

Mothershed, 44, has lived in Florida since 2004 but expects to move to New York, where he previously lived, once the tour is finished this month. He'll be seeking character roles like Krupke.

"It can be a little scary looking for acting work in your 40s, but I had to grow into my age in order to get work," he said. "I'm a short, bald man, and now people are finally casting me in roles I can actually play."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

>>if you go

West Side Story

The musical opens Friday and runs through June 23 at Ruth Eckerd Hall. $50-$70. (727) 791-7400; rutheckerdhall.com.

Updated 'West Side Story' comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater 06/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 8:45am]
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