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West Side Story: the hit that almost didn’t happen

By Richard Ouzounian
Theatre Critic

It’s the best musical that you almost never saw.

West Side Story starts a run for Dancap Productions at the Toronto Centre for the Arts this week. It’s the touring company from the most recent Broadway revival of a show that everyone now not only considers a classic but credits with having taken the musical theatre in new and darker directions.

And it almost didn’t happen. Three times.

It started in 1949, when composer Leonard Bernstein, author Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins decided to create a new modern musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

They were planning to set it on the mean streets of Manhattan, where rival gangs of Christians and Jews would spill their blood in fights while two of their own fell in love, all over one of those weekends when Easter and Passover happened together on the calendar.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t really come together. That kind of conflict had been fuelling Broadway from a comic point of view for years (most notably in the now forgotten monster hit from the 1920s, Abie’s Irish Rose.) In fact, it was to surface one more time on television in the 1970s as the sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie.

But Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins called it quits for East SideStory (as it was then known) and the show died its first death.

Flash forward to 1955, when Bernstein and Laurents were working on different projects in Hollywood. On the particular day they met poolside at their hotel to catch up, the newspapers were filled with news of the gang wars where whites squared off against Chicanos in Los Angeles.

Laurents instantly saw a way of updating their earlier project, but Bernstein held out for New York and Puerto Ricans, rather than Los Angeles and Mexicans. And since the geography had changed as well as the ethnic mix, why not transform the name to West Side Story?

Robbins agreed with the choices and the work started again. The only problem was that Bernstein was also writing a musical based on Candide and felt he needed someone else to do the lyrics, so a young man named Stephen Sondheim was drafted into the project.

The quartet came up with a powerful show, but nobody wanted to do it. After all, the first act ended with a switchblade fight that left two bodies onstage and the leading man was dead at the final curtain.

No, My Fair Lady was the big hit. That was nice. Why didn’t these boys write something like that?

Finally, a flamboyant producer named Cheryl Crawford agreed to do the show, but after a final backers’ audition that failed to raise a single cent, she dropped the show and it died a second time, eight weeks before it was supposed to start rehearsals.

A despairing Sondheim called up his good friend Hal Prince, another young man who was earning his stripes in show business, but as a producer. He had a show in trouble on the road, a musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie called New Girl in Town, with Gwen Verdon as a singing, dancing lady of the night.

Prince couldn’t bear to see talents like Laurents, Bernstein, Robbins and Sondheim work so hard only to have it vanish into nothingness, so he agreed to produce the show.

He cut the budget heavily, so heavily in fact that Robbins suddenly refused to direct the show, effectively killing it for the third time.

But the canny Prince realized Robbins’ tactic was driven by fear more than greed. He offered him additional weeks to work on the show’s dancing, while still keeping the budgets lean, and the show finally went into rehearsal.

Pictures of the original production reveal a musical that wasn’t much to look at, but when it moved it was pretty wonderful.

A lot of changes were made during preparation, rehearsals and tryout. “One Hand, One Heart” originally anchored the balcony scene, until Sondheim convinced everyone something with more passionate energy was needed and “Tonight” was written.

The second act needed some comedy relief, so they added “Gee, Officer Krupke.” When it stopped the show, they wrote a new song for Act I, “Kids Ain’t (Like Everybody Else)”, but it tipped the balance of the piece towards comedy and was cut.

Although it now seems like it must have been there from the beginning, Tony’s “Something’s Coming” was added very late in rehearsals, finally making the piece whole.

Rehearsals, by the way, were very painful affairs, with Robbins ordering the Jets and Sharks to keep in character all the time, keeping the hostility up onstage as well as off. (Lee Becker as the outcast, Anybodys, found she never had anybody to lunch with, ever.)

It finally opened in 1957 to powerful reviews but a fairly limited run of 732 performances and it lost most of the Tony Awards that year to the feel-good grin of The Music Man.

Only after the film version became such a giant hit in 1961 (winning 10 of 11 Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture) did West Side Story start to achieve the status it has today.

Revived all over the world, it’s also one of the very few musicals that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has successfully produced twice, in 1999 with Tyley Ross and Ma-Anne Dionisio, and in 2009 with Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy.
Tags: 1957 broadway, 1961 film, arthur laurents, hal prince, jerome robbins, leonard bernstein, lost songs, stephen sondheim
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