Episode Five: Tradition (1957-1979)
West Side Story not only brings untraditional subject matter to the musical stage, it ushers in a new breed of director/choreographer who insists on performers who can dance, sing and act.
... But by the time Jerome Robbins’ last original musical, Fiddler on the Roof, closes after a record run of 3,242 performances in 1972, the world of Broadway has changed forever. Rock ‘n’ roll, civil rights and Vietnam usher in new talents, many trained by the retiring masters, taking musical theater in daring new directions with innovative productions like Hair, the first Broadway musical with an entire score of rock music. The non-linear narrative of George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Company plunges the musical into a new era. Hal Prince’s conceptual staging showcases John Kander and Fred Ebb’s dynamic score for Cabaret. Bob Fosse captures a sexuality and cynicism ahead of its time with Chicago, but it is director/choreographer Michael Bennett who spearheads the biggest blockbuster of all – A Chorus Line. “It totally changed the musical theater,” says Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld. “It was a catalyst for the improvement of this area, and of course this area is now the most desirable area in New York.” With Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Broadway musical reaches unexpected new heights in style and material with a tale of slaughter and cannibalism set in 19th-century London. By the end of the 1970s, Broadway becomes the centerpiece of a remarkably successful public relations campaign that will lure tourists to New York for years to come.
The episode features interviews with actor Joel Grey, composer Marvin Hamlisch, actor Jerry Orbach, producer Hal Prince, writer Frank Rich, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, director Julie Taymor, and actor Ben Vereen. Highlights include rare footage of Ethel Merman rehearsing for Gypsy and home movies from the original stage production of Chicago.
West Side Story
Premier: September 26, 1957 Theater: Winter Garden Theater Music by: Leonard Bernstein Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim Book by: Arthur Laurents Directed by: Jerome Robbins Choreography by: Jerome Robbins Produced by: Robert Griffith and Harold S. Prince
"Something's Coming" "Maria" "Tonight" "America" "I Feel Pretty" "Somewhere"
In 1949, Jerome Robbins called Leonard Bernstein about a new idea he had for a musical: a modern update of “Romeo and Juliet,” only the star-crossed lovers would be Catholic and Jewish, and it would take place on the Lower East Side. They brought in playwright Arthur Laurents to do the libretto, but six years into the planning stage, the Catholic-Jewish conflict seemed old hat. In the meantime, the papers were filled with stories of juvenile gang warfare among the burgeoning Hispanic populations of Los Angeles and Spanish Harlem. Now, the idea finally seemed vibrant and timely. The team also acquired a new lyricist when Bernstein gave up the notion of doing the words himself: Stephen Sondheim, a young protégé of Oscar Hammerstein’s and a composer in his own right.
Following Shakespeare’s model, the team constructed a story of star-crossed lovers caught between rival gangs — this time Puerto Ricans (Sharks) and white ethnics (Jets) on New York City’s Upper West Side. Tony (former leader of the Jets) falls in love with Maria (sister of the leader of the Sharks) at a high school dance, despite the tragic impossibility of their situation. When, in a gang rumble, he impetuously kills Maria’s brother, Bernardo, while defending his own friend, he sets the romance on an inevitably fatal course.
The transposition from Renaissance Verona to West 74th Street was accomplished seamlessly, and the entire stage exploded with Robbins’ athletic choreography. Reviews for “West Side Story” were generally positive, but the show’s tragic demeanor — two deaths at the end of the first act, one at the end of the show — was off-putting to some. That year, the show lost all of the major Tony Awards® to the far more traditional “The Music Man.”