December 26th, 2010

wss tony maria by snowy_icons

50 Years of 'West Side Story', Part One

Part One: Making a New Kind of Musical
Jeff Lunden and Scott Simon

Listen to Part 1

Slideshow: See and hear 50 years of 'West Side Story' magic

From its opening moments, West Side Story announced that it was not going to be just another lighthearted Broadway musical.

Based on Romeo and Juliet, the show updated Shakespeare's tragedy of star-crossed lovers and set it on the mean streets of Manhattan.

The creators were a dream team of top theater artists: director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein.

The curtain comes up on a group of teenage punks smoking cigarettes. In the riveting prologue, a conflict between the two rival gangs — the Puerto Rican-born Sharks, led by Bernardo, and the New York-born Jets, led by Riff — is introduced.

"They were under the streetlight," remembers Grover Dale, who played Snowboy, one of the Jets, in the original cast. "Riff steps forward in the darkness, and he kind of surveys the territory. And he starts snapping his fingers."
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west side story by mrbnatural

Part Two: Casting Calls and Out-of-Town Trials


West Side Story was written for a large, young cast. There are lead roles, but the creators weren't looking for stars to fill them.

"Everybody has to seem to be a teenager, and be able to sing a very difficult score, act a very difficult book and dance very difficult dances," recalled Leonard Bernstein at a Dramatists Guild symposium a few years before his death.

Carol Lawrence was 23 when she was called in to audition — over and over again — for the lead role of Maria. The repeated callbacks earned the displeasure of Actors Equity, the performers' union.

"I did 13 auditions, and that got me into all kinds of trouble with Equity," Lawrence recalls. "They did write a law that was, for a while, known as the Carol Lawrence Law, and it says you cannot audition a person more than three times without paying them."

For her final audition, Lawrence was paired with a young chorus boy named Larry Kert, who was up for the part of Tony. The two rehearsed and memorized the balcony scene, but director Jerome Robbins wanted to make the moment spontaneous. He asked Kert to leave the theater.
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wss quintet by sixtiespink

Part Three: Broadway to Hollywood — and Beyond


West Side Story is one of the best musicals ever written, according to Frank Rich, former chief theater critic at New York Times.

And Rich's favorite moment is the "Tonight" quintet: The gangs are getting ready for a rumble, while the lovers are planning a rendezvous.

"Bernstein's bringing all these themes together — it's such highly charged drama," says Rich. "It's the fulcrum of the show, dramatically, when everything has become like a train rushing forward, in a tragedy. And you have this sense of cinematic cross-cutting, done without cinema; done by the art of the theater. That is pretty hard to beat."
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