December 12th, 2011

wss 1957 tony maria by teragramm

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WEST SIDE STORY: The Making of a Classic

It was September 26, 1957, and something great was coming that evening: a Broadway musical unlike any that had come before. “I thought West Side Story was going to be a flop,” says Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book of the new show. “I thought maybe it would run for three months. I didn’t care. It was so not what a musical should be.”

That was evident to audiences from the outset. West Side Story opened not with a song, not with a book scene, but with a thrilling danced “Prologue.” But this was not dance for dancing’s sake, not a lavish, showy production number designed to get the audience into an upbeat mood. The number featured two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, conveying their hatred toward one another through movement.

The “Prologue” remains one of the most impressive, expressive starts to any musical. But it is probably impossible for modern audiences to understand just how startling and original that number, like the rest of West Side Story, was 50-plus years ago. For generations that have grown up on Company, Follies, A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, Rent, and Movin’ Out, there is nothing particularly surprising about a musical that tells much of its story through dance; a musical that integrates song, dance, drama and design into a seamless, cohesive whole; a musical without a conventional chorus; a musical in which two of the leading characters lie dead onstage at the end of the first act; a musical without an upbeat ending. But these were bold, revolutionary choices by Laurents, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, when West Side Story premiered.
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