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‘West Side Story’: How We Covered the Classic N.Y.C. Musical
Since its 1957 premiere, The New York Times has tracked the musical’s evolution, covering its casting, its politics and its role in the Cold War along the way.

By Jennifer Schuessler

From the time it was announced, the new revival of “West Side Story” directed by Ivo van Hove has drawn curiosity: Just how radically would the beloved classic be transformed? (What — no “I Feel Pretty”?)

But the original — with its lush Leonard Bernstein score, finger-snapping Jerome Robbins choreography and lyrics by a then little-known Stephen Sondheim — was itself hailed as startlingly new almost from its opening night, on Sept. 26, 1957.

“Everything in ‘West Side Story’ is of a piece,” Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote the next day about the show’s retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” against the backdrop of gang conflict. “Everything contributes to the total impression of wildness, ecstasy and anguish.”

In the years since, The Times has tracked the musical as it moved from stage to screen and back again, touching on the politics of casting; its value as Cold War propaganda; and its relationship with the evolving city whose rhythms and troubles it aimed to capture.

With the new revival in previews and scheduled to open next month at the Broadway Theater, here’s a look back at nine stories The Times has told about the show over the years — and one tantalizing “what if?” that we missed.

Make Way for … “Gang Way”?

The musical was first mentioned in The Times in 1956, but the newspaper was sometimes confused about what it was called. A brief item on June 24, 1957, listing rehearsal dates for shows in the upcoming Broadway season, referred to it by the working title “Gang Way!”

Arthur Laurents, who wrote the show’s book, later said he had tossed that in as a joke, after a producer said “West Side Story” was a bad title. His mock title “even made it on the back of the scenery,” Laurents later recalled.

The First Glimpse

Times readers got their first look at the show on Sept. 8, 1957, a few weeks before the opening, when the paper published a photo spread by Fred Fehl, a Vienna-born refugee who was among the first to use light, fast cameras and existing stage lighting to take candid performance shots.

“Before Fehl, the usual Broadway picture was posed,” the theater scholar William Stott wrote in the introduction to a 1978 collection of Fehl’s photographs. “After him, the usual picture was done his way.”

Scouring for Stars

A few days before the opening, The Times recounted how the creators had held “one of the most notable casting marathons of modern theater,” an eight-month, coast-to-coast “dragnet” that scoured settlement houses, high schools, ballet companies, college choirs and, yes, casting agents’ offices.

Ultimately, they cast only professionals, well known and not, including Carol Lawrence, who arrived “heavily made up and bejeweled, trying to create her impression of a Juliet from Puerto Rico,” The Times reported.

“I told her to go home and take a shower and come back,” Robbins, who directed the show, said.

There had been auditions in East Harlem, The Times noted. But aside from Chita Rivera (who played Anita), only one Puerto Rican was cast — Jamie Sanchez, 18, who played Chino, one of the Sharks.

Breezes, or Diseases?

Atkinson’s review called the musical “a profoundly moving show that is as ugly as the city jungles and also pathetic, tender and forgiving.” But not everyone was enamored by the show’s social commentary.

Even before opening night, The Times reported, some Puerto Ricans on the island and in New York had raised objections — especially to a lyric in the song “America” that rhymed “island of tropical breezes” and “island of tropic diseases.”

In the article, headlined “The Facts Don’t Rhyme,” Dr. Howard A. Rusk, the paper’s medical columnist, called the line “a blow below the belt.” In fact, he wrote, Puerto Rico had dramatically lowered the incidence of malaria, cholera and yellow fever and had “no significant disease problems related to its tropic climate.”

“Would that we in New York City could find as effective measures to control our social blight of juvenile delinquency,” he added.

In his 2010 memoir, “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim called the outrage understandable, but said, “I wasn’t about to sacrifice the line that sets the tone for the whole lyric.” Still, the offending passage was rewritten for the 1961 movie.

East Bloc Story

In April 1959, The Times noted the visit by some “frolicsome Bolshoi dancers” on tour, who mostly couldn’t follow the English dialogue but joined the cast backstage for a post-show mambo lesson.

Effort to enlist the show as Cold War cultural outreach — or propaganda — proved more complicated.

In Sept. 1959, Max Frankel, one of the newspaper’s Moscow correspondents, filed a dispatch in the form of a letter to the drama editor, criticizing the State Department’s decision not to sanction a tour in Moscow, lest it promote “an unglamorous aspect of American life.”

Frankel, in what he called a bit of reporter’s “agitprop,” lamented the decision as a missed opportunity to showcase American commitment to artistic freedom. “Many here may be impressed more with the stark fact that we are not only free to produce such dramas but that we are also proud to send them abroad,” he wrote.

The Russians, it turns out, didn’t wait for permission. That December, The Times published a UPI story reporting that they intended to stage their own unauthorized adaptation, leaving out most of the music and dancing “to emphasize the theme of racial conflict.”

The 1961 movie drew rave reviews, with Bosley Crowther of The Times calling it a “masterpiece.” But one crucial performer went unnamed, in the film’s credits or, initially, anywhere else — Marni Nixon, who provided the singing for Natalie Wood’s Maria.

A year later, The Times reported on Nixon’s successful campaign to win royalties for the soundtrack (which Nixon, in her 2006 memoir, said were granted only after Bernstein agreed to give her a small percentage of his royalties).

“Assistant hair dressers and third assistant directors are getting screen credit,” the singer, who remained officially uncredited, told The Times. “Why shouldn’t they give screen credit to someone who does the singing for a star?”

A Puerto Rican Maria

In 1971, The Times briefly noted what was believed to be the first production of “West Side Story” with an all-Hispanic cast — an outdoor production sponsored by the city and performed in a park near Lincoln Center.

In 1980, Broadway got its first Puerto Rican Maria when Josie de Guzman took on the role for a revival at the Minskoff Theater, directed again by Robbins.

In a joint profile of her and Debbie Allen (who played Anita), the Times reporter Nan Robertson described de Guzman’s initial “revolt” when the production darkened her hair. “Oh my God, I am Puerto Rican — why do they have to darken my hair?” she was quoted as saying. They also darkened her skin, Robertson noted.

Today, de Guzman, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance, recalls the show as “a perfect experience,” though she also recalled her reluctance to alter her appearance.

“I didn’t want to do any of it,” she said by telephone last month. “After six months, I said to Robbins, ‘Can I not put on anymore of this makeup?’ He said, ‘O.K. The critics are gone. Yeah, sure.’”

“The sensibility nowadays is so different,” she continued. “I think it’s dangerous to judge from the mind-set of today.”

Is “West Side Story” Dated?

In 1957, the show’s depiction of gang violence had shocked critics. By the 1980 revival, the show struck some as close to a period piece, at least sociologically.

“These days, it’s hard for me to imagine how my parents thought this show too ‘adult’ for an 8-year-old when it passed through Washington, D.C. during its original pre-Broadway tryout,” Frank Rich, who had recently been hired by The Times, wrote in a 1980 essay surveying a flood of Broadway revivals.

“The sociology and liberal faith of Arthur Laurents’s book are now fairly meaningless,” he continued. “We no longer feel that ghetto tragedies can be overcome by pleas for tolerance and understanding.”

Going Bilingual. (Maybe.)

The 2009 Broadway revival, directed by Laurents, was the last to be led by a member of the original creative team. It also made efforts to add — or restore, depending how you look at it — some gritty authenticity.

In an interview with The Times, Laurents, 91 and long known for trading jabs with erstwhile (and, by then, mostly dead) creative partners, called Robbins’s 1980 revival bland. He also didn’t mince words about the movie, which he summed up as “bogus accents, bogus dialect, bogus costumes.”

So in his version, the choreography was adjusted, including in the scene where Anita is assaulted, which took on a heightened edge of violence. “We don’t treat them as lovable little thugs,” Laurents told The Times. (Cast members, the Times reported, also referred to the incident explicitly as a “rape.”)

But the most talked-about change was hiring Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose “In the Heights” had just won the Tony for Best Musical, to translate some dialogue and some of the songs into Spanish.

Reactions were mixed, and five months into the run, some of the Spanish translations reverted to English to ensure “a bigger dramatic wallop,” as one producer put it.

… O.K., We Missed One

Among the more tantalizing (and possibly apocryphal) threads of “West Side Story” lore popped up not in The Times, but in an interview Laurents gave to The Hartford Courant shortly before his death in 2011, in which he addressed rumors that Disney had once proposed an animated version of “West Side Story” with … cats?

“Someplace I have a seven-minute reel that they made with white cats and black cats,” he said. “I remember the Maria cat came down the rope of a steamer illegally into the country. In the end I remember the Tony cat got run over. You can’t believe how terrible it was.”§ion=Theater
Tags: 1957 broadway, 1961 film, 1980 broadway revival, 2009 broadway revival, 2020 broadway revival
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