Jeff Lunden and Scott Simon
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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."
The other Jets come down off the steps, put their cigarettes out, and join him — "and they start to strut and they start to feel good about the bonds between them," Dale says. "And then there was movement that said, 'Don't mess with me, because if you do, you're…'
"And suddenly, Bernardo, the first Puerto Rican kid, arrives on the stage — and we stop. And those first 45 seconds were the inciting incident that made the story unfold, the tragedy unfold."
It was a visceral moment for 1957 audiences. West Side Story was ripped from the headlines of the day; gang violence was a shocking new phenomenon in the late 1950s.
"Not that much earlier, [Estes] Kefauver had held hearings in the Senate about youth culture and violence in comic books, and people were sort of dazed by ... what was going on," says New York Times columnist Frank Rich. "And I think West Side Story was one of the first pieces of mainstream popular culture to put its finger on what was going to be a huge movement of social change in America in a new generation."
East Side, West Side — All Over the Town
The original idea for the show actually placed the story in a different part of town, composer Leonard Bernstein remembered at a Dramatists Guild symposium in 1985.
"It was conceived on the East Side of New York, and was a kind of 'East Side Story' version of Romeo and Juliet involving, as the feuding parties, Catholics and Jews," said Bernstein, who died in 1990. "And the time was the coincidence of the Passover/Easter season, in which feelings in the streets ran very high. And there was a lot of slugging and some bloodletting, which seemed to match the Romeo story very well."
But that show had already been done — the Jewish-Catholic conflict was the subject of the long-running Broadway play Abie's Irish Rose. So playwright Arthur Laurents, now 89, says they decided to drop it. It was only later that they realized the conflict of New York gangs could drive their story.
"At that time, the papers were full of juvenile delinquents and gangs," Laurents says. "And then we really got excited."
But not many others did. This was 1957, remember — and as Bernstein recalled it, "the idea of a musical, the first act of which ends with two corpses on the stage ... was really reprehensible to many people."
It wasn't just the subject matter that made West Side Story different from other musicals of the day. It seamlessly integrated story, song and dance into a work that looked, sounded and moved like no other musical before it.
"The scenery moved before your eyes, from set to set to set, so there was a kind of continuous movement — cinematic," says Harold Prince, the show's original producer. And, Prince adds, West Side Story needed a new type of performer that would come to be known in Broadway parlance as the triple-threat: "It was the first time in the history of the theater that the entire cast sang, danced and acted."
Laurents, a celebrated playwright and a screenwriter for Alfred Hitchcock, had never written a musical before. He and his collaborators knew they were doing something different.
"We had a vision of what we call — for want of a better phrase — lyric theater," Laurents says. "And it wasn't something that, you know, we sat down and said, "Now it'll be this or that.' It was something that, intuitively, we all shared and we all felt."
By that time, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins had had an equally successful career at the New York City Ballet and on Broadway. Robbins, who died in 1998, said Laurents' enthusiasm was contagious.
"I think it was one of the most exciting periods in the theater I've ever had — that period of the collaboration where we were feeding each other all the time," Robbins said. "Arthur would come in with a scene, [and] someone would say, 'I think I can do a song on this.' I'd supply, 'Hey, how about if we did this with a dance? What if we did this? What if we did that?'"
Leonard Bernstein was already a superstar by the time he took on West Side Story. He conducted the New York Philharmonic and hosted its Young People's Concerts on television. He and Robbins had already collaborated on some ballets and the musical On the Town. But for West Side Story, they spent hours together in the studio, working out how to use dance to propel the plot.
"I remember all my collaborations with Jerry in terms of one tactile bodily feeling," Bernstein recalled at that Dramatists Guild symposium, "which is his hands on my shoulders — composing with his hands on my shoulders.
"I can feel him standing behind me, saying, 'Yeah, now just about four more beats there, and another bar ... No, that's too much, too many ... Yeah, that's it!"
It went the other way, too, Robbins told the same audience.
"Lenny would play something, and I'd take off right there in the room he was composing in. I'd say, 'Oh, I can see this kind of movement or that kind of movement.'"
Finding Words, and Music, for an American Tragedy
In changing Shakespeare's story from warring families in Verona to warring gangs on the streets of Manhattan, all the creators worked hard to find a tone that combined poetry and realism.
"You have to remember, in 1957, you couldn't use four-letter words," Laurents says. "You had to give the illusion that it was tough talk without exactly writing it."
Lyricist Stephen Sondheim — who at 27 was making his Broadway debut — says he tried to keep his words simple.
"My idea of poetic lyrics is, because music is so rich, I think you have to underwrite them, not overwrite them," he says. "And that accounts for lines like, 'Maria / I just met a girl named Maria,' because with music that soars that way, if you start trying to put 'poetry' — or purple prose — into it, it just becomes like an overly rich fruitcake."
Sondheim says Laurents streamlined Shakespeare's play into one of the shortest librettos ever written for a Broadway musical.
"What is remarkable, I think, is the compactness of the plotting," Sondheim says. That's one of the things that drives this show, even when it is not well sung or well danced or well set on the stage. The plot is still exciting."
And Laurents made changes to Shakespeare's plot. Where Juliet takes a sleeping potion and Romeo mistakes her for dead, the mistake in West Side Story results from the animosity between the white gang and the Puerto Ricans. Anita, the equivalent of Romeo and Juliet's Nurse, goes to the Jets' hangout, a drugstore, to tell Tony where to meet Maria. But the Jets taunt her and rape her. Hurt and furious, Anita blurts out that Maria is dead.
"The thing I'm proudest of, in the telling of the story," Laurents says, "is why she can't get the message through — which is prejudice, which is right in with the theme of the piece."
The other big change is that Maria, the Juliet equivalent, lives. Laurents thinks it's the right choice for the show, but there's one aspect of it he and his collaborators never quite got right.
"I've always said I believe the climax of a musical ... should be musicalized," Laurents says. But the climax of West Side Story isn't — it's a speech.
"It's what I wrote as a dummy lyric for an aria for Maria — some rather flossy words about guns and bullets," Laurents says. "It was supposed to be set to music, and it never was."
But Bernstein disputed that. He told the Dramatists Guild symposium that he'd tried to write a song for that lyric — tried "four or five times," in fact.
"It's not that I didn't try," he said. "I tried every way!"
Leaps of Faith: The Search for Backers
The collaborators tried even harder to sell the show. Bernstein remembered auditioning the sophisticated score for Columbia Records — his own label — and initially getting turned down.
"They said there's nothing in it anybody can sing," he recalled. "It's too depressing, it's too advanced, it's too crazy, there are too many tritones, there are too many words in the lyrics — nobody can remember them. It's too rangy."
An adventurous producer, Cheryl Crawford, agreed to do it. But she dropped West Side Story only a few months before it was set to go into rehearsal. Dejected, Sondheim called a friend, the producer Hal Prince, who was in Boston working on his own troubled show.
"I'm pouring out my angst," Prince remembers. "And when I get all through, Steve, very nice fellow, listening to all of it, finally says to me, 'So you wanna know what's going on with us?'
"He said, 'We have no show.' I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'Cheryl Crawford walked out — she can't find the backers for it.'"
Prince was immediately intrigued. "Steve had played all the music for me, but had sworn me to secrecy, because Lenny did not want anybody to hear the material," he says. "So I jumped — I said, 'We would be interested.' Shocked him: He didn't call for that reason, at all."
With Prince and his partners on board, West Side Story was finally ready to go.