by Sylviane Gold
So now it's been 50 years. The show that would make everything different and raise the stakes for American musicals in every creative arena, and dance especially--gave its very first performance on August 19, 1957, in Washington, D.C.
It was, Leonard Bernstein wrote to his wife the next day, "just as we dreamed it. All the ... agony and postponements and re-re-re-writing turn out to have been worth it."
Well, yes. West Side Stop, begun eight years earlier with Jerome Robbins' idea for a Romeo and Juliet story' set in a New York slum, was on at last. And no one had ever seen anything like it. These days, when entertainment "news" pervades the media and just about none of it matters, it's hard to imagine the sensation when it arrived on Broadway.
Partly, it was the explosive subject matter--New York's street gangs had been on the front pages for years, and the notorious "Capeman" murders were recent news; "juvenile delinquency" had become a nationwide bugbear, and a disturbingly "wild" youth culture, exemplified by EMs Presley, was taking hold. West Side Story tapped into the headlines as no musical ever had. And there was the work itself. Bernstein had written what is still arguably the best score ever composed for Broadway. Arthur Laurents had contributed a sharp, fluent book. And a young newcomer by the name of Stephen Sondheim had provided fresh, searing lyrics.
But there had been topical musicals before--even serious ones. Well-regarded writers and composers had done Broadway musicals. What elevated this above the others was the genius of its director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins. He gave West Side Story a groundbreaking, start-to-finish flow of movement that pushed musicals into another dramatic realm.
Using extra rehearsal time and the services of Peter Gennaro as co-choreographer, Robbins separated the ensemble into individuals, giving each one a moniker and keeping the gang members strictly segregated. Gennaro worked with the Sharks while Robbins handled the Jets, so each group bonded and developed its own movement language.
Robbins had enlisted vernacular dance from his earliest days as a choreographer--think Fancy, Free. But the coiled tension in his finger-snapping hoods, the lindys and mambos freighted with drama, and the flashing switchblades and flying limbs of the deadly, climactic rumble created an electricity that one critic of the day likened to atomic fallout.
And there was fallout. Robbins' exacting work altered forever the definition of show dancing. Its influence can be seen not only in the careers of those who danced in it--from the now legendary Chita Rivera in the original cast to replacements like Eliot Feld and Patricia Birch--but in the gypsies now swinging on bungees in Tarzan and parading on pointe in Phantom. Show dancers are better than ever because of West Side Story; that can't be said of shows themselves.
Broadway theaters are still filled with musicals whose outlines could have been drawn before 1957. The main exceptions--Chicago and A Chores Line--are revivals from the '70s. One new musical, Spring Awakening, has the urgent, propulsive form inspired by West Side Story. But Bill T. Jones' wonderfully effective, Tony-winning choreography is limited by the fact that the show uses no trained dancers. In reality, little on Broadway now fulfills the promise of West Side Story.
That's not to say there isn't great dancing on Broadway. Terrific choreographers and dancers are earning paychecks every week. But the mind reels at the thought of what might have been--what should have been--the permanent legacy of Robbins's bold advances.
There's plenty of blame to go round: rock 'n' roll; MDS; unions; Andrew Lloyd Webber. Even Sondheim, whose shows, brilliant though they are, haven't fully incorporated dance as an expressive element. Even The Producers, which, irresistible though it is, helped make old-fashioned musical comedy structures respectable again.
Writing in the Herald Tribune before the New York opening, Laurents remembered the spirit of innovation that had gone into West Side Story: "We all knew what we did not want. Neither formal poetry nor flat reportage; neither opera nor split-level musical comedy numbers; neither zippered-in ballets nor characterless dance routines." Once we saw the show (or the equally groundbreaking movie), we didn't want those things anymore either. But today, in good shows and bad, you can find all of the above on Broadway.
In that letter to his wife (it's on westsidestory.com), Bernstein added: "I am now convinced that what we dreamed all these years is possible; because there stands that tragic story, with a theme as profound as love versus hate, with all the theatrical risks of death and racial issues and young performers and 'serious' music and complicated balletics--and it all added up for audience and critics."
It would today too. But 50 years on, the question needs to be asked: Who is working on a Broadway musical with a tragic story, a profound theme, social issues, serious music, and complicated dancing? Where are the producers who would hire 40 performers and 30 musicians to put it on? And where is the audience that would embrace it?