It is a decade since the superb 50th Anniversary production of “West Side Story” was seen and sixty years since the show was first produced on Broadway. It has become one of the most successful shows of all time so it is surprising to find its success was not all plain sailing and may not have survived so long if it had not been for the London production and the film version.
The cry for help of an actor friend trying to understand the character of Romeo in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set director / choreographer Jerome Robbins’ thinking about the play in the terms of a contemporary love story. It was the kind of idea which excites a Broadway creative talent and he was soon discussing an outline with similar minded talents in the form of composer Leonard Bernstein and book writer Arthur Laurents. The show was to be set in the then present day New York with the rival fractions being the Jews and the Catholics, it was to be called East Side Story. And there the idea ran out of steam as other projects attracted those involved.
It was some six years later when the idea cropped up again. The New York gang wars of the mid-fifties were hot news and all three of the original thinkers realized they fitted perfectly the original Robbins’ concept. The action moved to Upper New York’s west side and the feuding parties became the immigrant Puerto Ricans and more entrenched second and third generation white Americans. The project started up again – this time with the added help of Stephen Sondheim who recently had seen his first Broadway bound show (Saturday Night) fail to get produced. However, his score had been heard by Arthur Laurents who recognized his talent and he was asked to co-write the lyrics with Bernstein. As the project continued young Mr. Sondheim took over most of the lyric writing until the point when there was little of Bernstein’s work in evidence – a factor that Bernstein acknowledged once the show was set by giving him full lyrical billing. But, the original contract stood and Sondheim only received part royalties.
West Side Story arrived on Broadway following a tryout in Philadelphia, as a brash new musical, vastly different in musical form and dance from the recent other big hits: My Fair Lady and The Music Man.
It had a satisfactory run of 732 performances and was taken on tour and brought back again to Broadway in the hope that interest had intensified and it settled down for another 249 performances. London, however, took to it far more fervently and its run (1039 performances) exceeded that of Broadway’s even adding their two runs together.
West Side Story was nominated for six Tony Awards but received only two, that for choreography and scenic design. The big winner that season was The Music Man which surprises some now. But at the time The Music Man was the something rather different and it broke away from some of the conventions of the time. West Side Story for all its glorious score and riveting dance is a rather conventional show following the conventions such as a second act ballet. Even the closing death scene was not so original.
When Hollywood took interest all changed. The studio set out to popularize the score by encouraging songs to be recorded by popular singers and then given air time on both radio and television to get them widely known. At last, the songs of West Side Story were being recognized and soon the score produced many hits. The film went on to win a remarkable 10 Oscars as well as an honorary award for Jerome Robbins. It helped lift the show to its present position of deserved celebrity. Revivals in London and New York have been hugely successful as its timeless theme (after all it was Shakespeare’s) and exciting staging keeps it as new as it was on its opening night on Broadway in 1957.
Rexton S Bunnett Illustrations from the Overtures Archive