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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 6, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 01
The story behind West Side Story
Arts & Entertainment
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The story behind West Side Story

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

West Side Story
Paramount Theater
January 10-15


West Side Story truly deserves the title of being an American classic musical. Not only was it something new and different when it first hit the Great White Way in 1957, but it was so fresh that it changed the world of musical theater and the world around it. Bringing together the sounds of classical music and the new sound of a younger generation, West Side Story developed into a Broadway hit and an American legend.

The idea of a musical to be based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet came from the mind of the great - but temperamental - choreographer Jerome Robbins in 1949. Approaching the maestro Leonard Bernstein (who had previously composed the Broadway musical On the Town) and the playwright Arthur Laurents, Robbins told them his idea of the musical update. It was to be called East Side Story, being set on the lower East Side of New York City, and would be about a Jewish girl who mutually falls in love with an Irish-American Roman Catholic boy. Bernstein wanted to present it in opera form, while Robbins wanted to make more of a balletic piece. Soon creative differences shelved the idea for almost five years.

When Laurents was hired to write the libretto for a different musical, he sought the creative help of Bernstein and Robbins for the project. After much discussion it was decided to revisit the idea of East Side Story instead of a new collaboration. Remembering an article on the rise of gang violence, Laurents decided to update and change the concept of the story's conflict to one between Puerto Rican and white street gangs, and the rest of the creative team agreed. Bernstein decided to concentrate on music only, so Laurents approached an unknown young man who showed great potential: Stephen Sondheim.

Audition notices were sent out requesting 'juvenile delinquent' types who could sing and dance. 'I remember dressing in blue jeans and a white T-shirt,' said Martin Charnin (later to become the creator/director/lyricist of the musical Annie), who originated the role of Jet member Big Deal. 'I put a pack of Lucky Strikes in my shirt sleeve and rolled it up. I combed my hair into a D.A. style and went to the audition.'

The first set of casting cuts were based strictly on looks. The second depended on whether you could continuously snap your fingers (think of the opening number). Eventually, after several long sessions, the cast was chosen. It included Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera, and her future husband Tony Mordente, among many other talents.

Each collaborator faced a different set of challenges when writing the show. Bernstein wanted to mix his classical style with current sounds that would appeal to a younger generation. He used some music originally cut from the musical Candide (a more classical, operatic musical he was writing at the same time) that found its way into West Side Story as 'Gee, Officer Krupke.'

Laurents found that slang words in general become obsolete almost as fast as they are spoken. Plus, dealing with the younger generation, certain obscenities were expected for authenticity, but audiences were not necessarily ready to hear them, nor did the recording censors allow certain expletives. He wrote a mixture of slang and made-up words. 'Frabbajabba' was intermingled with 'cool' and 'daddy-o,' inventing an actual jargon for the gang members. Sondheim has implied that his lyrics for West Side Story are among those that he disapproves of the most in his long, illustrious career as a Broadway lyricist and composer.

'Phrases like 'alarming how charming I feel' or 'an advanced state of shock' might not belong in the mouths of Maria and her friends,' said Sondheim. 'I quickly rewrote the lyric to make it simpler & more with the way Maria and her friends expressed themselves in the rest of the score, but my collaborators would have none of it - they liked it the way it was. And is. I have blushed ever since.'

West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957, and ran for over 732 performances. It would be nominated six times for the 1958 Tony Awards, including Best Featured Actress in a Musical and Best Musical of the Year, but would only win two (Best Scenic Design and Best Choreography). Subsequently, West Side Story would appear a total of five times on Broadway, the most recent run ending January 2011. Over its course, it would be nominated for 14 Tony Awards and would win three times.

When it came time for the stage-to-screen transition, several big names were tossed around for the lead ill-fated couple, Tony and Maria. Warren Beatty, Burt Reynolds, Anthony Perkins, Dennis Hopper, and Elvis were among those considered for the male lead, while Jill St. John, Valerie Harper, Elizabeth Ashley, and Audrey Hepburn were sought after as the female ingénue. Eventually Richard Beymer was chosen to play Tony, and Natalie Wood became Maria (with a singing voice provided by Marni Nixon).

The movie became a hit at its 1961 premiere. It garnered 11 Academy Award nominations. It holds the distinct record to be the only movie musical that boasts 10 Academy wins including Best Picture. While there have been other movies to win 11 Academy Awards, they were not musicals and thus makes West Side Story distinctive.

In 2009 a new version of West Side Story hit Broadway. Conceived by the original librettist Arthur Laurents, new Spanish translations of the lyrics were interwoven into the original songs and dialogue for more 'authenticity.' Tony Award-winning lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) helped to provide the proper translations while working closely with the original creators. The new production ran for 748 performances and closed just shy of its second-year anniversary. The cast recording would win the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album of the Year.

West Side Story continues to be produced around the world. Few shows keep their original punch and current place in society like this musical does - especially as it passes its 55th anniversary. Prejudice and racism unfortunately may always be a part of our world, but the optimism and love shared between star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony continue to give us all eternal hope, while the story/music/lyrics have become immortalized in our hearts. There's a reason this musical is considered to be a classic.

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