West Side Story is hailed as “one of the greatest musicals of all time.” RU Conceived by Arthur Laurents as a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, he recruited Leonard Bernstein for the music, Stephen Sondheim for the lyrics in what would become his Broadway debut, and Jerome Robbins as the choreographer and director. The collaboration resulted in a Tony-award winner on Broadway, an even bigger Academy-award winning film, and a favorite of “schools, regional theatres, and occasionally by opera companies.” WK
The musical “galvanized Broadway with its vivid reinvention as a parable of racial intolerance and generational conflict.” SS “Set in New York City in the mid-1950s, the musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The members of the Sharks from Puerto Rico are taunted by the Jets, a working-class white group. The young protagonist, Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre.” WK
Musically, Bernstein “integrated Latin percussion and jazz into his electrifying score” EV alongside “symphonic grandeur” RU “and a rarely heard (in Broadway) toughness on classics like Jet Song, America, and Cool.” RU Bernstein’s efforts “dazzlingly translating New York’s unique vitality into a musical idiom.” EV
The original Broadway production opened on September 26, 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre and “ran for 732 performances (a successful run for the time), before going on tour.” WK It received a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical, but lost to Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. It did, however, win Tonys for choreography and scenic design. “The show had an even longer-running London production, a number of revivals and international success.” WK
The show was well received by audiences and critics. “The story appealed to society’s undercurrent of rebellion from authority that surfaced in 1950s films like Rebel without a Cause” WK and “the musical also made points in its description of troubled youth and the devastating effects of poverty and racism.” WK
Amongst the musical’s critical acclaim were reviews such as John Chapman’s comments in the New York Daily News, in which he called it “a bold new kind of musical theatre… [which] takes up the American musical idiom where it was left when George Gershwin died.” WK Of the choreography taking center stage, Time magazine said the musical “may prove a milestone in musical-drama history.” WK
How the Musical Came to Be:
Jerome Robbins first approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents in 1949 with his idea of adapting Romeo and Juliet as a contemporary musical. His initial idea was a conflict between a Catholic family and a Jewish family living in Manhattan on the Lower East Side. After Laurents wrote a frist draft called East Side Story, the group considered it too similar to themes already explored in plays like Abie’s Irish Rose. The piece was shelved for nearly five years. WK
Theater producer Martin Gabel approached Laurents in 1955 about writing a stage adaptation of the novel Serenade by James M. Cain. Laurents agreed. Gabel introduced him to Stephen Sondheim, who had a musical, Saturday Night, set to open that fall. Laurents was impressed with the lyrics, but didn’t care for the music. WK
The Serenade project was ultimately shelved, but not before Laurents had tapped Bernstein and Robbins to come on board. It was all just as well since Robbins thought that if they were going to collaborate, they should return to East Side Story. Bernstein agreed. WK
Still, all four men went on to other projects before coming back to East Side Story. Through discussion with Bernstein, Laurents decided to turn the story into one of rival gangs. Robbins was excited about the prospect of a musical with a Latin beat, now that one of the gangs would have Puerto Rican heritage. With Bernstein deciding to focus just on the music, Laurents asked Sondheim if he might take on the lyrics after bumping into him at a party. Sondheim’s Saturday Night had been aborted and he was determined to completely score his next project, but a nudge from Oscar Hammerstein II convinced Sondheim that this would be a good experience. WK
The production would still face challenges. The creative team struggled to find a producer willing to come on board. The musical faced understandably difficult challenges – it was to feature more dancing than in any previous Broadway show WK and critics “said the score was too rangy for pop music.” WK Finding a cast who could sing, dance, and act proved problematic as well. Laurents had wanted James Dean for the lead as Tony, but the actor died before even hearing of the role. The tragic nature of the story was a turn-off as well; “Columbia Records initially declined to record the cast album, saying the score was too depressing and too difficult.” WK
“Two teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, struggle for control of the neighborhood, amidst police whistles and taunts (Prologue).” WK The Jets’ leader, Riff, tries to persuade former gang member Tony to meet them at the neighborhood dance, where the Jets plan to challenge the Sharks to a rumble. “Loyal to Riff, Tony agrees, but he wants no further part of gang life and imagines a better future (Something's Coming).” WK
During a challenge dance (Dance at the Gym), Tony meets Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernando. “They dance together, forgetting the tension in the room, fall in love, and try to kiss, but Bernardo pulls his sister from Tony and sends her home.” WK However, “Tony finds Maria’s building and serenades her outside her bedroom (Maria). He appears on her fire escape, and the two profess their love for one another (Tonight).” WK
Meanwhile, Bernando’s girlfriend and Maria’s friend “Anita and the other Shark girls discuss the differences between Puerto Rico and the United States of America (América).” WK While waiting for the Sharks at the neutral Doc’s Candy Store, the Jets get antsy and “let out all of their aggression that they might exhibit in a large, angry dance (Cool).” WK
The next day at the bridal shop where Maria works, she and Tony “dream of their wedding (One Hand, One Heart). She asks Tony to stop the fight, which he agrees to do.” WK Everyone anticipates what’s to come in Tonight Quintet. When the gangs meet to fight that night, Tony tries to break it up, but a scuffle escalates into a knife fight in The Rumble. At one point, Tony tries to hold Riff back, resulting in him getting stabbed by Bernardo. In a rage, Tony kills Bernardo, the gangs break into a full-fledged free-for-all, and everyone scatters when they hear sirens.
Not knowing what has happened, Maria is home with her friends and daydreaming about seeing Tony in I Feel Pretty. When Maria learns of her brother’s death, she can’t believe it and when Tony arrives, “she throws her fists at him until he finally calms her down and they plan to run away together; as the walls of Maria’s bedroom disappear, they find themselves in a dreamlike world of peace (Somewhere).” WK
In an attempt to get their minds off Riff’s death, the Jets joke about what the adults around them do (Gee, Officer Krupke). However, things turn serious again when they hear of one of the Sharks’ gang member’s plan to hunt Tony down and kill him.
Anita comes to Maria’s apartment and is horrified at the idea that Maria “can love the man who killed her brother (A Boy Like That). Maria responds passionately with her own song (I Have a Love), though, and Anita understands that Maria loves Tony as much as she had loved Bernardo.” WK Anita tells Maria of the plan to kill Tony.
Tony has gone to Doc’s, where Maria plans to meet up with him later so that they can run away. When a police officer arrives to question Maria, Anita reluctantly goes to Doc’s to tell Tony to wait. The Jets taunt Anita at the store, nearly raping her. In tears, she “tells the Jets that Bernardo was right about them, and then claims that Chino [the gang member planning to kill Tony] has killed Maria in jealousy.” WK Doc relays the story to Tony who now feels he has nothing to live for, so he seeks out Chino, begging to die. Tony is shot by Chino just as he sees that Maria is actually alive.
She “holds Tony in her arms (and sings a quiet, brief reprise of ‘Somewhere’) as he dies. The Jets now move towards the Sharks, wanting to avenge the death of another friend. With Chino’s gun in her hand, Maria tells everyone that hatred is what killed Tony and the others and that now she too can kill because she hates. However, she drops the gun in grief and gradually all the gang members on both side “assemble on either side of Tony’s body, showing that the feud is over.” WK
The Movie and Soundtrack:
“On October 18, 1961, a film adaptation of the musical was released.” WK As ground-breaking as the show was on Broadway, it became another animal entirely when transferred to film. The “lavish widescreen presentation broke fresh ground by taking the story to its most impressionable audience, the teenagers who could identify directly with Tony and Maria, and opened up Jerome Robbins’ kinetic choreography through bravura camera work.” SS
Directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, and casting Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony (with singing voices done by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant), the movie “became the second highest grossing film of the year in the United States.” WK “The film holds the distinction of being the musical film with the most Academy Award wins (10 wins), including Best Picture.” WK
While “the 1957 original Broadway cast recording still holds up today, …[it] isn’t as good as the movie soundtrack” RU which “was not merely a huge seller but a unique touchstone for an otherwise rock-oriented audience.” SS It “spent more weeks at #1 in the charts (54) than any other album in history” WR and “made more money than any other album before it.” WK It also won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack or Cast Album.
“The show’s bounty of terrific songs and exciting instrumental pieces remains an ear-filling treat, mixing operatic passions, tart social commentary, and high comedy.” SS It “features all of the show’s important songs, among them Something’s Coming, Maria, Tonight, and Somewhere.” WR
For listeners “most familiar with the work through the film” RU the cast album can “be a bit jarring to find the songs presented in different sequence (‘Cool,’ for instance, comes before the rumble, and Gee, Officer Krupke is one of the last tracks).” RU
The greatest testament to this work is that “the show remains as explosively vibrant, daring, and modern as it was decades ago.” EV It has continued to see new productions and versions over the years. Stan Kenton won a Grammy for his 1961 jazz version. Bernstein re-recorded a more operatic version of the musical in 1984, winning a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. A tribute album was recorded in 1996 with Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Phil Collins, Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, Wynonna Judd, Trisha Yearwood, Selena, Kenny Loggins, Brian Setzer, Sheila E, and others. Another tribute album was recorded in 2007 to mark the musical’s 50th anniversary. In 2009, a new Broadway cast album garnered West Side Story another Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. No matter how you slice it, “this is a landmark in American musical theatre.” SS