By Dennis Razze
“The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.”
This was the opening line of Walter Kerr’s review of the opening night performance of West Side Story published in the New York Herald Tribune on September 27, 1957. To Kerr, the impact of the musical was as if an atomic bomb dropped on Manhattan—West Side Story certainly changed the American musical forever.
Originally entitled East Side Story with an incendiary romance between a Catholic Tony and Jewish Maria, the story evolved into street warfare between an American gang called the Jets and a Puerto Rican gang named the Sharks. Partly this was because composer Leonard Bernstein became intrigued by the gang conflicts between the Americans and the Mexicans in Los Angeles and wanted to locate the setting of the musical there. But Jerome Robbins, who had conceived the idea to adapt Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary musical nearly a decade earlier, stuck to his New York roots. The musical moved from the East Side to the West Side where the Jets were fighting to hold their turf from the encroaching Sharks.
West Side Story was not the first, nor the last, musical to be adapted from one of Shakespeare’s plays. The Boys from Syracuse, Kiss Me Kate, Two Gentleman of Verona, and more recently Something’s Rotten were all inspired by the Bard. But no other musical changed the landscape of musical theatre the way West Side did—the music bordered on the operatic meshed with a Latin fusion, the lyrics were simple but unforgettable, and the dance was the most exciting, lyrical, and powerful dance ever seen on Broadway.
Four geniuses of Jewish descent created this masterpiece and each of them contributed key ingredients to its success: Jerome Robbins who conceived the work, directed and choreographed; Leonard Bernstein, a Harvard-trained composer and world renowned conductor, composed the score; Arthur Laurents, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, wrote the book, and a young Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics.
Although Bernstein served as the famous conductor of the New York Philharmonic and was revered in the classical musical world, he may be most remembered for the soaring and percussive, jazz-infused music he wrote for West Side Story. Years later Bernstein recalled, “This was one of the most extraordinary collaborations of my life, perhaps the most, in that very sense of our nourishing one another. There was a generosity on everybody’s part that I’ve rarely seen in the theatre… Without any consciousness of it we were all just high on the work and loving it.”
Bernstein was writing the score of West Side while also working on the musical Candide and some material moved from one show to the other. The song “One Hand One Heart” was originally meant for the heroine of Candide, Cunégonde, to sing, and the music for “Gee, Officer Krupke” was pulled from the Venetian scene in Candide.
Bernstein’s music is perfectly coupled with Sondheim’s beautifully poetic yet gritty urban lyrics. Sondheim would have liked to use even coarser contemporary language, but the f-bomb was switched to “Gee Officer Krupke, krup you!” In his 2000 memoir, Laurents recalls that Sondheim would have preferred to write both music and lyrics himself, but his mentor Oscar Hammerstein convinced him it would be a great experience for him to work with Bernstein and Robbins.
Laurents’ book exquisitely and movingly retells the key events in Romeo and Juliet with an unforgettable balcony scene, a dance at a gym instead of the Capulet’s ball, and a rumble under a bridge instead of a duel in the town square.
Contrary to Bernstein’s memory of the generous spirit of the group of artists that created West Side Story, this brilliant team of collaborators was not always a cohesive one. Disagreements were as frequent and as tense as the gang warfare in the play, and by opening night none of the collaborators were speaking to Jerome Robbins: he had made many decisions on his own without consulting the others. He used his credit “conceived by Jerome Robbins” as justification for taking the lead role in the decision-making and his choreography took center focus in the show. Walter Kerr noted in his review: “Director, choreographer, and ideaman Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we’ve been exposed to in a dozen seasons.”
Time magazine’s review stated that by “putting choreography foremost, (West Side Story) may prove a milestone in musical-drama history….”
For subsequent revivals of the show, Robbins’ choreography is almost always recreated. A choreographic manual is provided with the script, but even that is incomplete. Performers are dependent on dancers and choreographers who have passed down the remembered movement: as a result there are many variations.
When Robbins presented a Broadway revue of his greatest hits (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in 1989), he had to employ many dancers who had previously performed in productions to help recreate the choreography, as he himself no longer remembered each and every step. A few modern choreographers have attempted to create new dances for the music, but they almost always end up adapting the iconic memorable movement created by Jerome Robbins.
The film version of the musical, which premiered in 1961, provides some representation of the dances. However much of the movement was altered for the film by Robbins, who was later replaced by Robert Wise as director, and the screenplay re-orders several key events in the story. The alleyways and fire escapes of the setting for the story were filmed in the blocks of New York that became the locations for Lincoln Center and the Julliard School. The film won a total of 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture—one of the few movie musicals ever to receive that honor.
The recent Broadway revival directed by Arthur Laurents, in an attempt to modernize the piece, translated many of Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish. Lin- Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway hit Hamilton, did the adaptation. However, due to the audience response, most of the English lyrics were eventually restored.
West Side Story remains one of the greatest achievements in the American musical theatre. Few Broadway scores are as successful and memorable as Bernstein’s, and Robbins’ choreography set the standard for all of the dance musicals that were to follow.