Mention the names of lovers Tony and Maria or the song titles “Somewhere” or “I Like to Be in America” to just about any Baby Boomer and they’ll immediately know you’re talking about one of the greatest defining American musicals of their era, West Side Story.
For more than six decades now, Leonard Bernstein’s compelling, tragic reworking of the classic Romeo and Juliet tale set in New York City in the 1950s has been captivating hearts and minds of audiences around the world. But in today’s America, given our bitter battling over immigration and fear of the outsider, the acclaimed musical has been given renewed significance and is just as powerful in production as it was when it debuted on Broadway 1957 and won the Academy Award for best picture in 1961.
If he were alive, famed composer and conductor Bernstein would be 100 and to celebrate his centennial legacy The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. is offering a series of his of his works, including having the National Symphony Orchestra and a talented young cast from New York recently perform a special West Side Story in Concert.
“Today, it seems incredible that Leonard Bernstein could have written West Side Story, an up-to-the-minute commentary on gang warfare then in New York City,” says Fransesco Zambello, artistic director of Washington Orchestra. “But it is timeless in that it struggles with the ideals that are at the heart of the American project: the idea that we are all created equal, and with a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“In West Side Story, discord between native-born Americans and recent immigrants leads to tragedy, but its most famous song is an anthem to true optimism, a belief in a world “Somewhere” where each person has a place, each person has a home,” Zambello added.
Zambello contends that while we should enjoy Bernstein’s music, we should never neglect his message. “If we simply enjoy the tunes we are missing the point,” he says. “Bernstein devoted his life not only to art, but also to advocacy, education, and the responsibilities of citizenship. May his legacy always inspire us to do the same.”
National Symphony Orchestra Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, who led the musicians and even changed costume to portray the infamous Officer Kruppke in one scene, has often contemplated why West Side Storyis so enduring.
Reineke acknowledges that part of the musical’s popularity comes from Bernstein’s infectious melodies, complex rhythms, and jazz-infused harmonies. But it is the fact Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sonheim’s sometimes witty, sometimes heart-breaking lyrics, touches so many of us so deeply, he contends, that gives West Side Storyits staying power.
“It shines a mirror on each and every one of us to make us think about how we treat each other as fellow human beings. It exposes our prejudices and preconceived ideas about one race or one class versus another,” Reineke said. “Somehow, someday, somewhere – that was the issue Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim contemplated decades ago. To honor Bernstein’s centennial, I implore each of us as individuals to begin answering ‘Here, now, and compassionately.’”
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE ABOUT A CATHOLIC BOY & A JEWISH GIRL.
Religion and national identity would’ve driven the drama of East Side Story, which is what choreographer Jerome Robbins & composer Leonard Bernstein called the project they started working on in 1949. But eventually they decided that “the whole Jewish-Catholic premise [was] not very fresh” when they were having a poolside meeting in Beverly Hills six years later. Under the California sun, they decided to instead focus on—in Bernstein’s words — “two teenage gangs … one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’” Because Manhattan’s eastern neighborhoods had been largely gentrified by then, their production was soon given its present title.
2. THE DIRECTOR INSISTED ON AN UNUSUALLY LONG REHEARSAL PERIOD.
Before opening night, your average 1957 musical cast was only given four or five weeks’ worth of practice. Robbins (who also sat in the director’s chair) demanded eight. “We had a lot of work to do,” he recalled, with the show’s intricate dance sequences requiring extra attention.
3. THE JETS & THE SHARKS WERE PROHIBITED FROM INTERACTING OFFSTAGE.
Robbins tried generating real hostility between these fictitious gangs. According to producer Hal Prince, the Broadway veteran kept both groups of actors as far away from each other as possible. “They were not allowed to socialize out of the theater, [and] they were not allowed to take their lunches together.” Obviously, this was an extreme approach. But over time, it started working.
4. FOUR-LETTER WORDS WERE REPLACED WITH INOFFENSIVE JIBBERISH.
Through West Side Story, lyricist Stephen Sondheim wanted the F-bomb to make its musical theater debut. Initially, this choice word appeared in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but Columbia Records (which released their original cast recording) noted that using such language would violate obscenity laws and—hence—prevent the show from touring across state lines. Defeated, they went with “Krup you!” instead.
5. SPOILER ALERT: MARIA HAD A DELETED DEATH SCENE.
Shakespeare may have killed off both title characters in Romeo & Juliet, but one of West Side Story’s star-crossed lovers lives to see the final curtain drop. Things almost ended much differently. Maria’s untimely suicide was part of an early draft—until composer Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) offered his two cents. “She’s dead already, after this all happens to her,” he told Robbins.
6. BERNSTEIN PLUCKED “ONE HAND, ONE HEART” FROM A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MUSICAL.
At the time, he was scoring West Side Story and Candide—which was based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name—simultaneously. Though Bernstein crafted “One Hand, One Heart” for that production, he repurposed it as a romantic duet between Tony and Maria. In exchange, “O Happy We,” which was originally a duet for West Side Story, moved to the first act of Candide.
7. “SOMETHING’S COMING” WAS WRITTEN LAST-MINUTE.
Just 12 days before West Side Story premiered in D.C. (it’d debut in New York later), Bernstein and Sondheim wrote Tony’s hopeful ballad. Their inspiration came from a piece of dialogue that the character was to deliver during his first scene. The line, as penned by playwright Arthur Laurents, went like this: “Something’s coming, it may be around the corner, whistling down the river, twitching at the dance—who knows?” When asked if he’d mind letting the sentence get turned into a number, he enthusiastically replied “Yes, take it, take it, make it a song.” This late arrival had to be re-orchestrated several times, making it a bit of a headache for the pit band.
- AUDREY HEPBURN WAS TAPPED TO PLAY MARIA FOR THE FILM VERSION.
In 1959, the screen legend was pregnant—and because she’d already suffered two miscarriages, Hepburn wasn’t about to over-exert herself this time. So, when she was offered the lead role in what would arguably become the most celebrated movie musical ever shot, she declined. Rebel Without a Cause star Natalie Wood got the part instead, with Marni Nixon dubbing over her singing voice.
- WEST SIDE STORY’S 1961 CINEMATIC ADAPTATION SET AN ACADEMY AWARDS RECORD.
Seven months after its release, the flick brought home 10 Oscars, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and even Best Picture. Thus, it won more than any other musical ever had in Academy Award history. As of this writing, the distinction still stands.
- A BILINGUAL REVIVAL OPENED ON BROADWAY IN 2009.
Laurents joined forces with producers Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, and James L. Nederlander to retell the story he’d helped craft over 50 years earlier. This time, he leveled the playing field. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the gangs somehow,” he explained. By letting the Sharks speak and sing in their native language during large chunks of the musical, Laurents hoped to do exactly that. Like the original, after a run in Washington, D.C. the show moved to New York, where it ran for 748 performances.