WEST SIDE STORY
By Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
The idea of West Side Story began with the man who was to become its director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins. He imagined a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on the back streets of New York City. It was originally the East Side, surprisingly enough, the conflict being Catholic/Jewish. Robbins's collaborator on several previous projects, composer Leonard Bernstein, persuaded him that it would work better if depicted on the West Side, with white New Yorkers vs. immigrant Puerto Ricans.
Bernstein chose as his lyricist Stephen Sondheim, then in his mid-twenties and a gifted composer, who would soon be a prime mover in American musical theater (after Gypsy in 1959, he never again contributed solely lyrics to a show by another composer). For West Side Story he worked side by side with Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, the well-known playwright who contributed the book. Like Rodgers and Hammerstein with their first three shows, the team chose a cast of little-known performers. The singer-dancer-actors playing the two gangs and their girls made a phenomenal ensemble. Among the principals, Carol Lawrence (Maria), previously a dancer, now exhibited substantial gifts as a singer and actress. She proved unforgettable, as did Larry Kert (Tony) and Chita Rivera (Anita). All three would figure prominently in musical theater of the next several decades.
In the Romeo and Juliet parallel, the milieu changes from Renaissance Verona to 1950s New York. The warring families are now street gangs, the Jets (Montagues/New Yorkers) and the Sharks (Capulets/Puerto Ricans). Tony, who has left the Jets and now has a job at Doc's drugstore, is sensitive and romantic in a way his Jet friends are not. Riff, the Jets' leader and Tony's best friend, persuades him to attend a neighborhood dance with the rest of the gang. The Sharks are there with their leader Bernardo, his girlfriend Anita, and his sister Maria. Bernardo hopes that Maria, recently arrived from Puerto Rico, will soon be married to his friend, Chino. At the dance, however, Tony and Maria fall instantly in love. Later that night, they confess their feelings on the balcony outside Maria's room. The next day, at the bridal shop where Maria works, the two imagine what their wedding would be like.
At a "rumble" between the two gangs, Riff, is fatally stabbed by Bernardo. Overcome with fury, Tony avenges Riff by killing Bernardo himself. When he rushes to Maria, she is initially enraged but finally powerless to reject him. He asks her to meet him at Doc's – their plan is to run away together. Anita comes to Doc's (the Jets' hangout) with a message for Tony saying that Maria will be late. After being taunted verbally and physically by the Jets, she furiously screams that Chino has shot Maria. Upon hearing this news from Doc, Tony rushes out into the night calling for Chino and is shot by him. He dies in Maria's arms, leaving the two remorseful gangs to join in carrying his body away as Maria follows them.
West Side Story begins not with the chorus bursting into song, as most musicals still did in 1957, but with a danced prologue – a street confrontation between the gangs – in which not a word is sung. Bernstein's jazzy, jumpy, angular style softens soon after into a soaring ballad, Tony's "Something's Coming," before the magnificently vigorous "Dance at the Gym." Tony and Maria have their breathtaking balcony-scene love duet, "Tonight," after which Anita leads the Shark girls in a paean to their new home, "America," a dance number more sizzling than anything Broadway had seen before. The second of three Tony-Maria duets is their pretend-marriage scene, the exquisitely chaste "One Hand, One Heart." There are more terrific dances: one by the Jets and their girls, in which Riff advises his friends to "play it cool"; a musically spectacular reworking of "Tonight" as a quintet; "I Feel Pretty," with the Shark girls making good-natured fun of Maria as she anticipates her next meeting with Tony; and the rumble, one of Robbins's choreographic masterpieces. When Tony returns to Maria following the rumble, they express their longing to flee in "Somewhere," which has become an anthem for displaced, disenfranchised people in every walk of life. The creative team realized that an "up," humorous number would be helpful; the Jets provide this with the irreverent "Gee, Officer Krupke."
Certainly the most familiar and beloved stage work of Bernstein, West Side Story has sustained its popularity not only in several recordings and innumerable American productions, but also internationally, including stagings at such important European theaters as Milan's La Scala and the Vienna Volksoper. In the 1961 film, Maria was portrayed by Natalie Wood (dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also provided Deborah Kerr's singing voice for THE KING AND I) with Richard Beymer as Tony (dubbed by Jimmy Bryant. The film won ten Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno/Anita), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris/Bernardo), Best Director (shared by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins), and Best Picture.
Please read the biography of Leonard Bernstein.
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal