Behind the Musical: West Side Story

The American musical, West Side Story, is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

West Side gangs
The Sharks vs. The Jets gangs were representative of the Capulet’s and Montague’s

The story is set in the 1950s Upper West Side neighborhood in New York City.  At that time, the area was an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood.

The musical, which was conceived and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, explores the rivalry and tension between the Sharks and the Jets.  Robbins first approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents in 1947.  After an unusable first script, the idea was shelved for another five years.

In 1955, the men met Stephen Sondheim and he eventually joined the project.  The project title was changed from East Side Story to West Side Story.  During the rewrite, the character backgrounds were changed from Jewish and Mexican to Puerto Rican.

Many revisions were made, including the decision not to faithfully follow the Romeo and Juliet story.  Other revisions included the decision to use what sounded like real street talk and the conversion of long passages into lyrics.

Eventually, the storyline led to the following summation: “The young protagonist, Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.”

West Side dancing
The extended dance scenes were new for the theater and film with West Side Story

The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre.   Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics for the operatic musical score, that included songs such as “I Feel Pretty”, “Maria”, and “Somewhere, Tonight.”

Numerous setbacks met the production team in moving forward.  These included lack of funding, constant negativity, set design issues, and difficulty finding a producer who did not feel the project was too dark.

West Side Story
The romance of Tony and Maria stole hearts

Before his death, James Dean, was wanted for the lead role.  The two leads eventually went to Larry Kert and Chita Rivera.

The cast members playing the Sharks and Jets were kept apart.  The real-life gang rivalries in New York filled the newspaper, which spared interest in the show.  In the musical, dance is used to increase the tension between the warring gangs.

The show opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 1957, to a mix of critical response.

The production was nominated for six Tony Awards in 1957.  The show ran for 732 performances before going on tour.

In 1961, the musical based on the Broadway show was made.  Robert Wise, who would later direct the movie version of Sound of Music, was the director.  Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno were the female stars of the film version.  The film won ten of its eleven Academy Award nominations.