West Side Story Program Notes

West Side Story
Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)

In 1949 choreographer Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein with a plan to adapt Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In his diary, Bernstein called it “a noble idea: a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter–Passover celebrations. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics. Former: Capulets; latter: Montagues. Juliet is Jewish. Friar Lawrence is a neighborhood druggist. Street brawls, double death–it all fits. But it’s all much less important than the bigger idea of making a musical that tells a tragic story in musical-comedy terms, using only musical-comedy techniques, never falling into the ‘operatic’ trap. Can it succeed? It hasn’t yet in our country. I’m excited. If it can work–it’s the first. Jerry suggests Arthur Laurents for the book.” Working titles for the project were East Side Story“the Romeo show,” or even Gangway!

A month later, Bernstein noted that “prejudice will be the theme of the new work. It will not be a feud of aristocrats that keeps the lovers apart, but rather the prejudice of their Jewish and Italian families. The music will be serious music. Serious yet simple enough for all people to understand.”

East Side Story lay dormant for seven years, when Stephen Sondheim was hired to do the lyrics. After a meeting with Laurents in 1955, Bernstein reported: “We’re fired again by the Romeo notion; only now we have abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh, and have come up with what I think is going to be it: two teenage gangs as the warring factions, one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’ Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses, and–most of all–I can sort of feel the forms.” The title was changed to West Side Story.

After a try-out at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Broadway opening took place on September 26, 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. Max Goberman conducted, with a cast that included Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Mickey Calin, Ken Le Roy and Chita Rivera.

The reviews were mostly positive. Brooks Atkinson of the Times called it “a profoundly moving show…as ugly as the city jungles and also pathetic, tender and forgiving…. Everything contributes to the total impression of wildness, ecstasy and anguish. This is one of those occasions when theater people, engrossed in an original project, are all in top form…. Leonard Bernstein has composed another one of his nervous, flaring scores that capture the shrill beat of life in the streets.” Walter Kerr, in the Herald Tribune, quibbled with parts of the production, but praised it overall: “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning. Director, choreographer, and idea-man 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.

For his part, Bernstein was pleased. “The opening last night was just as we dreamed it,” he said. “All the peering and agony and postponements and re-re-re-writing turn out to have been worth it. There’s a work there; and whether it finally succeeds or not in Broadway terms, I am now convinced that what we dreamed all these years is possible; because there stands that tragic story, with a theme as profound as love versus hate, with all the theatrical risks of death and racial issues and young performers and ‘serious’ music and complicated balletics–and it all added up for audience and critics. I laughed and cried as though I’d never seen or heard it before. And I guess that what made it come out right is that we all really collaborated; we were all writing the same show. Even the producers were after the same goals we had in mind. Not even a whisper about a happy ending has been heard. A rare thing on Broadway. I am proud and honored to be a part of it.”

After 772 performances in New York, the show went on the road, returning to New York for another 253 performances. The film version, with Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, appeared in 1961. It was voted Best Picture of the Year and earned ten Oscars.

The plot concerns two teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and their turf war on the Upper West Side of New York City (“Prologue”). Riff, the Jets’ leader, wants a rumble with the Sharks. The idea is to challenge Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, at the neighborhood dance. Riff convinces his friend Tony, a former member of the Jets, to meet at the dance. Some of the Jets aren’t sure about his loyalty, but Riff believes that Tony is still one of them (“Jet Song”). Tony thinks that something important is about to happen (“Something’s Coming”). At the dance (“Dance at the Gym”), Tony and Maria fall in love. Later Tony serenades her (“Maria”). They profess their love (“Tonight”). Meanwhile the Shark girls contrast Puerto Rico with the mainland United States (“America”). Riff tries to calm his fellow Jets (“Cool”). Maria asks Tony to stop the rumble, as they imagine their wedding (“One Hand, One Heart”). Both sides anticipate the impending conflict (“Tonight Quintet”). The gangs meet and switchblades are drawn (“The Rumble”). Riff and Bernardo are killed. Maria dreams about Tony (“I Feel Pretty”). Learning that Tony has killed Bernardo, the lovers dream about a peaceful world (“Somewhere”). The Jets ridicule a police officer (“Gee, Officer Krupke”). Anita is angry about Tony’s deed (“A Boy Like That/I Have a Love”). Chino arrives and shoots Tony. Maria holds Tony in her arms (reprise of “Somewhere”) as he dies. Gradually, all the members of both gangs assemble on either side of Tony’s body, ending the feud. The Jets and Sharks carry Tony’s body away, with Maria trailing behind (“Finale”).

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2019.