Musical Monday: West Side Story

West Side Story playbillName: West Side Story

Credits: Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents.

Summary: Inspired by Shakespeare’s play “Romeo & Juliet,” West Side Story is a musical set in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City in the 1950s, centered around the rivalry between two teenage street gangs–the Sharks and the Jets.

Dates:
Broadway Premiere: Opened in 1957 and ran for 700+ performances before going on tour. The musical has spawned several national tours, performances by various opera companies, and dozens of international productions.
Broadway Revivals: There have been two Broadway revivals of West Side Story, in 1980 and 2009. The 2009 revival was notable for the inclusion of Spanish lyrics and dialogue in the libretto, with translation provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton).
Movie: Released in 1961, starring Natalie Wood, Richard Breymer, and Rita Moreno.

Awards:
Broadway: Nominated for 6 Tony Awards in 1958. Won 2, including Best Choreography, which went to Jerome Robbins. It lost Best Musical to The Music Man, which was hugely popular at the time.
Movie: Nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Won 10, including Best Picture.

Rating: PG

Why This Musical: The score is marvelous, with heart-tugging love songs (“Somewhere,” “Tonight”) and rousing group numbers (“America,” “Gee, Officer Krupke”). The choreography is stunning and the iconic opening number has been copied–and parodied–in theatre and pop culture. It’s hard not to get swept up in a tale of two star-crossed lovers, whether it’s set in 16th century Verona or 1950s New York. In terms of the musical’s importance in theatre history, West Side Story marks Sondheim’s Broadway debut as a lyricist. The director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins, also broke with tradition in that he did not hire two separate choruses for the musical (one to sing and one to dance). Instead all the actors–the gang members and their girlfriends–had to sing, dance, and act. Viewed through today’s eyes, the musical may seem dated, but at the time, it was considered innovative. Critics called the show’s choreography, music, and theatrical style bold and exciting. In their opinion, the musical successfully channeled the growing undercurrent of rebellion that was also seen in 1950s films like Rebel Without a Cause.

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My Connection: Like many people, my first memory of this musical is the movie version, which was periodically shown on TV. Over the years, I watched it whenever it happened to be on, and eventually I bought the DVD version. I remember viewing it with my daughter when she had to do a paper on “Romeo & Juliet” for a middle-school English class. Although I love the songs, the dancing, and the great cinematography, the movie has a few issues. Much of the acting seems stilted by today’s standards, the gang members are laughably clean-cut (not a tattoo in sight!), and the casting of Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican character is questionable. In 2010, I was lucky enough to see the Broadway revival–the one which wove Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the story. It was a powerful show, with a great cast, and I couldn’t help crying during the final scene, even though I knew how it would end.

Where to See It: For years, West Side Story has been a popular musical for high schools to produce, because it features teenaged characters and it’s so well known. If there isn’t a local production available, the movie can be found on DVD; a 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition was also released in 2011 with a bunch of extras, including a discussion with Stephen Sondheim, in which he discusses the musical’s lyrics.

Favorite Songs: “Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere”

Final Thoughts: Even if the movie seems dated, it’s worth seeing for the songs and the choreography. And it’s usually not hard to find a local performance, although (spoiler alert), you’ll need to bring tissues for the final scene.

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