From its opening moments,West Side Story demonstrated that it was not going to be just another lighthearted Broadway musical. It wasn't just the subject matter that made it different from other musicals of the day. It seamlessly integrated story, song and dance into a work that looked, sounded and moved like no other musical before it.
"The scenery moved before your eyes, from set to set to set, so there was a kind of continuous movement — cinematic," says Harold Prince, the show's original producer. And, Prince adds, West Side Story needed a new type of performer that would come to be known in Broadway parlance as the triple-threat: "It was the first time in the history of the theater that the entire cast sang, danced and acted."
Based on Romeo and Juliet, the show updated Shakespeare's tragedy of star-crossed lovers and set it on the mean streets of Manhattan. The creators were a dream team of top theater artists: director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein.
The curtain rises on a bleak scene representing
One of these gangs is the Jets, who are determined to prevent the invasion into their territory by any Puerto Rican. The rival gana, the Sharks, is made up entirely of Puerto Ricans. Both gangs arrange a meeting at a dance held in the neighborhood gymnasium for the purpose of arranging the time, place and weapons for a major gang fight, or "rumble."
A climactic point is here reached with an exciting mambo dance. At this dance Maria, sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, meets and falls in love with Tony, a member of the rival Jets. Belonging as they do to enemy camps, Tony and Maria must henceforth carry on their love idyll in great secrecy. In the song and dance sequence, "Somewhere", they escape from the squalor and grimness of reality into a fanciful dream world.
In "Maria", Tony gives voice to his feelings about the girl he has come to love, and in "I Feel Pretty" Maria describes her own reactions to the miracle of love. Their love blossoms out in a poignant scene on the tenement fire-escape and in the best ballad of the score, "Tonight". They eventually go through a mock marriage -- which they themselves take more seriously -- in a bridal shop where Maria is employed and where the dress dummies serve as their guests. This episode finds interpretation in dance in "One Hand, One Heart". But the hatred that separates the Jets and the Sharks also spells doom for their ill-fated romance
Then the "Rumble" erupts -- a dramatic incident that once again finds its equivalent in dance movements -- Tony kills Maria's brother. She is ready to forgive Tony, even to elope with him. But before this can happen, Tony is killed by an avenging Shark.
In West Side Story, dance has been elevated to new importance by being required to carry on much of the dramatic action in a way that had never before attempted on Broadway. As John Martin, the dance editor of the New York Times, pointed out, the drama ofWest Side Storylies not so much in "talked plot but in moving bodies. The muscles of trained dancers are tensed and untensed and tensed again, stimulated by emotional tensions stimulating them still further in return. These tensions are transferred automatically across the footlights and into the musculature of every spectator in the house, willy nilly. The cast acts and reacts in terms of movement, and that is the most direct medium that exists for the conveying of inner shades of meaning."
If Bernstein's score has decidedly popular overtones in songs like "Tonight" and "I Feel Pretty" it also boasts operatic dimensions in the grimly realistic overture and in the atmospheric backgrounds for the ballet sequences. Within the music -- as within the various ballet episodes -- are caught much of the ugliness, agony and neuroticism of slum life in New York; but also, some of the beauty and poetry which sometimes touches the lives of these tortured adolescents. Contrast can also be found in several satirical numbers in which a welcome tone of mockery is introduced: notably, in "America", an amusing interpretation of the United States from the point of view of a Puerto Rican, and "Gee, Officer Krupke", an ironic commentary on the attempt by psychologists and social workers to cope with juvinile delinquency.
An artistic triumph of the first magnitude, West Side Story also prospered at the box-office. A three-year run on Broadway was followed by an extended national tour and a return engagement on Broadway; the total number of performances in New York was only twenty-seven short of the magic "one thousand mark". On December 12, 1958, West Side Story received unqualified acclaim in London at its première there. In 1961 a tour of Israel, Africa and the Near East brought new accolades to this production. In the same year a momentous motion picture adapted from the stage play was successfully released in the United States.
Frank Rich, former chief theater critic at the New York Times. favorite moment is the "Tonight" quintet: The gangs are getting ready for a rumble, while the lovers are planning a rendezvous. And there's a "magical element" to the locations Robbins used for filming, Rich says."It was shot on the West Side of New York, in the area that's now Lincoln Center, when all those buildings were condemned for Lincoln Center, but had not been torn down yet," Rich says. "So it does have a kind of grit it would not have had, if it had been done on a sound stage in Hollywood."
Since West Side Story opened, its songs have become ubiquitous. They've been recorded by everybody from Johnny Mathis to Barbra Streisand to Oscar Peterson to Little Richard. Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras recorded an operatic version. Conducted by Leonard Bernstein himself, it topped the crossover charts.
Now, not a day goes by when West Side Story isn't performed somewhere in the world. "We tried to do a rough calculation, based on the 50 years that we've represented the show," says Freddie Gershon, owner of Music Theater International, the company that licenses West Side Story to amateur and professional groups. "We calculate that there have been approximately 40,000 separate productions."
Crossing Boundaries, Territorial and Otherwise
Gershon says over half of the 600 yearly productions are done overseas. "No matter what country you're in, no matter what language you do it in, it always works," Gershon says. He sees a lot of those 600 productions, too — and he says some of the high-school versions are better in many ways than some professioal stagings.
Not long ago, West Side Story was staged at SAR High School in the Bronx. It's a yeshiva — a Jewish day school for modern Orthodox students. Both the Sharks and the Jets wore yarmulkes. Teacher Kenny Birnbaum was the music director for the production, and he says that because of certain Jewish laws, staging the show proved a challenge. "We had choreography where the students were close and dancing in pairs," Birnbaum says, "but never touching each other." Still, the show still packed a wallop, both for the students and for the sold-out audiences.
"They also have to deal with the real issues that the play raises: How do we treat other people of different religions and ethnic groups and races?" Birnbaum says. "And sometimes when you're in an insular community, like the Jewish community can sometimes be, it really challenges us and really pushes us to think outside the box. And that's part of why this play is so important."
Several miles north of the Bronx is the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. For the past 11 years, a nonprofit organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts has worked with the inmates to stage plays. Their first musical? West Side Story.
Clarence "Divine Eye" Maclin has served 12 years of a 20-year sentence for armed robbery. He was a gang member on the outside. "This particular play really brought the guys together, because of the issue — because of the gang issue," says Maclin. "The original play was Latinos against white guys. Here, we don't really have a large population of white people in our production company, but it was more Latinos [against] blacks. And these are issues that we really deal with, in the yard here, in the mess hall here, all throughout the jail system, we really deal with these issues: Latinos and blacks, now how to co-exist?"
Maclin finds the finale of West Side Story especially moving. He says it's eye-opening when the Jets and Sharks come together to pick up Tony's dead body. "And at that moment right there, when you recognize and realize, listen — we're all in the same bowl, we're all in the same soup together, man. And all we're really doing is killing one another."
So audiences and casts at a maximum security prison, or a yeshiva in the Bronx, or a theater in Korea all can relate to West Side Story. Through its dances within songs, its movements, it hints at the hope to someday replace the stifling urban world with “Peace and quiet and open air,” and builds to a statement how exhilarating and uniting love can be. “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.” - Somewhere...
The Iconic Film Opening, With the Rival Gangs Using Dance to Express Their Feelings