On September 26, 1957, West Side Story, a modern musical take on Romeo and Juliet based on rivalries between white and Puerto Rican teenage street gangs, opened at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway in New York City. Arthur Laurents wrote the book, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, newcomer Stephen Sondheim (with contributions from Bernstein) wrote the lyrics, Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed the dancing, and Harold Prince and Robert Griffith produced the dark, revolutionary musical which became a critically-acclaimed hit and part of our American cultural legacy.
Originally conceived as a doomed love story between an Italian-American Roman Catholic boy and a Holocaust-surviving, Jewish Israeli immigrant girl on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (hence the first working title, East Side Story), the story morphed several times (including a Los Angeles-based version of a Chicano turf war) before finally settling on portraying the rivalry between West Side teenage gangs appearing increasingly in the city in 1957. West Side Story’s songs were more complicated musically and the dancing far more extensive than most Broadway productions to date. Adding to the producers’ challenges, most of the cast members needed to be both singers and dancers, and at the same time be (or at least appear to be) teenagers.
Tryouts in Washington, DC and Philadelphia in August of 1957 garnered positive reviews. The 39-member cast included: Michael Calin as Riff, leader of the white Jets gang; Larry Kert as Tony, Riff’s friend (a role originally intended for James Dean); Ken Le Roy as Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks; Carol Lawrence as Maria (Bernardo’s sister, Juliet to Tony’s Romeo); Chita Rivera as Anita, Bernardo’s girl; William Bramley as Officer Krupke; and a young Elizabeth Taylor as Francisca (a Shark girl).
The production garnered several Tony nominations and two awards in 1958. Jerome Robbins won Best Choreographer, Oliver Smith won Best Scenic Designer, Carol Lawrence was nominated for Best Featured Actress, Irene Sharaff was nominated for Best Costume Designer, Max Goberman was nominated for Best Conductor, and the entire production was nominated for Best Musical, the award for which went to Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.
The original production of West Side Story ran for 732 performances on Broadway through June of 1959, considered a very successful run. It then went on the road, returning to the Winter Garden Theatre in 1960 for an additional 253 performances. Many productions and tours of the musical have been staged over the years in New York, London, and regional theaters.
From John Chapman’s review in the New York Daily News:
“The American theatre took a venturesome forward step when the firm of Griffith & Prince presented West Side Story at the Winter Garden last evening. This is a bold new kind of musical theatre – a juke-box Manhattan opera. It is, to me, extraordinarily exciting . . . the manner of telling the story is a provocative and artful blend of music, dance and plot – and the music and the dancing are superb. In [the score], there is the drive, the bounce, the restlessness and the sweetness of our town. It takes up the American musical idiom where it was left when George Gershwin died. It is fascinatingly tricky and melodically beguiling, and its marks the progression of an admirable composer . . .”.
Image Credit: Library of Congress, Leonard Bernstein Collection; Leo Friedman/Publicity Photo