Broadway

September 26, 1957 – West Side Story Opens on Broadway

The Winter Garden Theater, Broadway, New York City. Photo: Library of Congress, Leonard Bernstein Collection

The Winter Garden Theater, Broadway, New York City

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.

Maria (Carol Lawrence) and Tony (Larry Kert)

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

September 1, 1957 – Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia Born in Havana, Cuba

Embed from Getty ImagesGloria Estefan, with her husband Emilio, at the 2014 Tony Awards

On September 1, 1957, a baby girl entered the politically charged world of Havana, Cuba.  Her father, Jose Fajardo, was a Cuban soldier and bodyguard to embattled President Fulgencio Batista.  Her mother, also named Gloria, was the granddaughter of emigres from Asturias and Logrono, Spain.  Baby Gloria was still very young when her family was forced to flee Cuba during Castro’s revolution, landing first in Lafayette, Indiana, then settling in Miami, Florida.   Jose joined the United States military, served in Viet Nam, and eventually revisited Cuba as part of the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Gloria attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools in Miami, and graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in psychology, minoring in French.  During her college years, Gloria worked at the Miami International Airport in the customs department as an English/Spanish/French translator.  She was approached by the CIA during this time as a possible employee, due to her language skills.

In 1976, Gloria met Emilio Estefan of the Miami Sound Machine and they married in 1978.  Gloria joined Emilio’s band and during the mid-1980s the Sound Machine produced several Top-10 hits and released an album that went multi-platinum.  In 1988, the band’s name was changed to Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine; in 1989, the band’s name was dropped and Gloria was credited as a solo artist with the Sound Machine as her backup.

In 1990, Gloria suffered a fractured spine when a semi-truck struck her tour bus.  Two titanium rods were implanted near her spinal column and she recovered completely after a year of intensive physical therapy.  She later formed the Gloria Estefan Foundation to help others with spinal cord injuries.

Over the years, Gloria Estefan has continued to record chart-topping hits, performed at the 1995 and 1999  Super Bowls and 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, toured the United States and the world, appeared in movies and on television, written children’s books, and become a restaurant and hotel owner.  Her awards include seven Grammys, the Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor, the Hispanic Heritage Award, the 1993 National Music Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award, and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

A musical based on Gloria and Emilio’s life story premiered on Broadway at New York City’s Marquis Theatre in October of 2015. On Your Feet! shares the story “of two people who – through an unwavering dedication to one another and their pursuit of the American dream – showcased their talent, their music, and their heritage to the world.”

Where Were They Then? Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall, in a still from "Designing Woman"

Lauren Bacall, in a still from “Designing Woman”

 

Barely two weeks into the new year of 1957, on January 14th, Lauren Bacall lost the love of her life, husband Humphrey Bogart, to esophageal cancer. She had recently completed Designing Woman, directed by Vincente Minnelli and co-starring her good friend Gregory Peck. Bogie and Bacall’s son, Steven Humphrey, had just turned eight on January 6th. Leslie, their four-year-old daughter, would celebrate her fifth birthday on August 23rd. At Bogie’s funeral, Lauren placed a silver whistle in his casket as a memento of their first film together, the classic To Have and Have Not. “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” she had purred to sailor “Steve”. “You just put your lips together and blow.”

Widowed and a single parent at 32, Bacall squared her slim shoulders and kept going. She committed to filming The Gift of Love with Robert Stack and director Jean Negulesco. She dazzled on the red carpet for Designing Woman‘s New York premiere on May 16th. She entered into a brief rebound relationship with Frank Sinatra, who called everything off when their engagement became a gossip column item. Surely she felt older than 33 when her birthday came around on September 16th.

Both 1957 and 1958 were difficult years for Bacall, but better times were coming for the former Betty Perske. In 1959 she would reinvent herself as an acclaimed Broadway actress in New York and in 1961 she would marry again, to actor Jason Robards. “I put my career in second place throughout both my marriages and it suffered,” Lauren revealed. “I don’t regret it. You make choices. If you want a good marriage, you must pay attention to that. If you want to be independent, go ahead. You can’t have it all.”

To a classy lady, who was born to Eastern European immigrants and then made it to the very-big time, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”