“West Side Story” opens on Broadway

“West Side Story” opens on Broadway

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On September 26, 1957, West Side Story, composed by Leonard Bernstein, opens at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. For the groundbreaking musical, Bernstein provided a propulsive and rhapsodic score that many celebrate as his greatest achievement as a composer. However, even without the triumph of West Side Story, Bernstein’s place in musical history was firmly established. In addition to his work as a composer, the “Renaissance man of music” excelled as a conductor, a concert pianist, and a teacher who brought classical music to the masses.

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1918, Bernstein began piano lessons at his own insistence when he was 10. He immediately demonstrated an instinctive talent for music and by age 12 was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. He studied piano and composition at Harvard but was encouraged by the American composer Aaron Copland and others to become a conductor after they observed Bernstein’s intuitive grasp of classical music and his unusual ability to play complex orchestral scores on the piano.

He studied conducting with Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky and in 1943 was hired as an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic. In the history of the orchestra, no assistant had been called on to conduct, but on November 14 fate smiled on Bernstein when guest conductor Bruno Walter fell ill. The night before, Bernstein had heard a singer perform one of his compositions and then, in typical Bernstein fashion, had stayed up late drinking and playing piano at the post-recital party. With three hours of sleep, a hangover, and no rehearsal, Bernstein was asked to conduct a complex program of Schumann, Strauss, Rosza, and Wagner that was going to broadcast from Carnegie Hall across the nation by CBS radio. The concert was a sensational success, and The New York Times published a front-page article the next day announcing the arrival of a great new conducting talent.

For the rest of his life, Bernstein was an internationally sought-after conductor. He toured the world many times over and in 1953 became the first American to conduct at La Scala in Milan, Italy’s foremost opera house. He had an animated and flamboyant style, and on more than one occasion Bernstein actually fell off his conducting podium in his enthusiasm. A respected classical pianist, he sometimes conducted from the piano stool. Charismatic and good looking, Bernstein was a popular idol known to people who never listened to classical music.

Refusing to restrict himself to conducting, he composed acclaimed symphonies, operas, and scores for ballets. He was also deeply interested in American popular music, and jazz influences can be found in many of his classical pieces. His best-known works were for Broadway, and the musicals he composed include On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957).

For West Side Story, a reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transposed onto New York’s West Side, Bernstein worked with the brilliant choreographer Jerome Robbins and the lyricist Stephen Sondheim. West Side Story tells the tale of a love affair between Tony, who is Polish American, and Maria, a Puerto Rican, set against an urban background of interracial warfare. With its gritty story and volatile dance sequences, West Side Story was the antithesis of traditional American musicals. Bernstein’s exhilarating, semi-operatic score runs throughout the play and keeps the tension and emotion high.

When it opened on September 26, 1957, West Side Story received a mixed critical response. Debuting one day after the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, the musical’s story of racial conflict was discomfiting to some. West Side Story won just two Tony Awards, for choreography and set design, but made an impressive maiden run of 732 performances. In 1961, a film version starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno and Richard Beymer was an enormous hit, and took home 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The stage version of West Side Story was soon revived, and the musical is still performed today.

Leonard Bernstein was also a talented educator who taught America about classical music with the television programs Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts. In 1973, he was invited to Harvard to lecture on linguistics and music. He died in 1990 at the age of 72.

1957 Original Broadway Production

It is widely known that West Side Story (WSS) is based directly on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (R&J). Jerome Robbins had at first envisioned Juliet as a Jewish girl and Romeo as an Italian Catholic. The action, set during the Easter-Passover season, was to have occurred on the Lower East Side of New York City. Hence the title might have been EAST Side Story. (Another working title was Gangway!) That was in 1949. Six years later, Laurents and Leonard Bernstein were working (independently) in Hollywood, where they conferred on the aborted project. The newspapers were filled with reports of street riots by Chicano Americans in Los Angeles.

Those headlines turned the trick, triggering the imaginations of the collaborators. The locale swiftly shifted to New York’s West Side, and in 1957 WSS exploded onto the American State. In the decades that have passed, WSS has become a contemporary classic.

© New York Public Library, Friedman-Ables, photographer

1957 Original Broadway Production

Mickey Calin … Riff (The Leader, The Jets)
Larry Kert … Tony (Riff's Friend)
Carol Lawrence … Maria (Bernardo's Sister)
Ken Le Roy … Bernardo (The Leader, The Sharks)
Chita Rivera … Anita (Bernardo's Girl)
Art Smith … Doc (One of the Adults)
Lee Becker … Anybodys (A Jet)
Grover Dale … Snowboy (A Jet)
Arch Johnson … Schrank (One of the Adults)
Tony Mordente … A-Rab (A Jet)
Eddie Roll … Action (A Jet)
David Winters … Baby John (A Jet)
Tommy Abbott … Gee-Tar (A Jet)
William Bramley … Krupke (One of the Adults)
Hank Brunjes … Diesel (A Jet)
Erne Castaldo … Toro (A Shark)
Martin Charnin … Big Deal (A Jet)
Marilyn Cooper … Rosalia (One of the Sharks' Girls)
Wilma Curley … Graziella (One of the Jets' Girls)
Carole D'Andrea … Velma (One of the Jets' Girls)
Al De Sio … Luis (A Shark)
Marilyn D'Honau … Clarice (One of the Jets' Girls)
Gene Gavin … Anxious (A Shark)
Frank Green … Mouth Piece (A Jet)
Reri Grist … Consuela (One of the Sharks' Girls)
Carmen Gutierrez … Teresita (One of the Sharks' Girls)
John Harkins … Gladhand (One of the Adults)
Lowell Harris … Tiger (A Jet)
Ronnie Lee … Nibbles (A Shark)
George Marcy … Pepe (A Shark)
Jack Murray … Moose (A Shark)
Jay Norman … Juano (A Shark)
Julie Oser … Pauline (One of the Jets' Girls)
Liane Plane … Marguerita (One of the Sharks' Girls)
Nanette Rosen … Minnie (One of the Jets' Girls)
Lynn Ross … Estella (One of the Sharks' Girls)
Jamie Sanchez … Chino (Bernardo's Friend)
Noel Schwartz … Indio (A Shark)
Elizabeth Taylor … Francisca (One of the Sharks' Girls)

Swings: Larry Roquemore and Marc Scott

Standby: Stephanie Augustine (Maria), Muriel Bentley (Anita) and Marlys Watters (Maria)

Understudies: Hank Brunjes (Riff), Erne Castaldo (Chino), Martin Charnin (Snowboy), Marilyn Cooper (Consuela), Grover Dale (Big Deal), Carole D'Andrea (Anybodys), Al De Sio (A-Rab, Baby John), Frank Green (Tony), Reri Grist (Rosalia), John Harkins (Doc, Schrank), Alan Johnson (Shark), George Marcy (Bernardo), Jack Murray (Krupke), Liane Plane (Anita), Lynn Ross (Consuela) and Noel Schwartz (Action)


Theatre Owned / Operated by The Shubert Organization

Produced by Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince Produced by arrangement with Roger L. Stevens

Book by Arthur Laurents Conceived by Jerome Robbins Music by Leonard Bernstein Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Musical Director: Max Goberman Music orchestrated by Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal Music orchestrated by Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal

Directed by Jerome Robbins Choreographed by Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro Choreographed by Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro Dance Assistant to Mr. Robbins and Mr. Gennaro: Howard Jeffrey and Wallace Seibert

Scenic Design by Oliver Smith Costume Design by Irene Sharaff Lighting Design by Jean Rosenthal Sound Design by Sound Associates, Inc. Assistant to Oliver Smith: Robert O'Hearn Assistant to Miss Rosenthal: Mickey Kinsella

General Manager: Carl Fisher Company Manager: Clarence Jacobson

Production Stage Manager: Ruth Mitchell Stage Manager: Harry Howell Assistant Stage Mgr: George Lake

Copyist Supervisor: Arnold Arnstein Assistant Conductor: Frederick Vogelgesang

Press Representative: Reuben Rabinovitch, Helen Richards and Howard Newman Casting: Judith Abbott and Betty Wharton Advertising: Ingram Ash Production Associate: Sylvia Drulie Directorial Assistant to Mr. Robbins: Gerald Freedman Secretary to Mr. Prince: Annette Brafman

For more cast information, please visit the production’s IBDb page.

Collage of photos of actors and creators related to the stage production West Side Story. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collection.

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The most exciting musical theater masterpiece of the 20th century. The most visionary theatrical talents of the 21st century. Is there any wonder it&rsquos &ldquothe most eagerly-awaited production of the new season&rdquo? (NY Post)

When four theatrical giants &mdash Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim &mdash created West Side Story, it was immediately hailed as an "indisputable, boundary-busting masterpiece&rdquo (The New York Times) that &ldquoexplodes every imaginable idea of what a musical can be&rdquo (New York Magazine). Now, three of the most daring theater-makers of our time &mdash director Ivo van Hove (A View From the Bridge and The Crucible), choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and designer and frequent Van Hove collaborator Jan Versweyveld &mdash offer a radical, thrilling new interpretation of this iconic work, with extraordinary dancing, breathtaking vision, and 33 young, brilliantly gifted performers all making their Broadway debuts. Don&rsquot miss this opportunity to see a landmark in musical theater history as if for the very first time.

‘West Side Story' Opening Night Draws Theater-Goers But Also #MeToo Protesters

A new revival of the Broadway classic "West Side Story" made history on its opening night but it also drew a crowd of protesters.

Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside Broadway Theatre in Midtown on Thursday, calling for one of the show's lead actors, Amar Ramasar, to be fired over his alleged involvement in a nude photo sharing scandal at the New York City Ballet.

While a record of 33 young people made their Broadway debuts that night, people outside chanted: "What do we want? Amar gone. When do we want it? Now."


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Ramasar was among two New York City Ballet dancers who were fired then rehired last year after they were named in a lawsuit by a former student at the company's affiliated school.

Alexandra Waterbury said the dancers shared nude photos of women, as well as sexually explicit texts, and that City Ballet tolerated a "fraternity-like atmosphere" where male dancers understood that "they could degrade, demean, mistreat and abuse, assault and batter women without consequence."

The revelation came amid other #MeToo stories that helped transformed cultural norms surrounding sexual harassment and the treatment of women.

Protests outside the theater initially began on Jan. 31 and continued weekly up until the show's opening night.

"We want accountability. We just want people who have done something very wrong, violated others, to not be rewarded," one of the protest organizers, Paige Levy, told NBC New York on Thursday.

@WestSideStoryUS put out their statement. here’s ours. From Alexandra Waterbury, Paige Levy, and Megan Rabin.

&mdash West Side Story Protest (@wssprotest) February 14, 2020

Nearly 50,000 have signed a petition for "West Side Story" to fire the 38-year-old from his role as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks gang and older brother of lead character Maria.

"There is no reason why someone who has taken advantage of his power and violated countless women, while stating his intent to violate more, should be able to show his face onstage," the petition reads.

A spokesperson for the Broadway show, Rick Miramontez, told the New York Times that the production hired a cybersecurity firm for actors who were concerned about online attacks.

In response, the Actors' Equity Association, an actor's union, released a statement Thursday saying in part, "Everyone at West Side Story should be able to work and perform feeling safe and protected in their workplace."

Protest organizers say that the demonstrations aren't intended to harass other actors and that they simply want justice for Waterbury.

"We fully support the rest of the company and crew of the show. We’re outside because of Amar Ramasar’s actions and the production team’s choice to hire and stand by him," organizers said on Twitter.

More than 60 years after its Broadway debut, “West Side Story” remains a touchstone of modern American theater. A new Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club production opening this week at Farkas Hall is confronting the cultural missteps associated with the classic musical, turning an ambitious theatrical project into a complex educational experience for cast and crew.

When the artistic team began planning the show, members focused on addressing chronic issues of Latinx representation in casting, a flaw illustrated early on by the Oscar-winning 1961 film adaptation in which the vast majority of Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors, such as Natalie Wood as the female lead, Maria. They also wanted to find a way to reckon with the real and underdeveloped histories of Latinx life in New York in the late 1950s, beyond the show’s stereotypical portrayals.

“‘West Side Story’ has left a big cultural footprint, so there is value in reclaiming the story and depicting it as accurately as possible,” said technical producer Amanda Gonzalez-Piloto ’21, noting that the script for the HRDC production cannot be changed due to copyright restrictions. “We’re working within a limited framework, so we have been asking: What can we do to make a more accurate and respectful cultural representation and also acknowledge there are some seeds of truth in this very flawed creative masterpiece?”

Gonzalez-Piloto, a joint concentrator in Theater, Dance & Media and music, is also president of TEATRO!, one of the groups presenting the production, along with La Organización de Puertorriqueños en Harvard (La O). She said that facing the show’s difficult past was crucial to the production process. To create a foundation of understanding and knowledge among the cast and crew, she worked with students at La O and Diversity Peer Educators to hold multiple cultural conversations with the cast and staff, on topics including the historic and current poor treatment of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and the development of Latinx and latinidad identity categories.

The goal was to critique the language of the script and learn more about the history and culture behind the characters through a distinctly Latinx lens, rather than from the show’s original creators, who were white men.

Harvard College cast members rehearse their performance of "West Side Story."

“Even though ‘West Side Story’ was not written by Latinos, and there are many problematic choices in the text and the movie, including brownface and the stereotyping of Puerto Rican people, there is still a lot of resonance in the text for modern Latinx people around issues like immigration, colorism, belonging, and assimilation,” she said, adding that the musical, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, also depicts poverty and police violence in ways that may feel familiar for contemporary audiences.

With guidance from actor, director, and OFA guest artist Adriana Colón ’12, the team reimagined the Sharks without the stereotypical accents and mannerisms present in earlier productions of the show, focusing instead on depicting a diversity of Latinx identity and experiences. They also tried to be more intentional in wardrobe selection as both groups of combatants emerged from the same lower-income strata.

“We wanted to open up a conversation with the Harvard community and beyond, to show how a story that is dated can resonate with us today,” said technical producer Isabelle Liao ’21, who is concentrating in history and literature.

Interestingly “West Side Story,” a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” was praised by critics when it opened in 1957 for its realism and for taking audiences into a world of gang violence and poverty that finds “odd bits of beauty amid the rubbish of the streets,” according to Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times.

At the same time that the artistic team worked to educate the participants about the painful history they were recreating, they also saw another learning opportunity for the actors cast as the Jets, an all-white gang, and the neighborhood police officers. These characters deliver most of the musical’s racist lines, and the actors, many of whom are first-years or first-time Harvard performers, were concerned about how they would be perceived by audiences. For these actors, Gonzalez-Piloto, Liao, and stage director Aviva Ramirez ’22 held more conversations about the importance of playing a difficult role in service of a larger cultural shift in theater.

Cade Herrera does a backflip to start off a dance sequence during rehearsal.

“These are stories with problematic characters, but someone has to play the problematic role. It’s important to get the full story, to avoid historical revisionism or cleaning up a past that is violent and hateful and complicated,” said Gonzalez-Piloto.

Ramirez also wanted to highlight the youth of the characters, and saw her casting of two first-years as Tony and Maria as an advantage in accurately representing their teenage characters’ struggles against the adult violence and community pressures that inform their decisions and limit their choices.

“Most of the characters in ‘West Side Story’ are high-school age, and we have an opportunity to depict them closer to their real ages,” said Ramirez, who is concentrating in the history of art and architecture. In professional productions, she added, the actors are rarely so close in age and experience to the characters, which “can really ruin the effect of many of the most poignant parts of the show.”

“I’m trying to show the community and the reality of the lives of the kids rather than the flashy and dramatic gang violence and racial violence,” she said. In so doing, she hopes to infuse the feeling of hope into the performance that Tony and Maria feel for their future.

“It’s important to keep in mind that it’s a serious story and we have such a responsibility to do all these topics justice, but also to remember that we’re a College show, and we’re here for community ourselves. It’s important to stay optimistic.”

With an upcoming revival on Broadway premiering in December and a film remake slated for release in 2020, “West Side Story” will stay relevant for years to come. (Director Steven Spielberg took pains to avoid whitewashing the cast in the upcoming movie.) And as the story is presented to new audiences, the organizers of the HRDC production hope that viewers will see past the dated references to the universal appeals for acceptance and understanding underlying the tragic story.

“‘West Side Story’ is painfully relevant to the question of what it means to be American right now,” said Ramirez, who also directed the 2019 first-year musical “Cruising Altitude.” “It opens up this incredibly important conversation about the cycle of immigration, in which immigrant groups come to America and face discrimination, wishing someone had empathy for them, and then having their kids assimilate and not show that empathy for the next immigrant group. For me, that’s the absolute core of what ‘West Side Story’ is about.”

“West Side Story” runs Nov. 13, 14, 16, and 17 at Farkas Hall. Tickets are available through the


The Surprising Backstory to West Side Story

Conceived in 1949, West Side Story has a serious message that pleads for racial tolerance, delivered in unforgettable song and dance. People have been listening to that message, and humming the songs, ever since the show premiered on Broadway in 1957 and debuted on the silver screen in 1961.

Composer Leonard Bernstein and his co-creators, Jerome Robbins (director, choreographer and original idea-man) Arthur Laurents (who wrote the book) and Stephen Sondheim (lyricist) aimed for lofty ideals in the show’s themes and every detail of its production. But West Side Story, winner of two Tony and 10 Academy Awards, has endured because it's also incredibly entertaining.

Here's a closer look at West Side Story and some of the surprising elements that make it one of the most memorable works of musical theater.

A dancer came up with the idea.
Director Jerome Robbins, who first proposed the idea for West Side Story, was at the same time choreographer of New York City Ballet. As a result, dance tells the story of this muslcal at the sophisticated level of ballet, not only in obvious dance numbers like "Mambo!" but in narrative scenes of escalating gang tension and warfare. We see it from the opening “Prologue,” when rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, stake out their territory.

West Side Story was originally East Side Story. When they first conceived the show in 1949, Robbins, Bernstein and Laurents set their story on the east side of Manhattan, and gave it the working title East Side Story. They planned to stage the conflict between rival Catholic and Jewish groups.

However, this concept never gained traction, and the project foundered until 1955, when teenage Latin gang violence in L.A. made the news. Laurents then presented the idea of changing the conflict to involve Puerto-Rican versus white gangs on the then-grungy Upper West Side of Manhattan. All at once, the project took off.

In Bernstein’s words: “Suddenly it all springs to life. I can hear the rhythms and pulses, and -- most of all -- I can feel the form.”

Shakespeare and Sondheim. Most of us know that the show, with modifications, is a modern take on William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. But did you know that its tragic plot almost caused West Side Story not to see the light of day?

The show's original producer pulled out because she thought the story was too dark and would flop. Producer after producer turned it down. When Hal Prince and his co-producer finally swept in and raised sufficient money for West Side Story's first run, it was the first of Prince's many successful collaborations with Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim, then only 25-years-old, came on board fairly late in the process as lyricist for Bernstein’s melodies. Bernstein wrote about Sondheim: “What a talent! I think he’s ideal for this project, as do we all.”

Bernstein’s deeply felt Jewish heritage forms an integral part of the music of West Side Story.
A basic shofar call, the Tekiah, provides the musical motif that many of the show’s most important songs are based on. The shofar, a hollow ram’s horn, is one of the world’s most ancient instruments, and is still played today in Jewish religious ceremonies during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The motif is known in musical terms as a “tri-tone” (the interval of the augmented 4th.) In various forms, it can be heard in the opening “Prologue,” in songs like “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” and “Cool.”

Conducting notes. The same day Bernstein saw his first run-through of West Side Story, he signed his contract to become the first American-born music director (and conductor) of the New York Philharmonic.

On a somewhat humorous note, the conductor for West Side Story’s opening run, former Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Max Goberman, had it written into his contract that Lenny was not allowed to take over the conducting of the production.

America. One of the most infectious songs in the show is based on the rhythms of a Mexican dance called the huapanga. It’s just one example of how the United States of America and the show itself is a melting pot of influences: jazz, Latin rhythms, as well as established Broadway style make the tunes infectious, the music memorable.

The Philadelphia Connection. The show had a two-week, pre-Broadway run at Philadelphia's Erlanger Theatre before it moved on to NYC to open at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1957.

Love. In the end, West Side Story is a love story, and the prime example of how Bernstein loved the genre of musical theater, where he had his beginnings as a composer. Did you know that Bernstein first began writing music for theatrical productions when he was a teenage counselor at summer camp? He brought his deep understanding of high art to popular culture, and forever changed the shape of musical theater.

Take a look at this behind-the-scenes West Side Story documentary featuring Bernstein in action with opera stars in 1984:

Ca. 1903 The Times Tower under construction

In 1904, with the completion of Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz’s Italian Renaissance–inspired tower for the New York Times, which had moved north from its previous headquarters opposite City Hall, Longacre Square received an immediately identifiable architectural landmark, and a new name: Times Square.

In 1904, with the completion of Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz’s Italian Renaissance–inspired tower for the New York Times, which had moved north from its previous headquarters opposite City Hall, Longacre Square received an immediately identifiable architectural landmark, and a new name: Times Square.

Inside West Side Story’s Star-Studded Opening Night

When West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, it made history (and headlines) by digging its heels into the gritty asphalt of New York’s mean streets. Confronting teenage gang violence and racial prejudice—topics that dominated the daily news but remained foreign to the world of musical theater—the production subverted the traditional saccharine musical story line with choreographed back-alley turf brawls and switchblade ballets.

Half a century, one Oscar-winning Hollywood adaptation, two New York revivals, plus another in London, and countless high school productions later, Ivo van Hove is taking a turn with a radical restaging of the cult classic. When it opened on Thursday at the Broadway Theatre, Alec and Hilaria Baldwin, Diane von Furstenberg, Iman, Ethan Hawke, Spike Lee, Tom Sturridge, John Cameron Mitchell, and Vanessa Hudgens were among the many boldface names who came out to see how the Belgian “bad boy” director of experimental theater had flipped the script. Spoiler alert: West Side Story hasn’t caused this much of a stir since it debuted.

It’s not the 1950s anymore—instead, it fast-forwards to the present. Gen Z–era Jets and Sharks are virtually unrecognizable with their mix of streetwear, piercings, and head-to-toe tattoos. Those familiar finger snaps and scissor kicks have been replaced with iPhones and fresh dance moves, courtesy of choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. And slashes to the book and score (notably, “I Feel Pretty”) feel insignificant compared to the video screen that projects much of the live-action, filmed social media–style, onstage.

Fittingly, several celebrity guests took sartorial cues from the musical and reimagined them for the red carpet of today. Always one to deliver showstopping style, Broadway producer extraordinaire Jordan Roth turned out in a Norma Kamali houndstooth number, replete with a trumpet hem inspired by the famously flouncy frock that Anita wears during the Mambo dance sequence. “If this production were a look, it would be this,” Roth said, showing off the ruffled details. “It’s a little nod to the original costuming.” Not even the towering Rick Owens boots he paired it with could stop him from cutting a rug at the after-party at IAC.

The stars of the show also demonstrated a flair for opening-night fashion. Shereen Pimentel, the 21-year-old starlet who plays Maria, actually had a hand in designing the gown that she originally planned to wear to the soirée, before a shipping-related snag meant it wouldn’t arrive in time. “The good thing is, I was able to find something else at the last-minute that I loved equally,” Pimentel said. Indeed, she made quite the entrance in a glittering gown with a slit cut up to there. Even in ivory, the moment still recalled the white dress that Maria wears to the dance at the gym. “I wanted to keep the essence of the character,” she said. “Everyone [keeps] telling me I look like a Disney princess, and I truly feel like one.”

Isaac Powell, who plays Maria’s beloved Tony, also looked rather dapper in Celine (his latest fashion flex since he appeared in a recent Helmut Lang ad). “Celine was first on my wish list,” Powell said, revealing he’d been a fan of the brand ever since creative director Hedi Slimane started showing menswear. “I knew I wanted to wear something classic and timeless,” he added. Paired with a shirt spliced with sheer panels, the ensemble was just the sort of old-meets-new mash-up that West Side Story is delivering each night onstage.

The Real-Life Drama Behind 'West Side Story'

Choreographer Jerome Robbins created real animosity and antagonism between the two opposing gangs, both on and off stage.

Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

L-R: Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Alfred Eisenstaedt//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

L-R: Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins.

Alfred Eisenstaedt//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

I was 10 or 11, and I'd been swept off my feet: I'd just seen West Side Story. I practically flew downstairs to talk to a neighbor of ours — a filmmaker who was an old family friend.

Written in the mid-1950s, West Side Story pushed the envelope for musical productions during conservative times. United Artists/ Handout Collection/ Getty Images hide caption

Written in the mid-1950s, West Side Story pushed the envelope for musical productions during conservative times.

United Artists/ Handout Collection/ Getty Images

"Terrible," he said. "I hated all of it."

I was stunned. The music? "Tacky, sentimental stuff," he said. Even the dancing? He laughed. "Especially the dancing."

I turned this over in my mind for years afterward. Later, I learned that the neighbor I'd talked to that day was one of about 10 people named as a Communist by Jerome Robbins, legendary choreographer for West Side Story — and former Communist Party member — in his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins was a homosexual in the closet, like so many gays at that time, and some believed he'd been threatened with exposure and had buckled under the pressure. Others thought he was just ambitious, and wanted to make sure the blacklist wouldn't get in his way.

That's the 1950s for you. There was always a lot going on under the surface.

It was Robbins who dominated the production of West Side Story, which had been written in the mid-'50s by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and a young Stephen Sondheim.

"West Side Story is 1957 we were really just coming out of the McCarthy era," says Gregg Lawrence, author of the Robbins biography Dance With Demons. "He was one of those who was terrorized and named names, and it really shaped him for the rest of his life."

It had been Robbins who came up with the original idea of a modern, urban Romeo and Juliet Bernstein and Laurents added the idea of warring street gangs in place of Shakespeare's feuding families. In the play, a Puerto Rican girl named Maria, whose brother is in one gang, loves Tony, who's in the opposing "American" gang.

"That kind of bigotry and prejudice was very much in the air," writer and co-creator Arthur Laurents says. "It's really, 'How can love survive in a violent world of prejudice?' That's what it's about."

Tension On And Off Stage

Laurents says that there were strong undercurrents in rehearsal: "So many people who I spoke with described the production itself as a gang war."

"Jerry [Robbins] had declared that first day that the stage was a battleground," adds Carol Lawrence, who played the original Maria on Broadway in 1957. "You were never allowed to walk on that stage except at his request he was absolute dictator.

"He brought this Method-acting technique into the show," Lawrence says, "where he deliberately tried to foment animosity, antagonism, between the two opposing gangs, both on stage and off stage. They weren't allowed to eat together. They were not supposed to socialize."

In the '50s, that tension was real. Grover Dale, the original "Snowboy" (one of the Jets) in the production, lived on W. 80th Street when West Side Story was happening.

"There were gangs right there, and I walked past guys that were doing the catcalls that I was delivering on stage," he says. "Where do you think I learned how to do that? On 84th Street is where the rumbles were happening."

Pushing Boundaries

West Side Story brought that tension inside, even within the constraints of a more repressive time.

"There are no four-letter words in it. You couldn't use 'em in those days," Laurents says. "A scene that I wrote ended with, 'Hey, Officer Krupke, krup you!' And they said 'brass ass.' Well, that was considered shocking and daring. It must have been 20 years later before they used four-letter words so freely.

"The idea was to do something good," he adds. "I think we were all in love with musical theater. I don't think any of us thought of the commercial possibilities of the show. I thought it would last, if we were lucky, three months."

Consider this: It was ardently, feverishly heterosexual musical theater, created by four gay men at a time when it was even less acceptable to be gay than it was to be Leftist. But Arthur Laurents says that's beside the point.

"It's four Jews," Laurents says. "There's a big difference. It's true. I think being part of a minority. I know gays were a minority, but gays didn't figure much in the '50s. Jews figured then, now and always. But I think that was more what we had in common, what drove it — drove the feeling of injustice, at any rate."

But the bigger question revolves around how Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, both of them blacklisted, found a way to work with Jerome Robbins? After all, it was only a few years after Robbins had cooperated with the forces responsible for the blacklist.

"Since then, looking back," Laurents says, "I'm not very proud of myself for ignoring the fact that Jerry informed, because that validated him. And I had to face that. I can explain what I did I don't condone it. We were all so involved in the making of the piece that extra-curricular affairs, as it were, didn't enter into it. There were no fingers pointed. It was not a good time. Anybody who went through it, it still comes up almost every day, and it's us, and it's them."

The Final Curtain Call

How did a 1957 audience greet the spectacle of West Side Story?

"I think the innovation was having death, attempted rape, murder in a musical, in musical theater," Laurents says. "The subject matter — bigotry and violence and prejudice — and [the idea] that people would pay money to see that with an orchestra."

"The opening night in Washington, D.C.," Carol Lawrence says, "when the curtain went up for our curtain calls, and they had just seen Tony's body taken over and the strain of 'Somewhere' and just a bell tolling -– still breaks me up — we ran to our spaces and faced the audience holding hands. And the curtain went up and we looked at the audience, and they looked at us, and we looked at them, and I thought, 'Oh, dear Lord, it's a bomb!' "

"We thought the thing was going down the drain," Laurents adds. "Oh, it was awful."

"And then, as if Jerry had choreographed it," Lawrence says, "they jumped to their feet. I never saw people stamping and yelling, and by that time, Lenny had worked his way backstage, and he came at the final curtain and walked to me, put his arms around me, and we wept."

Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune opened his review with the classic and much-repeated line, "The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning."

There's that '50s imagery, though neither on stage nor in life did West Side Story have a '50s-style Ozzie and Harriet ending.

"I never said anything to Jerry until the show was frozen in Philadelphia," Laurents says. "And then I told him I thought he was an immoral, indecent man. I don't know how much it mattered to him."

Watch the video: West Side Story 1961 - The Dance at the Gym Türkçe Altyazılı (May 2022).