The new film, directed by Steven Spielberg, brings a more authentic portrayal of the iconic characters in West Side Story. Of course we know the main conflict of the story takes place between a group of White people called the “Jets” and a Puerto Rican group named the “Sharks.” So, where did this iconic Broadway musical originate, and who are the geniuses behind the scenes?
First, let’s discuss the amazing man who created the lyrics known in this musical. Stephen Sondheim recently passed away on November 26 at 91-years-old. West Side Story was Sondheim’s first Broadway show that was considered risky. He was only 27 when it opened and 25 when he came on board as the lyricist. Plus, it was his debut as a lyricist. The musical had three well-known artists already: composer Leonard Bernstein, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, and playwright Arthur Laurents. With Sondheim’s lyrical help, the four men brought the framework and action of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to 1950s New York City.
For 1949, the story had a very definite message of racial tolerance and equality that was delivered through song and dance. The tunes are hard to forget and the message even harder. However, there are some interesting elements of the making of this production that makes it one of the most memorable stories in musical theater.
First, a dancer actually came up with the story! Director Jerome Robbins, who first proposed the idea for West Side Story, was the choreographer of New York City Ballet at the time. Which is why the story is widely told through a level of ballet, even seen in narrative scenes of gang tension and warfare. Another interesting fact is that West Side Story was originally going to be East Side Story and the conflict was going to be between Catholic and Jewish groups. This idea never gained traction though and when teenage Latin gang violence broke out in L.A, the idea for the story changed. The new plot was then the Puerto-Rican versus white gangs and took place on the then-grungy Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The show also had many producers pull out of the making of this musical towards the beginning because they believed it to be too dark and thought it would flop. Then of course, Hal Prince came in and raised significant money for it and began his first of many successful collaborations with Sondheim. Prince thought Sondheim would be ideal for the job and clearly the two knew what they were doing.
Here are a few more interesting topics that touch on the history of West Side Story and how it came to be:
- Bernstein’s Jewish heritage plays a significant role– a shofar (a hollow ram’s horn, one of the world’s most ancient instruments) call, the Tekiah, provides the musical theme that the show’s most important songs are based on. It can be heard in the opening “Prologue,” and in songs like “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” and “Cool”
- Philadelphia connection– the musical had a two-week, pre-Broadway run at Philadelphia’s Erlanger Theatre before it moved on to NYC
- America song– One of the most catchy songs in the show is based on the rhythms of a Mexican dance called the Huapango
- Bernstein first began writing music for theater as a teenager at summer camp