The BACKStory of West Side Story
How your favourite musical came to be.
A little history
The 1957 Playbill cover of West Side Story. Photograph by Friedman-Abeles. Copyright: Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.
Romeo and Juliet… but with a Latin beat. It wasn’t the first idea for the project that became West Side Story, but it was the one that stuck.
The doomed love story between a Puerto Rican girl and an All-American boy struck a nerve, both for its gritty, true-to-life storyline and its inventive music. It changed the genre forever, lifting the bar for other creators.
In 1949 up-and-coming choreographer Jerome Robbins was thinking about a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. He got Leonard Bernstein (music) and Arthur Laurents (book) on board.
But their initial idea, where a Catholic boy and Jewish girl fell in love, felt stale. They abandoned the project. Five years later, Bernstein and Laurents read news reports of gang violence between Puerto Rican and Anglo-American street kids. They were inspired. East Side Story became West Side Story.
Arthur Laurents got chatting to lyricist Stephen Sondheim at a party and brought him in to meet Bernstein. Robbins had his dream team.
The four collaborated closely. Sondheim took passages of dialogue and turned them into songs. Bernstein moved songs around to serve Laurents’ vision of the story. Robbins created choreography that advanced the story, instead of embellishing it.
In 1957 West Side Story premiered in Washington. The show was a hit. Its subsequent premiere on Broadway left audiences and critics reeling. Whether they liked it or not, it was clear this musical was something special. It ran for 732 performances and then toured nationally. A production ran in the West End for more than 1000 performances.
Hollywood came knocking, and the 1961 film took a popular musical and made it a cult classic.
Who created the musical?
Choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins in a 1980 photograph by Martha Swope. Copyright: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library
Jerome Robbins was a giant of dance and theatre, known for his innovative ballet choreography and celebrated for his impact on Broadway musicals.
He loved to dance, and he loved to tell stories. The result was choreography that explored more than how the body moves: his choreography was original, emotional, startling. His New York Times obituary praised his "genius for capturing the essence of an age".
Nowhere was that more apparent than the tense, explosive choreography of West Side Story, a project he took from idea to international sensation.
Robbins served as associate artistic director and then artistic director for the New York City Ballet from 1949–1990.
He died in 1998 after a stroke.
Leonard Bernstein was a lion of American music.
He was a brilliant composer, who wrote West Side Story, On the Town, Candide and a bunch of other musicals. He also wrote symphonies, choral works, chamber works, ballet scores and an opera.
He was a conductor, who became the youngest ever (and first American) Music Director of the New York Philharmonic at age 40.
He was such a talented pianist he could conduct a piano concerto from the piano, while playing.
He won 16 Grammys and a lifetime achievement award in 1985.
After one of the most distinguished careers in music history, Bernstein retired from conducting in October of 1990, suffering from lung disease. He died of a heart attack five days later.
Arthur Laurents was a playwright and screenwriter whose grasp of character and appreciation for brevity brought him early success.
He had already written several radio plays and a Broadway success before collaborating with Robbins on West Side Story. The pair (plus Sondheim) worked together again on Gypsy.
Laurents directed the hit musical La Cage aux Folles and wrote the screenplay for many classic films, including Hitchcock's Rope and The Way We Were.
He revived West Side Story on Broadway in 2009, creating a bilingual version where the Sharks spoke and sang in Spanish.
Laurents died in 2011 at 93.
Stephen Sondheim is a lyricist and composer whose work continues to push the boundaries of the American musical. He's often called the greatest lyricist of musical theatre, and no one disagrees.
As a boy, Sondheim played with Oscar Hammerstein's son James, and the famous lyricist became a surrogate father and mentor to Sondheim. As a young man, Sondheim gave his work to Hammerstein to critique, and credits the theatre great with teaching him to write of himself, of what he knew and felt.
Sondheim was just 23 when he got talking to Arthur Laurents at a party. The young lyricist agreed to meet Bernstein, and began working on West Side Story in his 20s — a musical that would launch a still stellar career.
Sondheim is a prolific composer: Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Company are some of his biggest hits. His work is never formulaic, always original. He thrives on surprise.
"Surprise: if it’s in the lyric, the unexpected word, the unexpected note, the unexpected incident. The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about. If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise." (New York Times)
Sondheim turns 89 on March 22, 2019.
Some of the cast of West Side Story practice a dance move. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
- Robbins originally planned to write a story about a star-crossed romance between a Jewish girl and Catholic boy on New York’s Upper East Side. Bernstein and Laurents changed his mind when Puerto Rican and American gang violence began to figure in the news.
- Robbins visited a high school dance in a Puerto Rican neighbourhood of New York to get real-life inspiration for his choreography
- Robbins wouldn’t let the original Jets and Sharks casts mix, to help create real tension on set. They rehearsed in different rooms and weren’t allowed to eat lunch together.
- Chita Rivera, who played Anita on Broadway, and dancer Tony Mordente, who was a Jet, actually got married and had a child! (And that was in spite of Robbins’ ban on Shark-Jet socialising).
- Robbins decided not to kill off Maria after composer Richard Rodgers told him: “She’s dead already, after this all happens to her.”
- ‘One Hand, One Heart’ was actually written for Candide. Bernstein swapped it out for ‘O Happy We’, which he originally wrote for West Side Story.
Todd Jacobsson as Tony and Sophie Salvesani as Maria. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
- Bernstein and Sondheim had a late stroke of inspiration and wrote ‘Something’s Coming’ just 12 days out from opening night.
- The 1961 film brought home 10 Academy Awards, and still holds the record for most awards won by a musical.
- Sondheim got the gig as lyricist through a bit of old-fashioned networking. Talking to Arthur Laurents at a party, the pair got to discussing Laurents’ new project with Leonard Bernstein. Sondheim asked who they’d found to do the lyrics, and was just in time – they hadn’t contracted anyone.
- Sondheim was actually looking to move into writing music along with lyrics, but was keen to meet Bernstein, so he agreed to play for him.
- Sondheim made up nonsense street slang so the language wouldn’t date. He wanted it to be the first Broadway musical to use the 'F word', but learned they’d never get a cast album approved. The boys say ‘Krup you!’ instead.
West Side Story in a Nutshell
The composer: Bernstein. American. 20th Century.
The music: An eclectic mix of jazz, theatre music and classical forms.
The setting: The Broadway musical is set in the 1950s.
The history: Premiered on Broadway in 1957 after a run in DC. A 1961 film version became a cult classic and cemented the musical’s place in history.