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West Side Story at 50

Gang warfare, teenage toughs, knife crime, racial division – sounds like today’s headlines? Well, think again. West Side Story took London by storm 50 years ago, and now that it’s back on stage here ahead of year-long UK tour, Michael Coveney considers why the Sharks, the Jets, Jerome Robbins’ choreography and hit songs like “Maria” changed the face of musical theatre.

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The greatest musical ever written

Is West Side Story the greatest musical ever written? Is it also the greatest musical of which we’ve never seen a really great production since the original? Because the original, in various diluted forms, is all we ever get. The authorised 50th anniversary production now at Sadler\'s Wells - with the choreography of Jerome Robbins reproduced by one of his acolytes, Joey McKneely - gives us a good chance to take stock.

When What’s On Stage magazine (in its previous incarnation as Theatregoer) did a “greatest musical” questionnaire among professionals a few years ago, West Side Story won the contest by a mile, receiving the approbation of Maureen Lipman, Ruthie Henshall, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bill Kenwright and Richard O\'Brien, to name but a few.

This current revival has already played to enthusiastic audiences in Tokyo, Paris and Beijing, and will next month go on a massive national tour from Woking to Southampton via Salford, Glasgow, Cardiff and many other stops. Later this year, Arthur Laurents, the show’s 90-year-old librettist, and fierce defender of the sacred flame, will mount a brand new “original” production in Washington DC, with Broadway beckoning next spring. After his triumph as director of Patti LuPone in Gypsy on Broadway last season (music by Jule Styne, book by Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), he may well think he’s on to another winner.

Originals only

Isn’t it high time we saw West Side Story in a new light, in a new way, with young teenage dancers and revolutionary new choreography? The controlling agents won’t allow this, every licensed production coming with the advertising brand of “entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins”. But McKneely, who appeared in the original cast of Jerome Robbins on Broadway and choreographed Smokey Joe’s Café and Hal Prince’s premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind in New York, may well have a point when he tells me, categorically, that without Robbins’ choreography, West Side Story would in effect be something else. In effect, it has to be done as it always was.

“No way does this dance look dated or old-fashioned, and I do my bit by stripping away anything that reminds you of the past, such as poodle skirts or slicked-back hair. No show illustrates the cardinal rule of the musical as well as West Side Story: if you can’t say it, you sing it, and if you can’t sing it, you dance it. That’s the dynamic, and that’s the greatness of it.”

Laurents and lyricist Sondheim – this was his first Broadway show in 1957 – are the two survivors from the original creative team. Robbins was the show’s instigator, composer Leonard Bernstein its defining genius: never had there been such a seamless conjunction of choreography, book, lyrics and music. Yet both are wonderfully critical of their own work.

Sondheim doesn’t like the sentimentality of many of the songs, especially Maria’s “I Feel Pretty”, and Laurents points out in his autobiography that the so-called “radical” last section of the show, which has neither music nor dance, was an accident. The last scene culminates in a monologue in which Maria threatens everyone with a gun: “The monologue was supposed to be an aria, but Lenny couldn’t find the music...” – so West Side Story ends, innovatively, and by default, with a speech that is in fact a dummy lyric!

Mixed reviews

But the 20th-century New York street gang version of the Romeo and Juliet story, which opened at the Winter Garden on 26 September 1957, was still as challenging as it was groundbreaking. The iconic Broadway poster, using a photograph shot on West 46th Street, showed Carol Lawrence as Maria dragging Larry Kert as Tony into a new world, arms aloft – “Somewhere, there’s a place for us, a time and place for us. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there...”

Of the original New York newspaper reviews, one was a rave, two were favourable, two were mixed, three were pans. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times was horrified by the material but acknowledged “an incandescent piece of work that finds odd bits of beauty amid the rubbish of the streets”, while Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune hailed the “radioactive fall-out” of the savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns.

Kenneth Tynan said that Bernstein’s music was as smooth and savage as a cobra, sounding as if Puccini and Stravinsky had gone on a rollercoaster ride into the precincts of modern jazz. And yet the show won only two Tony Awards, for the choreography and Oliver Smith’s design, losing out in the other major categories, including best musical, to The Music Man (revived this summer at Chichester Festival Theatre with Brian Conley).

East becomes West

Robbins had first convened Bernstein and Laurents in 1949 with the idea of doing a modern “East Side Story”, about a Jewish boy’s doomed romance with an Italian Catholic girl on the Lower East Side. Everyone’s schedules got in the way, then Laurents realised that this story had already been done in the 1920s by the long-running hit Abie’s Irish Rose. By the time they all returned to the project, the location had moved to the West Side.

Laurents pared the storyline right down to one of ethnic warfare between the juvenile gangs of Jets and Sharks, removing the family feud of Shakespeare’s play and introducing the idea that Tony (the new Romeo) should fail to receive the news that Maria (or Juliet) is still alive because of prejudice, not some nonsense about a plague. Tynan complained, though, that “the boys are too kempt; they dope not, neither do they drink. This makes them unreal, and gives the show an air of sociological slumming.” This was the only compromise on the brink of greatness, said Tynan, and that surely was triumph enough.

Entering the public consciousness

When the production came to London, opening at Her Majesty’s on 12 December 1958, with Chita Rivera repeating her show-stopping Broadway performance of “America” as Anita, Puerto Rican girlfriend of the leader of the Sharks, the critics were ecstatic.

Laurents said that most of them noted the changes he had made to Shakespeare, and highlights such as the first slow-motion kiss in the middle of a frenetic dance sequence, and the brilliant “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the best ever song about juvenile delinquency (and a comic oasis insisted on by Laurents in the calm before the storm), were given full credit.

But it was Robert Wise’s 1961 movie of West Side Story - starring Richard Beymer, Natalie Wood (her songs dubbed by Marni Nixon, who did the same job for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady three years later) and Rita Moreno - that ensured the score entered the public consciousness and the soundtrack of our lives. It scooped ten Oscars, including one for George Chakiris as Bernardo and two for Robbins as co-director and choreographer, even though he only “re-imagined” one sequence – the finger-clicking “Cool” – in cinematic terms. But what a sequence! The rest, as they say, is history.

West Side Story opened on 24 July 2008 (previews from 22 July) at Sadler’s Wells where it continues until 31 August. It then embarks on an extensive UK tour, with dates currently confirmed through to 11 July 2009. A longer version of this article appears in the current July/August issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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