Story and Memories of West Side Story's Bookwriter.
In 1949, the film version of the 1944 Broadway musical On The Town had just opened. The musicals' original choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein were interested in collaborating again. Robbins had the idea of adapting the story of Romeo and Juliet into a tragic musical set in contemporary times. The idea excited Bernstein as well, but they needed someone to write the text.
Bernstein and Robbins both admired Arthur Laurents's 1946 play Home of the Brave about a Jewish soldier in World War II who overcomes debilitating self-loathing caused by the antisemitism he has experienced in the military. Like On the Town, the play was adapted into a film version released in 1949 and so was likely fresh in the minds of the theatre community as Robbins and Bernstein were looking for a collaborator. Further, since their Romeo musical then involved a conflict between Jewish and Catholic gangs, Laurents earlier work made him seem the perfect choice to write the libretto.
Laurents wrote a six page "treatment" (plot summary) of West Side Story titled Romeo which was sent to potential collaborators and investors. This copy, found in the papers of the librettist and lyricist team Betty Comden and Aldoph Green at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, includes a note from the pair saying that the show was offered to them, but that they turned it down because they were busy with their musical Bells are Ringing.
The team struggled to make the Catholic/Jewish story work, and, with little forward momentum on Romeo, each started working on other projects. Laurents wrote the 1952 play, The Time of the Cuckoo which had a successful that season on Broadway and was adapted into the 1955 film Summertime. Bernstein wrote his famous score to On The Waterfront which was released in 1954. Laurents and Bernstein met while they were both in Los Angeles and revived the idea of the Romeo musical, this time with a Puerto Rican gang.
As has often happened in the history of musical theatre, as the musical went through a rocky patch in its development, much of the blame was laid on the book. Laurents, however, remained remarkably resolute in his commitment to what he had written (in spite of a great deal of pressure from then producer Cheryl Crawford).
In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of West Side Story, as plans were developing for a new Broadway revival of the musical, Arthur Laurents visited the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and recounted his memories of the show.
Photos by Martha Swope & Friedman-Abeles
Photos copyright the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Billy Rose Theatre Division
Exhibit curated by Doug Reside