West Side Story opened on Broadway sixty years ago--and we're still talking about it. It transformed musicals, adding tragic weight and contemporary relevance to the genre. And it also gave us a story that continues to tell us who we are, and who we might yet be.
West Side Story is a story of love, prejudice, betrayal, tragedy—told in song and dance. Musicals had tragic moments before (Oklahoma, Carousel) but still ended in sunniness. The genre seemed built on American opportunity, fantasy, and hope. West Side Story changed that. The first act ended with the knifing death of two people; the second half ended with another, this time by gun. Instead of optimism, West Side Story conveyed a view of American life mired in prejudice; instead of fantasy, it put a spotlight on contemporary problems of juvenile delinquency; and instead of hope, it offered a warning.
The tragedy started from its source, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. The choreographer Jerome Robbins responded to an acting challenge in the late 1940s – make this 16th century love story between two youth relevant – by suggesting dropping the tale into current-day New York. He dashed off an outline of a few scenes, including a mock wedding at a bridal shop and the balcony scene on a fire escape.
Robbins then called in his friends, composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents. Bernstein annotated a copy of Romeo & Juliet with the note that the play was a "plea for racial tolerance." He signed on because he was eager to compose an American opera in the tradition of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.. Arthur Laurents, however, did not want the operatic intent to overwhelm his words. Robbins mediated and persuaded him to take a stab at filling out his cryptic scene descriptions. Laurents’ longer outline placed the story on the Lower East Side as a conflict between Jews and Catholics, perhaps in the springtime when Passover and Easter collided. In January 1949, East Side Story was launched.
Then it went nowhere. The collaborators were busy, successful men and had many other demands. Robbins choreographed ballets for the New York City Ballet, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic, and Laurents wrote screenplays in Hollywood. But, even more important, the idea did not yet have enough grist. In fact, it was not yet distinct enough from Romeo & Juliet. Rivalry between Jews and Catholics was an older feud, not one in the headlines of the day. The men moved on.
Years later, in 1955, Robbins prodded Bernstein and Laurents again, knowing that the three of them could create something distinctive. In particular, he urged them to re-consider the Romeo idea. Bernstein and Laurents were both working in Los Angeles that summer, met, and looked at the news headlines. One leapt out: the rise of gangs. Looking toward New York, the team picked up on the dramatic increase in migration of Puerto Ricans to Manhattan and the re-making of a neighborhood on the west side by urban renewal. East Side Story moved north and crosstown to the Upper West Side and became West Side Story.
1950s New York became the setting and the plot. The musical takes place on and in the city’s streets, rooftops, and tenements; the tensions and challenges of daily life in the city also changed the plot. In Romeo & Juliet, feuding families construct a barrier between the young lovers but it is really broken communication—mis-delivered, delayed letters—that results in their suicides, moments apart. Laurents realized that a more relevant up-to-date forbidden love would turn on prejudice. Rival gangs replaced feuding families and prejudice prompted a hateful assault on the messenger, Anita, who then spat out a lie in vengeance. And only one of the lovers dies at the end. Maria lives as witness and as a judge, giving a searing rebuke to both gangs of the inutility and harm of their morbid rivalry over turf.
The photo shoot for the album cover took place in Central Park and on the street. Even with the appearance of city buildings in the background in this picture of the park, the story belonged on the street.
West Side Story moved far beyond its origins in 1950s New York. The musical has toured the world, been revived on Broadway numerous times, played in high school auditoriums from Finland to the West Bank, and inspires parodies, tributes, and re-imaginings. It lives on because of the artistry of its creators but also because it tells a tale that is still relevant. We continue to fight to belong, and to love.
Images from New York Public Library and Carnegie Hall.
Images curated and text written by Julia Foulkes.