Originally posted March 7, 2011. Last updated September 2, 2018.
West Side Story (cast/soundtrack)
Leonard Bernstein/ Stephen Sondheim (composers)
Opened on Broadway: Sept. 26, 1957
Cast Album Recorded: Sept. 29, 1957
Cast Album Charted: March 17, 1958
Soundtrack Charted: October 23, 1961
Sales (in millions):
Quotable: “Takes up the American musical idiom where it was left when George Gershwin died.” – John Chapman, New York Daily News WK
West Side Story is hailed as “one of the greatest musicals of all time.” RU Conceived by Arthur Laurents as a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, he recruited Leonard Bernstein for the music, Stephen Sondheim for the lyrics in what would become his Broadway debut, and Jerome Robbins as the choreographer and director. It opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre and “ran for 732 performances (a successful run for the time), before going on tour.” WK It won Tonys for choreography and scenic design, led to an Academy-award winning film, and became a favorite of “schools, regional theatres, and occasionally by opera companies.” WK
Jerome Robbins first approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents in 1949 with his idea of adapting Romeo and Juliet as a contemporary musical. A first draft called East Side Story focused on conflict between a Catholic family and a Jewish family living in Manhattan on the Lower East Side. It was shelved for its similarity to plays lie Abie’s Irish Rose, WK but revived in 1955 when Laurents was approached to adapt the novel Serenade by James M. Cain. That project didn’t make it either, but it connected Laurents with Stephen Sondheim. Along with Bernstein and Robbins, they decided to return to the East Side Story. WK
The musical faced understandably difficult challenges. Critics “said the score was too rangy for pop music” WK and with more dancing than any previous Broadway show WK it would be problematic to find a cast who could sing, dance, and act. Laurents wanted James Dean as Tony, but he died before even hearing about the role. WK
However, the eventual production was well received by audiences and critics. It “galvanized Broadway with its vivid reinvention as a parable of racial intolerance and generational conflict.” SS “The story appealed to society’s undercurrent of rebellion from authority that surfaced in 1950s films like Rebel without a Cause” WK and “the musical also made points in its description of troubled youth and the devastating effects of poverty and racism.” WK
“The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre.” WK Musically, Bernstein “integrated Latin percussion and jazz into his electrifying score” EV alongside “symphonic grandeur” RU “and a rarely heard (in Broadway) toughness.” RU Bernstein’s efforts “dazzlingly translating New York’s unique vitality into a musical idiom.” EV
Set in the mid-1950s in New York City, the story explores the rivalry between two street gangs of different ethnicities. The Sharks are Puerto Rican and the Jets are working-class white. The protagonist, Tony, is a Jet and falls in love with Maria, who is the sister of Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader.
During a challenge dance (Dance at the Gym) between the Jets and the Sharks, Tony meets Maria. Bernardo breaks up their attempted kiss and sends her home, but Tony serenades her outside her bedroom (Maria) and they profess their love to each other (Tonight). WK
The next day at the bridal shop where Maria works, she asks Tony to stop a planned fight between the Jets and Sharks. Tony tries to stop the fight (The Rumble), but when Riff, the leader of the Jets, is stabbed by Bernardo, Tony kills Bernardo in a rage. Maria is devastated when she hears, but still decides to run away with Tony. “As the walls of Maria’s bedroom disappear, they find themselves in a dreamlike world of peace (Somewhere).” WK
After Maria’s friend Anita is nearly raped by the Jets, she claims Chino killed Maria in jealousy. When Tony hears, he decides he has nothing to live for. He confronts Chino, begging to die, and is shot by him just as he sees that Maria is actually alive. The Jets now move towards the Sharks, wanting to avenge the death of another friend. With Chino’s gun in her hand, Maria tells everyone that hatred is what killed Tony and the others and that now she too can kill because she hates. However, she drops the gun in grief and gradually the gang members on both side “assemble on either side of Tony’s body, showing that the feud is over.” WK
A film adaptation, directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, was released on October 18, 1961. As ground-breaking as the show was on Broadway, it became another animal entirely when transferred to film. It was the second highest-grossing film of the year in the United States and won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. WK Natalie Wood was cast as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony. The singing was handled by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant. The “lavish widescreen presentation broke fresh ground by taking the story to its most impressionable audience, the teenagers who could identify directly with Tony and Maria, and opened up Jerome Robbins’ kinetic choreography through bravura camera work.” SS
While “the 1957 original Broadway cast recording still holds up today, …[it] isn’t as good as the movie soundtrack” RU which “was not merely a huge seller but a unique touchstone for an otherwise rock-oriented audience.” SS It “spent more weeks at #1 in the charts (54) than any other album in history” WR and “made more money than any other album before it.” WK It also won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack or Cast Album.
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