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A Film by Michael Kantor


West Side Story

Premier: September 26, 1957 Theater: Winter Garden Theater Music by: Leonard Bernstein Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim Book by: Arthur Laurents Directed by: Jerome Robbins Choreography by: Jerome Robbins Produced by: Robert Griffith and Harold S. Prince

    "Something's Coming" "Maria" "Tonight" "America" "I Feel Pretty" "Somewhere"
In 1949, Jerome Robbins called Leonard Bernstein about a new idea he had for a musical: a modern update of “Romeo and Juliet,” only the star-crossed lovers would be Catholic and Jewish, and it would take place on the Lower East Side. They brought in playwright Arthur Laurents to do the libretto, but six years into the planning stage, the Catholic-Jewish conflict seemed old hat. In the meantime, the papers were filled with stories of juvenile gang warfare among the burgeoning Hispanic populations of Los Angeles and Spanish Harlem. Now, the idea finally seemed vibrant and timely. The team also acquired a new lyricist when Bernstein gave up the notion of doing the words himself: Stephen Sondheim, a young protégé of Oscar Hammerstein’s and a composer in his own right.

Following Shakespeare’s model, the team constructed a story of star-crossed lovers caught between rival gangs — this time Puerto Ricans (Sharks) and white ethnics (Jets) on New York City’s Upper West Side. Tony (former leader of the Jets) falls in love with Maria (sister of the leader of the Sharks) at a high school dance, despite the tragic impossibility of their situation. When, in a gang rumble, he impetuously kills Maria’s brother, Bernardo, while defending his own friend, he sets the romance on an inevitably fatal course.

The transposition from Renaissance Verona to West 74th Street was accomplished seamlessly, and the entire stage exploded with Robbins’ athletic choreography. Reviews for “West Side Story” were generally positive, but the show’s tragic demeanor — two deaths at the end of the first act, one at the end of the show — was off-putting to some. That year, the show lost all of the major Tony Awards® to the far more traditional “The Music Man.”