|About this Recording
8.120887 - BERNSTEIN, L.: West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast) / On the Waterfront (Kert, Lawrence) (1957)
West Side Story
West Side Story Original Cast
Riff (The Leader) - Mickey Calin
Graziella - Wilma Curley
Bernardo (The Leader) - Ken Le Roy
Rosalia - Marilyn Cooper
Doc - Art Smith
West Side Story now seems so firmly enthroned as one of the major classics of the musical theatre that it’s fascinating to remind ourselves of some things: It almost was a totally different project altogether. The show nearly didn’t get produced. The original reaction to the project wasn’t ecstatic.
It all started with Jerome Robbins—which is why this was the first production ever that carried an ‘Entire production conceived, directed and choreographed by…’ credit attached to it.
Robbins had long been drawn to the story of Romeo and Juliet, especially in its balletic version, but in 1949 he was having an affair with the actor Montgomery Clift and Clift was having trouble handling the role of Romeo in an acting class assignment.
Together, he and Robbins evolved the idea that it might be more relevant to think of the Montagues and Capulets as New York City street gangs, but Robbins, with his deeply rooted Jewish heritage and sense of being an outsider, took it further.
Before long, he was pitching composer Leonard Bernstein and librettist Arthur Laurents on the idea of a new kind of musical, serious in intent, heavily driven by dance, that would center on the rivalry between two gangs in Manhattan: one made up of Irish and Italian Catholics, the other of Jewish immigrants.
Robbins saw it all happening on one of those infrequent occasions when the religious festivals of Easter and Passover coincided, to up the mythic and religious quotient even further. The title they came up with was ‘East Side Story’.
Bernstein was immediately the most enthusiastic and, supposedly, some of the musicals themes he created in 1949 remained with the show all along.
But Laurents found it tough going. “It all started to seem sort of stale, sort of Abie’s Irish Rose,” he said, evoking the spirit of the wildly popular 1922 pot-boiler by Anne Nichols that outlined the misadventures of a Jewish boy and his Irish love in the New York of the 1920s.
And the mercurial Robbins, overloaded with work and quick to bridle at any lack of enthusiasm, went elsewhere, but he began working out some of these themes in his 1949 ballet, The Guests, which dealt with romantic couples divided by ethnic diversity.
But then, in 1955, fate struck again. Laurents and Bernstein found themselves on different assignments in Hollywood and one day, sitting outside at the pool of the Chateau Marmont, they started exploring works they might do together.
Laurents noted the headline on the morning paper: ‘More Mayhem From Chicano Gangs’. Suddenly, their project from 1949 acquired new life, with Bernstein hearing Latin rhythms in his head and Laurents realizing that a whole new level of social awareness could be added to the show.
Robbins came out shortly to work on a film and agreed the idea was a sound one; they kept it in Manhattan, but just moved it across town to where the troubled Hispanic gangs were duking it out with the whites who had lived there for years. And so, West Side Story was conceived.
Notice, I didn’t say ‘born’, because that nearly didn’t happen. The creation of the work went as smoothly as one could expect with such three egotists, although things got a little smoother when a 25 year old named Stephen Sondheim was brought in to co-write the lyrics with the overworked Bernstein. (After the Washington opening, Bernstein removed his name, leaving Sondheim sole lyricist, an honour the latter has considered a mixed blessing over the years, regarding his feelings about some of the show’s more simplistic lyrics.)
But when the work was completed, they had trouble raising money for such an edgy project. And lead producer Cheryl Crawford increasingly lost hope, finally pulling out and abandoning the project a month before it was to go into rehearsals.
Sondheim called his good friend, Hal Prince, on the phone in Boston, where the producer was having troubles with his own musical, New Girl in Town. But hearing the sound of fellow artists in pain, Prince and his partner, Bobby Griffith, listened to the score and agreed to put the show on the stage.
Then the hard part started.
Robbins had always been known as a combination of great artist and horrible human being, but both those qualities seemed to intensify as he worked on West Side Story. He split the cast into groups, according to the gangs they were playing, and encouraged personal antipathy.
He drove individual performers so brutally and so hard that one day, while giving notes, Robbins began walking backwards towards the orchestra pit and nobody warned him of his trajectory. He suffered a humiliating fall. But all of that energy, all of that tension paid off in the end and you can hear it on the original cast recording. The gangs snarl and snap like few have ever done since and the anger underneath the love comes through.
Larry Kert was a last minute choice as Tony (“They were looking for a big blond Polish guy and they got a short dark Jewish one,” quipped Kert at the time) but his voice soars gloriously, especially in the song added for him during rehearsals, Something’s Coming.
Carol Lawrence sings with purity and beauty, making her numbers a clear standout and Chita Rivera sizzles in the style she embodies to this day. But when it opened on Broadway on 26 September 1957, the reviews were admiring but not hit-making. “Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable,” said The New York Times, while the Herald Tribune, meaning to be laudatory, used words like “radioactive fallout…savage…blasted apart.”
All of this meant that the show’s initial run was a solid, but not overwhelming 734 performances and that—at that year’s Tony Awards—the crowd-pleasing The Music Man swept all the major awards except for choreography and set design, which went to West Side Story’s Robbins and Oliver Smith. But musical theatre history is often written with the hour hand, not the minute hand, and subsequent revivals—as well as the Oscar winning bonanza that was the 1961 film version—have seen to it that this is a show which will never leave our consciousness.
An appropriate bonus to this recording is music from the 1954 film, On the Waterfront, which also dealt with the savage milieu of the Manhattan streets, only this one seen from the point of view of organized labour rather than street gangs.
Despite winning the Oscar for best motion picture score, only a small portion of the original soundtrack appeared on record, as filler to an obscure musical two years after the fact. It’s included here along with two English pop versions of the main theme, one with poetic lyrics by John Latouche and a haunting performance by Eve Boswell.
Bernstein always was the man in 20th century music, but the mid-1950s were certainly his moment.
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