This Day In Literary History
On September 26th, 1957, West Side Story, an acclaimed musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's classic play Romeo and Juliet, opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre.
Eight years earlier in 1949, the legendary Broadway producer Jerome Robbins met with legendary composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents to discuss his idea for a new musical that they would collaborate on.
The musical Robbins had in mind was an adaptation and modernization of William Shakespeare's classic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Set in New York City, the musical would address the disturbing postwar rise of anti-Semitism in America.
Laurents, eager to write his first musical, penned a first draft of the proposed play. Set in New York's East Side, it was called East Side Story and dealt specifically with Irish Catholic prejudice against Jews.
It told the story of two feuding families, one Irish-Catholic, the other Jewish. The daughter of the Jewish family, a Holocaust survivor, falls in love with the son of the Irish Catholic family - a forbidden romance that provokes mutual hate and results in tragedy.
When the group met to discuss Laurents' first draft, they ultimately decided not to do a story about Irish Catholic anti-Semitism, as it had been done before on the Broadway stage and done well in plays like Anne Nichols' Abie's Irish Rose.
Laurents then dropped out to work on other projects and the musical was shelved for nearly five years. In 1955, at the opening of a new Ugo Betti play, Laurents ran into Stephen Sondheim, a young composer and lyricist whom he had worked with on another shelved musical, Seranade.
Sondheim told Laurents that the East Side Story project was back on. Leonard Bernstein had asked Sondheim to write the lyrics, as he wanted to concentrate exclusively on writing the music.
The new musical had been retitled West Side Story and would focus on a different form of racism - white prejudice against New York City's burgeoning Puerto Rican population.
The musical also dealt with juvenile delinquency, then a recent phenomenon that was reaching epic proportions and making headlines nationwide. Instead of feuding families, the conflict is between feuding teenage street gangs, one white, the other Puerto Rican.
Arthur Laurents wrote a new script and served as a creative consultant for Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, offering suggestions during the development of the score.
In writing the new script, Laurents was faced with the problem of the language used by the two gangs. While strong profanity could be heard in more daring off-Broadway plays, at that time, it was unheard of on the Broadway stage.
Laurents didn't want to use clean current slang, either, for fear of dating the play. So, he invented a new slang dialect for the gang members that sounded profane but wasn't. The new slang would also avoid dating with play with obsolete slang.
Producer Jerome Robbins wanted to maintain an atmosphere of gritty realism, so the harrowing fight scenes were not choreographed like the musical numbers. Stage blood was used effectively to enhance the realism of the fight scenes and the tragedy of the story.
The play opens with the Jets, a white street gang, involved in a turf war with the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. Riff, the leader of the Jets, plans to challenge Sharks leader Bernardo to a rumble (gang fight) to settle their differences once and for all.
At the neighborhood dance, Tony, the ex-leader of the Jets, shows up. Tony has gone straight and wants nothing more to do with gang life, but is still loyal to his old friend Riff, who now leads the Jets. The gang questions that loyalty.
Meanwhile, Bernardo's sister Maria also goes to the dance. Ignoring the brewing tensions between the Jets and Sharks members in attendance, Maria ends up dancing with Tony, and it's love at first sight for both of them.
When both gangs meet on neutral ground to discuss a rumble, Tony convinces both Riff and Bernardo to engage in a "fair fight" - to use only their fists during the rumble. Overruling the protests of their respective gang members, the two leaders agree.
The next day, Tony meets Maria and they dream about their wedding - despite the fact that Maria's family has decided that she will marry her brother's best friend, Chino. Maria begs Tony to stop the rumble, fearful for Bernardo's safety.
Tony tries to stop the rumble, but fails. During the fight, he tries to stop Riff from stabbing Bernardo, but Riff shakes him off and gets back in the fight. When Bernardo accidentally kills Riff, Tony, blaming himself for Riff's death, kills Bernardo in a rage.
A shocked Tony returns to Maria and confesses to killing her brother. She attacks him at first, but recognizing his remorse and realizing that she still loves him, she decides to run away with him.
Later, Bernardo's girlfriend Anita, after being nearly raped by the Jets, tells them that a jealous Chino has killed Maria. It's a lie, but it gets back to Tony, who vows to kill Chino. When Tony and Chino finally meet, Chino pulls out a gun and shoots Tony. He dies in Maria's arms.
The Jets and Sharks members gather around Tony's body, and a distraught Maria grabs Chino's gun and points it at them, blaming their hatred for Tony and Bernardo's deaths. She says she's now filled with hate and can kill, but instead, she breaks down and cries.
Moved by Maria's grief for Tony, the Jets and Sharks end their feud and form a funeral procession. They carry Tony's body away, with Maria in tow.
West Side Story opened in September of 1957 to excellent reviews. Featuring classic songs such as Jet Song, Maria, America, and Tonight, the musical became a huge hit. It ran at the Winter Garden Theatre for nearly 1,000 performances.
Most critics praised the musical for its grittiness and stark violence, which enhanced the tragic story. Some accused writer Arthur Laurents of glamorizing gang violence and juvenile delinquency.
In 1961, West Side Story was adapted as a classic musical feature film directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Though the film took liberties with the play and Leonard Bernstein hated its orchestration, it would become a hit and win big at the Academy Awards.
Legendary rock singer Elvis Presley was the original choice to play Tony, but his manager Col. Tom Parker made him decline the role. He didn't want Elvis to be associated with gang warfare and juvenile delinquency.
Richard Beymer was cast as Tony, Natalie Wood as Maria. During production, it was discovered that neither Wood nor Beymer could sing well enough for the film, so their vocals were dubbed by singers Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant.
The film's only weakness is the toned-down violence, required by the stifling Production Code that was still in effect at the time. To tone down the violence, the gang warfare is depicted via dance numbers, which the stage play deliberately avoided.
Nevertheless, the musical film adaptation of West Side Story is rightfully considered an all-time classic.
Quote Of The Day
"Psychoanalysts and elephants, they never forget." - Arthur Laurents
Today's video features a documentary on the making of West Side Story. Enjoy!