TONIGHT, TONIGHT, IT ALL BEGAN TONIGHT. 60 Years ago one of the most beautiful, romantic, and tragic musicals ever written for the stage officially opened on Broadway. That show was Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents’ West Side Story. The show is a modern day retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Set in the streets of New York City, a boy and a girl from two rival neighborhood gangs fall into a forbidden love that will change their lives forever.
The musical was originally conceived in 1947 when Jerome Robbins told Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about doing a contemporary retelling of ROMEO & JULIET. The original script was completely different from the verses that we know now about the show. It was actually set during the Passover-Easter time with the original rival gangs being Irish Catholic “Jets” and the Jewish “Emeralds” living on the Lower East Side (originally conceived as EAST SIDE STORY). After that original script was completed, Laurents and the team realized that there have already been a few plays with that same theme, including ABIE’S IRISH ROSE. The project was canceled and put back on the shelves. In addition, Laurents, Robbins, and Bernstein went their separate ways. Five years later, the three reunited on another project but decided to go back to EAST SIDE STORY by adding a fourth member of the team….Stephen Sondheim. One day in Los Angeles, the four came across stories in the newspaper about a group of juvenile delinquents and decided to change the setting to LA. However, Laurents said to keep it in New York City getting used to the life of the Puerto Rican immigrants and Harlem residents, instead of Mexican Americans and Olvera Street. At the same time, Jerome Robbins was familiar with Latin music and was stoked when he heard they would use that music style in the story. The team went back to NYC and changed everything, making the story the way we all know it featuring the American “Jets” and Puerto Rican “Sharks” of the Upper West Side.
The original production opened on Broadway 60 years on this today in 1957 (following a smash sold-out-of-town run in Washington, D.C.) at the Winter Garden Theatre running for 732 performances. The cast originally starred Larry Kert as “Tony,” Carol Lawrence as “Maria,” and Tony-winning legendary Chita Rivera in her breakout role as “Anita.” It was nominated for 6 Tony Awards in 1958, winning only 2 including Best Choreography (by Jerome Robbins). Following its original Broadway run, WEST SIDE STORY went on to wow audiences around the world.
WEST SIDE STORY was later revived twice on Broadway starting in 1980 playing Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre for 333 performances. That cast starred Ken Marshall as “Tony,” Josie de Guzman as “Maria,” and Debbie Allen as “Anita.” It was nominated for 3 Tonys that year including Best Revival of a Musical, but lost in all of its categories.
The most recent revival played Broadway’s Palace Theatre for 775 performances. This cast featured Matt Cavanaugh as “Tony”, Josefina Scaglione as “Maria”, and Karen Olivo as “Anita”. For this revival, the production was well known for including translated dialogue and lyrics into Spanish by Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. It was nominated for 4 Tony Awards winning only 1 for Best Featured Actress in a Musical (for Karen Olivo).
Not only being an iconic musical for the stage, WEST SIDE STORY also became an instant worldwide hit when the legendary film version was released in 1961 starring Richard Beymer as “Tony,” the late Natalie Wood as “Maria,” and the legendary Rita Moreno as “Anita.” In addition, the late Marni Nixon dubbed Wood for the singing voice of “Maria”. Before filming, Natalie Wood began serious vocal training but the creative team thought Wood’s singing was not strong enough (even though she was a great actress). The film received critical acclaim during its opening week, receiving 11 Academy Award nominations and winning 10, including Best Picture. The film also made history as the only Musical movie ever to receive the most Oscar nominations.
FUN FACT: The film version of WEST SIDE STORY was filmed in the area of what a few years later was torn down to become Lincoln Center.
Happy 60th Anniversary WEST SIDE STORY. We will always love you SOMEHOW, SOMEDAY, SOMEWHERE!!
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