The Making of West Side Story

“Could it be? Yes, it could. Something’s coming, something good.” – “Something’s Coming,” West Side Story

This week (Sept. 26) in 1957 something very good indeed came to Broadway — the musical with the greatest combination of music, lyrics, choreography and dancing ever produced.  West Side Story ­— music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins — adapted the plot from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to tell the story of two New York gangs, the Jets and Sharks, and the tragic love story that results when Tony, a founder of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks.  Borrowing from Romeo and Juliet, the musical ends with Tony killing Bernardo and then dying in Maria’s arms.

Interestingly, the original story, tentatively titled East Side Story, was about a Jewish-Christian romance during the convergence of Easter and Passover, but Bernstein, who was active in political and social issues all his life, wanted a more contemporary, socially conscious story.  In meetings with Robbins and the writer Arthur Laurents, they decided to craft a story based on the influx of immigrants, especially Puerto Ricans, coming to America in general and New York City in particular during the 1950s.  Thus did Laurents’ plot and Sondheim’s lyrics focus on the problems resulting from this immigration-based “culture clash” — in particular the juvenile delinquency and rise of street gangs, but also sub-themes such as racial tensions and stereotyping as both whites (the Jets) and Puerto Ricans (the Sharks) adjust to the latter’s presence in America.  As one example, the song “I Want to Live in America,” sung by two Puerto Rican characters, Anita and Rosalia, condemns white racism but acknowledges America’s material advantages over their former island home.

Speaking of racism, West Side Story opened the day after President Eisenhower sent federal troops to a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce America’s first-ever court-ordered integration of a public school, an irony that was probably lost on the large and enthusiastic crowds that made the musical a box-office hit.  Although the musical’s reviews were initially mixed (with the exception of the universally praised dancing and Jerome Robbins’ choreography), over time Bernstein’s exhilarating, opera-like score and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics also earned critical raves, and in 1961 West Side Story was made into a film that won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Musical Score.

But — again speaking of racism and stereotyping (and irony) — despite West Side Story’s forthright exploration of racial discrimination, the original musical version cast Carol Lawrence as Maria, while in the 1961 movie Natalie Wood got that part.  Neither one was even remotely Latin American, let alone Puerto Rican.