Think of mid-century musical theatre, and you probably think of a tuneful slice of escapism: lavish sets and eyecatching costumes; toetapping dance routines; a boy, a girl a love story. West Side Story’s 1957 opening marked a significant departure from that formula, and set a new template for the modern musical.
The tunes are there, of course, courtesy of Leonard Bernstein’s memorable score, and Jerome Robbins’ energetic dance numbers set new standards for Broadway choreography. But the story is set against a background of poverty, racial prejudice and juvenile delinquency; and although boy meets girl, the lovers are denied their happy ending. Against a background of increasing real-world violence on the streets of New York, and in common with its contemporaries in theatre (Look Back In Anger) and film (Rebel Without A Cause), West Side Story eschews the feelgood conventions of traditional musicals and ushers in a much grittier period of storytelling.
Now rightly regarded by many as a classic, West Side Story almost didn’t happen, shunned by almost every theatre producer in town and lacking financial backing until a late stage. The show’s innovations appeared at the time to be insurmountable challenges: a difficult score requiring singers with larger vocal ranges than is usual on Broadway, demanding choreography and a dark, death-filled story based not on lighthearted romance but on one of Shakespeare’s most enduring tragedies.
It took the belief of producer Hal Prince, a personal friend of lyricist Stephen Sondheim, to put the project back on track in early 1957 – and the rest, from the rapturous critical reception and a 732- night opening run, to the Academy Award-winning 1961 film, revivals in 1980 and 2009 and the current touring production, is musical theatre history. “West Side Story is the most famous tragic love story of all time told though infectious music and modern iconic choreography,” says choreographer and director Joey McKneely. “Once you see West Side Story, you will never forget it!” McKneely carries a part of the musical’s heritage with him: he danced for choreographer Jerome Robbins on Broadway in 1989. “At 20 yrs old, I got the chance to dance for Jerome Robbins. When I was approached to do the show, it was a privilege,” he says.
McKneely, who has also choreographed the musicals Smokey Joe’s Café and The Boy From Oz starring Hugh Jackman, took up the reins in 2009, and “For me, it is the passing of the torch – it changed my life when I danced this choreography. I now change a new generation of dancers each time I do the show.”
West Side Story closely follows the narrative of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but with one important difference – where Shakespeare’s lovers come from two aristocratic households “alike in dignity”, Bernstein and Sondheim’s young couple are related to two street gangs, one noticeably more disadvantaged than the other. The Puerto Rican Sharks have come to New York seeking opportunity; signature song “America” with its lyrics about grime, crime and “doors slamming in our face” reveals the stark contrast between the dream and the reality. Riff’s blue-collar Jets are barely a rung up the social ladder from Bernardo’s Latino Sharks, but their white European roots afford them a measure of protection from the city’s corrupt and racist police force.
Topical as the story of warring streets gangs was in mid-century Manhattan, the theme has continued resonance today. “Just open a newspaper today,” says McKneely. “There is always a story of how some youths got killed by a group of others just for being from a different ethnic group. It shows us how fear can destroy love.” McKneely feels that the lessons of West Side Story are as relevant and important today as they were in the postwar period, if not even more so. Musical Director Donald Chan, who has also directed productions of West Side Story for the Cleveland Opera and at La Scala in Italy, agrees: “The same story is presented over and over again in life – racism, star crossed lovers. And it also has great music!”
With its complex, varied score and street-tough choreography, West Side Story has always been an exhilarating challenge for its performers. “It is a very difficult show to cast,” says Chan. “The vocal and dancing challenges are immense because it requires us to find very young performers who can sing, dance and act.” McKneely agrees: “The choreography requires a strong command of technique, and the score has opera heights to it, difficult to find in young performers. In addition, touring productions are rigorously monitored by the Berstein and Robbins estates, requiring exacting standards of rehearsal and performance. The current version was extremely well received on its last visit to Sadler’s Wells – and not only by the UK press, but by members of the Bernstein family. “There is nothing like having Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie come up to you and say, ‘My father would have been very proud of this production!’” smiles Chan.
Jerome Robbins’ choreography, an innovative blend of modern ballet and tougher, urban styles with Latin influences on the Sharks numbers, has reached iconic status. Not only are the sequences immediately familiar to anyone who has seen the stage show or 1961 film; they have taken on a life of their own outside of musical theatre, popping up in everything from adverts for khakis and soft drinks to fashion shoots, sit-coms, music videos and even an episode of the usually deadpan Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Bernstein’s score, likewise, has an influence far beyond its Broadway roots – songs from the show have been covered by artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Salt’n’Pepa and the Pet Shop Boys, and sampled by rock heavyweights Alice Cooper and Metallica. Compositions such as the “Tonight Quintet” also went on to inspire more complex arrangements in other musical theatre productions, most notably Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s first South Park feature film.
Initially considered too dark and depressing for the Broadway stage, West Side Story’s tragic narrative proved an emotive hit with audiences, and marked a turning point in the history of musical theatre, allowing the form to explore darker and more serious subjects . Now over 50 years old, West Side Story still draws huge audiences with its timeless tale told through thrilling dance and music. “It is always the story which draws audiences to the show,” explains McKneely. “The music and dance are so interwoven into the fabric of its story, it captures every emotion one feels in a lifetime.”
Originally published by Sadler’s Wells (programme note)