Today marks the 55th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of West Side Story, which debuted at the Winter Garden Theater in New York in 1957. A “Romeo and Juliet” for the modern era, the musical quickly became a timeless classic.
Originally conceived of as “East Side Story," the production languished for years before coming to life through the collaboration between up-and-coming Broadway giants. Several strands of genius went into the making of "West Side" -- choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents, and composer Leonard Bernstein played an integral role in the production. This founding group was joined some six years on by Stephen Sondheim, an addition that served as a catalyst for a revived project.
The musical, set in the West 50s and 60s of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, follows a rivalry between two streetwise gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. When Tony -- a Jet -- falls for Maria -- a Shark -- all hell breaks loose. The musical paints a vivid picture of the tensions between groups at the social margins and envelops us in the energy of youth culture. Ultimately, the production moves us with its story of misbegotten love.
The original production starred Larry Kert as Tony, Carol Lawrence as Maria, Chita Rivera as Anita and David Winters as Baby John. Though not initially a box office hit, it was met with positive critical reviews. Brooks Atkinson, a New York Times theater critic at the time, wrote of the play that "everything contributes to the total impression of wildness, ecstasy and anguish...The subject is not beautiful. But what 'West Side Story' draws out is beautiful. For it has a searching point of view.” Despite such glowing reviews, "Music Man" (a marvelous, if more conventional play) bested West Side Story for the Tony as the Best Play of 1958. The latter settled for two awards-- Best Choreography and Best Scenic Design.
"West Side Story" continues to speak to the intimate corners of our hearts as well as to the social contradictions that still challenge us over a half-century since the play's inception.
When did you first see it, readers? Let us know in the comments section below.