The Broadway Classic that Captivated the World
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair New York where we lay our scene—the scene of the hit Broadway musical that many have come to love, the West Side Story.
Arguably the greatest musical of all time, it is still incredibly relevant until today—and was billed to be one that grew younger with age. And who could deny that statement when the themes of gang warfare, immigration, and race are still hot button topics even in this new millennium? Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the West Side story is adapted to fit into the Upper West Side of New York with the Jets as the Montagues, a white ethnic group, versus the Sharks as the Capulets, immigrants from Puerto Rico. Verona becomes the West Side, and instead of rapiers and balls, we get switchblades and dance halls.
Truly, an adaptation that stood the test of time as well as the original Shakespearean play it was based on.
With music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by then unknown Stephen Sondheim (this was his debut in theater), this Broadway classic with sophisticated music had a dark theme, and then unheard of extended dance scenes that were out of this ordinary, setting the standards of musical theater in years to come. Focusing on social problems, it starts at a dance where Tony, a former Jets member and best friend of its gang leader, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks.
The genesis of this Tony award-winning musical, however, saw many changes including the story itself.
As it was supposed to be a conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family, the original was to be called East Side Story, but was scrapped due to similarities to other plays already being staged. As fights between the creators for the control of the musical continued, so did the progress of the changes of the script. The production then began, but casting was a problem since the actor Bernstein wanted to play Tony, James Dean, had recently died. Despite this, Sondheim found a suitable cast that was able to sing, dance, act, and more importantly, be taken for teenagers, and the show was underway. Part of the success of this musical was the fact that at the time of inception, New York newspapers constantly reported about gang warfare. To increase the tension of the onstage gangs, the actors playing the Jets and Sharks were discouraged from socializing, and at the same time, news clippings of gang violence were posted backstage.
When it debut on stage, West Side Story became a resounding hit that ran for 732 performances before going on tour, and then returning for another 249 performances. There were UK productions and another Broadway revival in 1980 and another one in 2009 that ended in 2011. In 1961, a film adaptation was made starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, and Rita Moreno and won ten Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Today, West Side Story is seen as iconic; its innovative dance, music, and theatrical style changing the face of musical theater in the years following. Classic and immortal, this musical has forever redefined Broadway.
Wikipedia. 2017. “West Side Story.” Last modified February 11, 2017. Accessed on February 10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story.