The History of West Side Stroy
The idea of creating a modernization of the tragic conflicts in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was first conceived by the enterprising dancer, choreographer and up-and-coming director Jerome Robbins, when he was asked by his friend the actor Montgomery Clift for help in interpreting the role of "Romeo" in a fresh way. The concept thus engendered, in which he had transformed the original family feud into a teenage gang war in a slum district of New York, took a firm hold upon Robbins. His dream was to collaborate in a team made up of some of the greatest talents in the music and theater world, to create a new and individual work for the stage which would be as vanguard as it was commercial.
On January 6, 1949, Jerome Robbins called the ambitious conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, to gain his support for the idea. He and Bernstein had already achieved their first joint success in 1944 with the one-act ballet Fancy Free, which formed the basis of their later Broadway hit On The Town. Four days later, Bernstein met in Robbins’ apartment with the playwright Arthur Laurents, who had just published his first highly successful play about social issues, Home of the Brave. Despite their not inconsiderable differences of opinion, the three men were determined to rise to the challenge: to write a work in which the musical, choreographic and linguistic elements would interact so perfectly that each component in its own right would spur on the plot like part of an ongoing dialog. The first-ever creative team in the history of the American musical had been born.
Only a few scenes had been drafted before the “Romeo” project, as everyone called it, was shelved for several years while the participants all pursued their separate careers. It was not until the summer of 1955 – although Robbins had meanwhile made repeated attempts to find a producer – that the top-class trio was re-united in renewed fervor. They were joined this time by a fourth man, a young and at that time virtually unknown lyricist named Stephen Sondheim. The creative process was both zesty and torturous. Each one of the collaborators, on an equal footing with the other three members of the pact to elaborate "this" idea, was driven to give non-stop input, to keep challenging the ground just gained, to reject the progress made. Meanwhile fresh ideas were being added by the stage designer Oliver Smith, who had been involved in the project from the beginning, with his proposals for using materials like brick, steel and concrete.
More than six months had been spent on shaping the right cast for the young ensemble when disaster struck: Cheryl Crawford, the show’s producer, quit just a few weeks before it was to go into rehearsal. In the face of this death blow a resolute pair of producers, Harold Prince and Robert Griffith, jumped into the breach, managing to raise the production costs within a week.
While the audience was acclaiming the first performances in Washington in August 1957, the show turned out to be a flop in Philadelphia. The reviews of the Broadway premiere were equally divided, although all critics agreed that this was one of the most unusual works of commercial entertainment ever staged – unusual in the realistic topic of the show, the new vocabulary designed for universal appeal, and the lack of a happy end.
West Side Story ran for 734 performances in the Winter Garden Theatre. The creators were disappointed at the 1958 Tony Awards that they only received an award for Jerome Robbins’ choreography and Oliver Smith’s set. Three performers were nominated, Carol Lawrence (Maria), Larry Kert (Tony) and Chita Rivera (Anita). In December 1958 the curtain was raised on the first European premiere of West Side Story at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End of London. The audience raved, the critics were carried away. The work was performed 1039 times. Here in London, the masterpiece was given the tribute it deserved, and here it was immediately realized that "the musical" would never again be the same as it had been before. In April 1960 the original returned to Broadway for another successful run.
In the legendary film version of West Side Story, too, Jerome Robbins found the perfect setting for hismatchless choreography. Awarded ten Oscars in 1961, this movie is among those that have received the most awards in the entire history of Hollywood. Since then, this unique musical has been interpreted and staged innumerable times – and no production has ever been able to equal the original Broadway classic.