I’m by no means the world’s biggest fan of musicals. But to have an undisputed classic like West Side Story coming into Manchester town just weeks after Singin’ In The Rain is surely enough to gladden the heart of the most curmudgeonly of critics.
I’m not alone in considering West Side Story one of the greatest musicals in history, of course. Even at the opening night in 1957, no less an authority figure than a US Supreme Court justice apparently collared composer Leonard Bernstein to sobbingly tell him that “the history of America is now changed”. Less than a year later, the musical had its European Premiere right here in Manchester at the Opera House to only fractionally less hysterical acclaim. It’s been widely acknowledged ever since that this gangland take on Romeo and Juliet, complete with dark themes, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and a focus on social problems, marked a turning point in American musical theatre. Bernstein’s score, meanwhile, includes such cornerstones of the Great American Songbook as Maria, America, I Feel Pretty, Tonight and Somewhere, a song so great that the sainted Tom Waits once covered it.
Endlessly copied and “re-imagined”, West Side Story has survived a one-woman version by Cher (although I know people who would pay good money to see that) among the multitude of versions that have come along over the years. Perhaps most famously, it was made into an award-winning film in 1961.
But like many now-acknowledged classics, its birth was far from easy.
In 1947, Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about collaborating on a contemporary musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, suggesting that the plot focus on the conflict between an anti-Semitic Irish Catholic gang and a Jewish family living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – hence the title ‘East Side Story’. Bernstein always believed the project should be operatic in form, but the others were just as adamant that it should be ‘lyric theatre’. As a result of this fundamental disagreement, the whole thing was shelved for almost five years until a theatrical producer tried to reunite the trio to work on a stage adaptation of a James M. Cain novel. Robbins contrarily felt that if the three were going to join forces, they should return to ‘East Side Story’. The story at this point gets very complicated indeed, involving a young Stephen Sondheim contributing lyrics that were attributed to others, aborted remakes of a Greta Garbo film, the filmed version of The King And I, advice from Oscar Hammerstein, newspaper headline coverage of “juvenile delinquent gangs” in L.A., and even swapping songs with a musical version of Candide.
Suffice to say that, by the time the smoke began to clear a new draft of the book had changed the characters’ backgrounds, completely erased some of the Shakespeare-inspired characters, invented what purported to be street talk and thus eliminated the swearing – oh, and changed the title to West Side Story!
The show was nearly complete by 1956 but “everyone told us it was an impossible project,” remembered Bernstein. “We were told no-one was going to be able to sing it and the score was too rangy for pop music. Besides, who wanted to see a show in which the first-act curtain comes down on two dead bodies lying on the stage? Then we had the really tough problem of casting it, because the characters had to be able not only to sing but dance and act and be taken for teenagers.” James Dean, one of their first choices to play Tony, had inconveniently died, but at least the New York newspapers were filled with articles about gang warfare, keeping the show’s plot timely during their rehearsal period. Robbins posted these stories on the bulletin board backstage and kept the cast members playing the Sharks and the Jets separate in order to discourage them from socialising with each other. Despite this insistence on gritty realism, he was so high-handed in other ways, including insisting on a “Conceived By” credit and making major changes without consultation, that by opening night on Broadway, none of his collaborators were even talking to him.
But as the curtain went up on those warring gangs and star-crossed lovers, the history of musical theatre was about to be changed…
*West Side Story is at the Palace Theatre in Manchester from December 10, 2013 to January 5, 2014