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The Surprising Backstory to West Side Story

Library of Congress, Music Division
Leonard Bernstein backstage with the cast of West Side Story, 1957.

Conceived in 1949, West Side Story has a serious message that pleads for racial tolerance, delivered in unforgettable song and dance. People have been listening to that message, and humming the songs, ever since the show premiered on Broadway in 1957 and debuted on the silver screen in 1961.?

Composer Leonard Bernstein and his co-creators, Jerome Robbins (director, choreographer and original idea-man) Arthur Laurents (who wrote the book) and Stephen Sondheim (lyricist) aimed for lofty ideals in the show’s themes and every detail of its production. But West Side Story, winner of two Tony and 10 Academy Awards, has endured because it's also incredibly entertaining. ?

Here's a closer look at West Side Story and some of the surprising elements that make it one of the most memorable works of musical theater.
A dancer came up with the idea.
Director Jerome Robbins, who first proposed the idea for West Side Story, was at the same time choreographer of New York City Ballet. As a result, dance tells the story of this muslcal at the sophisticated level of ballet, not only in obvious dance numbers like "Mambo!" but in narrative scenes of escalating gang tension and warfare. We see it from the opening “Prologue,” when rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, stake out their territory.

West Side Story was originally East Side Story. When they first conceived the show in 1949, Robbins, Bernstein and Laurents set their story on the east side of Manhattan, and gave it the working title East Side Story. They planned to stage the conflict between rival Catholic and Jewish groups.

However, this concept never gained traction, and the project foundered until 1955, when teenage Latin gang violence in L.A. made the news. Laurents then presented the idea of changing the conflict to involve Puerto-Rican versus white gangs on the then-grungy Upper West Side of Manhattan. All at once, the project took off.

In Bernstein’s words: “Suddenly it all springs to life. I can hear the rhythms and pulses, and -- most of all -- I can feel the form.”
Shakespeare and Sondheim. Most of us know that the show, with modifications, is a modern take on William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. But did you know that its tragic plot almost caused West Side Story not to see the light of day?

The show's original producer pulled out because she thought the story was too dark and would flop. Producer after producer turned it down. When Hal Prince and his co-producer finally swept in and raised sufficient money for West Side Story's first run, it was the first of Prince's many successful collaborations with Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim, then only 25-years-old, came on board fairly late in the process as lyricist for Bernstein’s melodies. Bernstein wrote about Sondheim: “What a talent! I think he’s ideal for this project, as do we all.”
Bernstein’s deeply felt Jewish heritage forms an integral part of the music of West Side Story.
A basic shofar call, the Tekiah, provides the musical motif that many of the show’s most important songs are based on. The shofar, a hollow ram’s horn, is one of the world’s most ancient instruments, and is still played today in Jewish religious ceremonies during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The motif is known in musical terms as a “tri-tone” (the interval of the augmented 4th.) In various forms, it can be heard in the opening “Prologue,” in songs like “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” and “Cool.”

Conducting notes. The same day Bernstein saw his first run-through of West Side Story, he signed his contract to become the first American-born music director (and conductor) of the New York Philharmonic.

On a somewhat humorous note, the conductor for West Side Story’s opening run, former Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Max Goberman, had it written into his contract that Lenny was not allowed to take over the conducting of the production.
America. One of the most infectious songs in the show is based on the rhythms of a Mexican dance called the huapanga. It’s just one example of how the United States of America and the show itself is a melting pot of influences: jazz, Latin rhythms, as well as established Broadway style make the tunes infectious, the music memorable.

The Philadelphia Connection. The show had a two-week, pre-Broadway run at Philadelphia's Erlanger Theatre? before it moved on to NYC to open at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1957.

Love. In the end, West Side Story is a love story, and the prime example of how Bernstein loved the genre of musical theater, where he had his beginnings as a composer. Did you know that Bernstein first began writing music for theatrical productions when he was a teenage counselor at summer camp? He brought his deep understanding of high art to popular culture, and forever changed the shape of musical theater.

Take a look at this behind-the-scenes West Side Story documentary featuring Bernstein in action with opera stars in 1984:


Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.