First produced at the Winter Garden on 26th September, 1957, with Carol Lawrence as "Maria", Larry Kert as "Tony" and Chita Rivera as "Anita."
West Side Story transfers Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to present-day New York. The love story of Romeo and Juliet becomes that of Maria and Tony. The feud between the houses of the Capulets and the Montagues is re-created in one involving two teen-age gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The famous balcony scene of the Shakespeare drama transpires on a fire-escape of an ugly New York tenement.
The curtain rises on a bleak scene representing a warehouse. For the next five minutes not a word is spoken. Instead we get an extended dance sequence by the two gangs, the mood is sinister. This establishes not only the emotional climate for the play that follows but also provides a warning of some of the impending action. One of these gangs is the Jets, who are determined to prevent the invasion into their territory by any Puerto Rican. The rival gana, the Sharks, is made up entirely of Puerto Ricans. Both gangs arrange a meeting at a dance held in the neighborhood gymnasium for the purpose of arranging the time, place and weapons for a major gang fight, or "rumble". A climactic point is here reached with an exciting mambo dance. At this dance Maria, sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, meets and falls in love with Tony, a member of the rival Jets. Belonging as they do to enemy camps, Tony and Maria must henceforth carry on their love idyll in great secrecy. In the song and dance sequence, "Somewhere", they escape from the squalor and grimness of reality into a fanciful dream world. In "Maria", Tony gives voice to his feelings about the girl he has come to love, and in "I Feel Pretty" Maria describes her own reactions to the miracle of love. Their love blossoms out in a poignant scene on the tenement fire-escape and in the best ballad of the score, "Tonight". They eventually go through a mock marriage -- which they themselves take more seriously -- in a bridal shop where Maria is employed and where the dress dummies serve as their guests. This episode finds interpretation in dance in "One Hand, One Heart". But the hatred that separates the Jets and the Sharks also spells doom for their ill-fated romance. Then the "Rumble" erupts -- a dramatic incident that once again finds its equivalent in dance movements -- Tony kills Maria's brother. She is ready to forgive Tony, even to elope with him. But before this can happen, Tony is killed by an avenging Shark.
Such dramatic material, realistic, grim and alive with social problems. In West Side Story, dance has been elevated to new importance by being required to carry on much of the dramatic action in a way that had never before attempted on Broadway. As John Martin, the dance editor of the New York Times, pointed out, the drama of West Side Story lies not so much in "talked plot but in moving bodies. The muscles of trained dancers are tensed and untensed and tensed again, stimulated by emotional tensions stimulating them still further in return. These tensions are transferred automatically across the footlights and into the musculature of every spectator in the house, willy nilly. The cast acts and reacts in terms of movement, and that is the most direct medium that exists for the conveying of inner shades of meaning."
If Bernstein's score has decidedly popular overtones in songs like "Tonight" and "I Feel Pretty" it also boasts operatic dimensions in the grimly realistic overture and in the atmospheric backgrounds for the ballet sequences. Within the music -- as within the various ballet episodes -- are caught much of the ugliness, agony and neuroticism of slum life in New York; but also, some of the beauty and poetry which sometimes touches the lives of these tortured adolescents. Contrast can also be found in several satirical numbers in which a welcome tone of mockery is introduced: notably, in "America", an amusing interpretation of the United States from the point of view of a Puerto Rican, and "Gee, Officer Krupke", an ironic commentary on the attempt by psychologists and social workers to cope with juvinile delinquency.
An artistic triumph of the first magnitude, West Side Story also prospered at the box-office. A three-year run on Broadway was followed by an extended national tour and a return engagement on Broadway; the total number of performances in New York was only twenty-seven short of the magic "one thousand mark". On 12th December, 1958, West Side Story received unqualified acclaim in London at its première there. In 1961 a tour of Israel, Africa and the Near East brought new accolades to this production. In the same year a momentous motion picture adapted from the stage play was successfully released in the United States.
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