The Original ‘West Side Story’: Broadway Show and Film

Based on a lecture by Louis Rosen under the aegis of the 92Y.

A Preface/Appreciation in the wake of Stephen Sondheim’s death:

“When I scheduled this lecture I had no idea… Ninety-one years and the way he went was a departure we’d all envy. He wasn’t sick. He had a Thanksgiving meal with friends and loved ones and went to sleep. Perhaps you’ve been struck by the outpouring of love for him, not just his work. He was a dear, dear man, not always the case with someone who achieves so much in his field, and the most generous artist I’ve ever known…” (Rosen)

Louis Rosen was Sondheim’s student in 1981 and stayed in touch. He tells us about the care and attention the writer showed to any work given him, about his contribution to the next generation. This class will slant towards Sondheim.

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Arthur Laurents heard Sondheim’s songs for the musical Saturday Night, written just a few years out of school. He particularly liked the young man’s lyrics, and sent him to see Leonard Bernstein. Laurents, Bernstein and Jerome Robbins were looking for a lyricist to replace Betty Comden and Adolph Green (called away on a movie project) on their musical version of Romeo and Juliet. As envisioned, the show was to have been about Catholics and Jews on the Lower East Side, but the play Abie’s Irish Rose (by Anne Nichols) had covered that. Laurents read an article about gangs that turned the tide.

Bernstein’s response to Sondheim as enthusiastic about is lyrics but lukewarm about his music. “I wanted to be asked to the party,” Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat. “I just didn’t want to go.” To the last, he enjoyed writing music more than lyrics. It was mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, who persuaded him to take the job if offered. The concept was interesting, the other creatives stellar. A week later, at age 25, he was onboard as co-lyricist. Bernstein later credited Sondheim with the work and offered royalties which then, a first-timer, he admits he foolishly refused. Labeled as a lyricist, it would be five years before the public heard his music.

Left: Leonard Bernstein. Right: Stephen Sondheim from the Bernard Gotfryd collection Library of Congress

Hammerstein taught Sondheim that every song should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, that it should develop an idea. He gave his “apprentice” assignments: adapt a good play, adapt a bad play, make a theatrical adaptation from a non-dramatic source – Sondheim chose Mary Poppins stories – create an original. “People don’t understand that Oscar was an experimental playwright. An entire generation learned from him.” (Sondheim)

“I thought, I’ve got to write in the language of gangs?! I’m a nice, Upper West Side Boy…” (Sondheim) Reflecting back, the writer found too many of his lyrics “suffer from a self-conscious effort to be what Lenny (Bernstein) deemed poetic…Lenny was supportive, but insistent and I was just insecure enough to accede and present him with lines like `Today the world is just an address’ and “I have a love,” sung by street kids on the pavement of New York City…It’s not modesty. I know better now.” (Sondheim) You can almost hear his rueful tone.

“In those days, there was no such thing as a four letter word on stage. I wanted to be the first to put it in a musical,” Sondheim said, referring to what might have been “Officer Krupke, fuck you” and is sung as “Officer Krupke, Krup you!” (The tune was lifted by Bernstein from Candide.) Krupke captures frustration, volatility, and failure of social services. “It’s essentially liberal vs conservative,” Rosen tells us.

The Jets – “Officer Krupke” photo by Fred Fehl

The host notes that even as a young man, Sondheim had an advanced sense of storytelling. “Bernstein was incredibly lucky because Steve was also a trained musician,” he adds. The maestro liked to work at night, Sondheim in the morning. Every few days they’d meet, but as he was simultaneously writing Candide, Bernstein’s time became increasingly limited.

In light of Steven Spielberg’s imminently released interpretation, Rosen comments on two topical issues (casting questions aside): 1. Do “these four well educated Jews have the right to tell a story involving Puerto Ricans and lower class white folks?” and 2. West Side Story contains no authentic Puerto Rican music. In his opinion restricting oneself to writing about the ethnic group from which we come would be disastrous for the culture.

“If a new work on this subject matter was embarked upon today, they’d need to include people of color and a woman on the creative team…America is no one thing. We’re mutts…At my age, I accept Porgy and Bess for what it was in its time. I feel the same about West Side Story…” (Rosen) None of the characters are well fleshed out. Most of the music for the Sharks was influenced by Mexico and Cuba.

We listen to the outstanding musical prologue. Rosen points out the use of dissonances that come from modern jazz and be-bop. “It’s a cool, syncopated riff, but you can’t say it’s happy (major) or sad (minor), it’s both at the same time. And it’s tough,” he observes. “When You’re a Jet” emerges with the same musical underpinning as does “Maria” and even “Tonight.” “Listen for the discord of C to F sharp,” the host says. “In Medieval times, they called it the devil in music. It was banned from church.”

This is followed by the prologue from the film. As originally conceived, the scene took place in a clubhouse. Laurents came up with a kind of hybrid slang he hoped wouldn’t date. “Cool” hasn’t, while “daddy-o” has. An entire scene had been written when Robbins decided he could introduce the gangs better in dance. Taking it to the streets added exuberance. Choreography is terrific. “No one will ever be able to use finger snapping in a composition again without bringing to mind Bernstein and Robbins,” Rosen comments.

“Something’s Coming,” the song introducing Tony, was the last one written. The writers knew it had to have the kind of drive they compared to signature songs of Judy Garland. Bernstein told Sondheim he didn’t know how to do that: Could it be/Yes it could/Something’s coming/Something good/If I can- here the 2/4 groove is broken. Sondheim showed Bernstein the way to a more “show-biz” form. Rosen sits at the piano to demonstrate.

“Some of the images here may seem ‘poetic’ in the way I deplore, but I would claim they’re the expression of an inarticulate, excited young man…It echoes Tony’s desire to move forward away from his gang life. ”(Sondheim) The collaborators wrote “Something’s Coming” overnight and were so excited by it they woke Mrs. Bernstein to play it for her. We watch Broadway production clips with Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert. It was Kert’s first big musical.

Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence in the Broadway production

In 1957, the main producer pulled out. Sondheim called his friend Hal Prince who was out of town with New Girl in Town. Prince agreed to produce it after his show went up. Perhaps making a show of his power, Robbins called a meeting in Prince’s office to say directing and choreographing were too much for him and that he only wanted to direct the show. Prince told him the choreography was brilliant, but he and partner Robert Griffith might not produce it unless Robbins did both. Robbins acquiesced but with a litany of demands: eight weeks rehearsal (unheard of), an assistant (this would be Peter Genaro who staged “America”), three rehearsal pianists…Prince was unflappable. Sondheim said Jerome Robbins was the only genius with whom he ever worked.

First photography of the film took place on New York Streets. Weeks turned into months. Sixty per cent of the way through the film, bankers said they couldn’t sustain its cost and fired Robbins. Fortunately, he’d already choreographed everything, he just hadn’t shot it all.

Russ Tamblyn (Riff) was not a classical dancer, he was a gymnast. George Chakiris (Bernardo) was elegant in his movement. We hear about and watch Tony Mordente’s (he played Action)  staging of the dance at the gym. The music is a blues. A theme heard when they walk in circles is from an Aaron Copland piece. Then it changes to mambo. “When the couple first stand in front of one another, Bernstein plants the seeds of “Maria” in a tender, light cha-cha,” Rosen points out.

George Chakiris

The fabulous “America” didn’t initially feature the men’s point of view. Sondheim encouraged Robbins to use it in the film. “Just like `Officer Krupke’ they’re blowing off steam. It’s actually rare for a composer to use a new melodic idea for a dance section that hasn’t been sung. This is a great example of song music that just feels right, even though it has no direct relation to music of Puerto Rico. It’s a rhythm that comes from Spain called Huapango.” (Rosen)

“The whole show is poetry. You can’t take any of it literally. You’re not even looking at it for the love story. Its power is in the way that it’s told.” (Rosen) The host goes on to call out operatic influence, the fact that in 1957, there had never been a musical in which everyone did everything, and the ordinariness of voices in group songs which is truer. There’s no chorus.

“I think the reason West Side Story holds the place it does in our culture is about how it does what it does,” Rosen says. “The artistry of telling a story is paramount. Stephen Sondheim was one of the great musical dramatists America ever produced. I’m sure we’re all interested to see what two great artists (Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner) do with this iconic material.” The film opens December 10, 2021.

September 27, 1957 Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times reviewed the Broadway premiere: “Though the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable… Gang warfare is the material…and very little of the hideousness has been left out… the author, composer and ballet designer are creative artists… In its early scenes of gang skirmishes, `West Side Story’ is facile and a little forbidding — the shrill music and the taut dancing movement being harsh and sinister. But once Tony of the Jets gang sees Maria of the Sharks gang…”

The predominantly positive review that doesn’t even mention Stephen Sondheim’s contribution.

All photos are Public Domain.

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About Alix Cohen (1287 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.