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HOW THE 'WEST' WAS WONDERFUL

‘WEST SIDE STORY’ DEBUTED ON BROADWAY 36 YEARS AGO, TAKING ROMANCE TO THE STREET

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At first it was called East Side Story. Composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins wanted to stage a musical about the forbidden love between a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (modeled on the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet), but the idea seemed dated. With the help of playwright Arthur Laurents and a little-known television-writer-turned-lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, they moved the concept to another part of town. Inspired by the huge influx of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York’s West Side in the mid-’50s, they set the story against the background of the area’s gang wars, and made the girl Puerto Rican and the boy Anglo. With the Broadway debut of West Side Story on Sept. 26, 1957 — and with its film version four years later — they created a show that ran for years, a movie that won 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), and a landmark in entertainment history.

Mixing classical and youth cultures-crossing the baton with the switchblade-proved to be a daring, powerful stroke. Here was something both hoods and haute society could understand. The songs, especially ”Maria” and ”Tonight” became instant standards. The Sharks and the Jets — the show’s rival gangs-became household words, as did Leonard Bernstein.

West Side Story was not without its critics — some who complained that it glorified gang violence, some who protested its racial stereotyping (the rousing song ”America” refers to Puerto Rico as the ”Island of tropical breezes/Island of tropical diseases”). But it did manage to bring the talents of such Latina performers as Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno to Broadway and Hollywood, respectively.

While West Side Story continued to enjoy good fortune, many leading members of its Broadway and movie casts did not. Larry Kert, who played Tony on stage, died of AIDS in 1991. Natalie Wood, star of the film version, drowned in 1982. Best Supporting Actor George Chakiris, who now works mostly on stage in Europe and Japan, was a teen-mag heartthrob at the time but then lapsed into obscurity. So did Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer, until they were reunited on Twin Peaks. Star-crossed, indeed.

TIME CAPSULE
Sept. 26, 1957
Buddy Holly’s Crickets chirped ”That’ll Be The Day” on the radio, while Frank Sinatra crooned on the big screen in The Joker Is Wild. I Love Lucy was tops on TV and Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place ruled the best-seller list.