September 26, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

Sixty years ago this evening, West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre. Even with such craftsmen as Arthur Laurents writing the book; music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the most essential contributor was its director and choreographer, Jerome Robbins. It’s not for nothing there was also the additional “Conceived by” credit that Robbins insisted upon (much to Laurents’s dismay). The idea of a balletic update of Romeo and Juliet, set amidst warring gangs of 1950s Upper West Side, was one Robbins had mulled over for nearly ten years. What these artists came up with was historic. And today, on the occasion of its anniversary, I thought it would be fun to raise a few random questions, to which some may know the answers — and to which some may not. It all depends on how well you know your West Side Story.

The very first program for “West Side Story”: A New Musical (Washington D.C., 1957).

Did Leonard Bernstein originally consider writing the score by himself?

The best answer to that question comes from Bernstein himself: “Yes, when we began I had — madly — undertaken to do the lyrics as well the music. In 1955, I was also working on another show, Candide; and then the West Side Story music turned out to be extraordinarily balletic — which I was very happy about — and turned out to be a tremendously greater amount of music than I expected, ballet, music, symphonic music, developmental music. For those two reasons, I realized that I couldn’t do all that music, plus the lyrics, and do them well.”

How exactly did Bernstein and Sondheim collaborate?

Almost exclusively, Sondheim set his lyrics to Bernstein’s musical ideas and motifs. In the specific case of “Gee, Officer Krupke” it was “the only song we wrote where the music in its entirety came first,” according to Sondheim. It had actually been written as a vaudeville song in Bernstein’s previous show, Candide, when it was titled “Where Does it Get You in the End?” And it wasn’t put into the show until Washington, D.C., just three days prior to New York. “Jerry had been staging everything else, and we kept reminding him that this was a comedy number,” recalled Sondheim. “And he kept saying, ‘I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it.’ One afternoon he did it in almost no time at all. Maybe the ideas had been cooking, but the staging of ‘Krupke’ is one of the most brilliantly inventive in one number I’ve ever seen … We had to yell at him to get it done, then he staged it in three hours by the clock.”

Why was “America” changed from the way it is performed on stage to the way it’s performed in the film version?

According to Stephen Sondheim in his 2010 book Finishing the Hat: “‘America’ was intended to be an argument between Bernardo and Anita, partly to enrich their relationship by adding some contention to it, since Arthur had no time in the libretto to explore it, but Jerry insisted that the song be for girls only, as it was his only chance for a full-out all-female dance number in the show. The character of Rosalia was invented to take Bernardo’s point of view. When the movie was made four years later, Jerry agreed to have the number danced by both the men and the women and to revert to the original lyric.”

Why did the numbers “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Cool” switch places in the narrative from play to film?

On the West Side Story BluRay 50th Anniversary issue from 2011, Sondheim spoke on the commentary track: “‘Cool’ is the first song we wrote together … and I think Lenny had actually written, ‘Boy, boy, crazy boy. Stay cool, boy.’I think he had actually written that phrase, lyrically. I have a memory that it was already called ‘Cool,’ so I know he had done some work on it. And I think it was that opening line …

I had always felt that there was a displacement of numbers. I always thought that ‘Krupke’ should be in the first act when they’re still jazzing around and it’s that kind of thing — that they would be in the drugstore and sing — waiting for the Sharks to arrive for the war council. And that ‘Cool’ would be exactly that kind of number they would sing on the run from the police.

And Jerry said, ‘I see your point, but the problem is that I’ve designed (because he’d already staged ‘Cool’) for a full stage set.’ ‘Krupke’ is staged ‘in one,’ meaning the apron of the stage, the front of the stage. And he said, ‘I can’t change the set. But, if we ever do a movie …’ And we did a movie, and they switched the numbers around, and guess what? I was wrong. It works better the other way. Theatre truth is so different from truth-truth.”

One of my favorite candid photos ever taken: the West Side Story production team at rehearsal. (Robert E. Griffith, Hal Prince, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Gerald Freedman, Sylvia Drulie, and Oliver Smith)

When did the team know what they had: that the show would work?

It happened for all involved at the very first preview, best described by Bernstein: “It was an incredible night. It was August in Washington — horribly hot — and none of us knew whether anyone would listen to the show, or look at it, or stay in the theater. We’d had a lot of insults, a lot of warning: ‘You’re crazy,’ ‘Give it up,’ and so forth. At intermission I remember Justice Felix Frankfurter, the most distinguished man in Washington, in a wheelchair in tears. And this was only intermission. It was an incredible hello, because we didn’t know whether the show was even all right, let alone something special and deeply moving.”

Great angle of “The Rumble” that includes the orchestra pit (1957).

Lastly, for all that’s been said about Jerome Robbins — how he had a cruel streak and tormented people — you can not take away his immeasurable contributions to the theatre. Personal feelings aside, the following statement attests to the artistry of the man: “For me what was important about West Side Story was in our aspiration. I wanted to find out at that time how far we, as ‘long-haired artists,’ could go in bringing our crafts and talents to a musical. Why did we have to do it separately and elsewhere? Why did Lenny have to write an opera, Arthur a play, me a ballet? Why couldn’t we, in aspiration, try to bring our deepest talents together to the commercial theater in this work? That was the true gesture of the show.”

If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.



Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.

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Ron Fassler

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.