West Side Story is Dead! Long Live West Side Story! Hear the Complete, Unadulterated Music to the Original, 1957 Broadway Production, Which You Can’t Even Hear Today on Broadway for $450 in the Gutted, Current (Plague-Suspended) Revival
In late July, 1980 (the 27th?), I saw West Side Story for the first time on a stage, any stage. It was the last Jerome Robbins-supervised revival. Robbins (1918-1998) had conceived the show, co-created the revolutionary dances, and served as choreographer (with Peter Gennaro) and director in 1957, and for the 1960 and 1980 revivals.
Robbins’ conception of the story was hardly original. He took it from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare had worked up from Ovid’s 455-word, short-short story, “Pyramus and Thisbe.” The show’s book, by communist hack Arthur Laurents (1917?18?-2011), was the show’s weakest part.
(For the 1961 movie version, in addition to doing the revised choreography, Robbins served with Robert Wise as co-producer and co-director. Vincente Minelli [unlike the late Stanley Donen] never granted such status to Gene Kelly when they worked together, but not even Gene Kelly had Jerome Robbins’ ego.)
Before attending the 1980 revival for the first time, I’d read a long puff piece for the revival, containing a loving profile of Robbins in the New York Times. All I can recall from it was the writer quoting dancers who had worked with Robbins over the years talking about how authoritarian he was, and how terrified they were of him. Thus, when lecturing the troupe during a rehearsal, Robbins gradually backed up ever closer to the edge of the stage, no one dared say a word to the dance master. Eventually the inevitable happened, and Robbins fell off the stage, onto his back. (He was not badly injured.)
As soon as the danced prologue began of the members of the Sharks and Jets terrorizing each other, I felt a surge of electricity, such as I’d never known, go up my right leg. I would later get such a feeling in a West German movie theater, while watching a Flamenco film version of Bizet’s Carmen, and yet no movie can match the live theater for intensity.
I had only paid $7 or $8 to see the show, including a $1 fee from the TKTS stand at Father Duffy Square. I was leaving the country on July 31. I have shown poor judgment many a time, in shortchanging myself of great experiences. This was not one of those times.
On July 30th, I had to go to my old childhood, family physician, Dr. Perry J. Nott, to get some vaccinations, without which I’d not have been permitted to board my plane. My appointment at Dr. Nott’s made it impossible to get discounted tickets, so I paid full freight, $14, at the theater ticket window, for an orchestra seat. (Thirty-nine years later, in spite of the taxpayer heavily subsidizing Broadway’s obscenely profitable theaters, it would cost me over 30 times as much.)
I found the show every bit as thrilling the second time.
In January 1982, while visiting Paris for eight days, I was able to see a road company production. However, as I was only able to afford nosebleed seats, the performers’ voices could not carry to my section.
(I hear that, among other obscenities, foreign productions now perform West Side Story translated into foreign languages.)
I had seen the 1961 movie version, but it lacks the most lyrical musical passages, especially the urban pastoral, “Somewhere,” which is central to Bernstein’s musical and artistic vision. Director-producer Robert Wise also had Bernstein write an additional 2.5 minutes or so of music for the prologue, all of it staccato. Thus, the movie version is musically unbalanced.
It also suffers from the stars being dubbed in their singing.
However, one very nice touch opens the movie version, whether by Wise or screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The movie’s “Prologue” begins high in the clouds, tens of thousands of feet up, before drifting slowly to the ground, and ultimately landing on the asphalt of a school playground, where the first turf battle ensures.
(I just received my DVD of the 1961 film, and saw that my memory had failed me. I just watched the first 15 minutes, to ensure that the DVD worked, though it is a bit fuzzy on a big-screen TV. The first five or so minutes are the overture, on a screen of changing pastel colors, broken up by braille-like symbols. The “Prologue” then starts in the skies over Manhattan, but perhaps 1,000 feet up, from a helicopter.)
One aspect that the stage and movie versions shared was the homosexual subtext. Leonard Bernstein was obsessed with infusing this into his musicals. He had wanted the sailors on leave in On the Town (1944) to be homosexual, but thankfully, someone sane put his foot down. Even in the 1949 movie masterpiece, however, the physical interplay between sailors Kelly and Sinatra is a bit fey.
Likewise, in both the 1961 screen and 1980 stage versions (and I’m going to assume, the original 1957 production), Tony is gay, and the true love is between him and Riff. Not that anything is explicit. But back then, in the age of the (fading) Hays Code, movies were much more subtle, with layers of meaning for different ages, so that a family could go to the movies together.
The movie version of West Side Story, for all its faults, is still one of the two greatest movie musicals ever made, matched only by The Wizard of Oz (1939).
As for the current stage revival of West Side Story, according to Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout, it is a disaster in every way, including the gutting of all of Jerome Robbins’ choreography, the complete removal of the “Somewhere” urban pastoral ballet, and the substituting for Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant, ironic social commentary in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” racial socialist ideology promoting the myth of racial profiling.
Today, not even $450 will buy you an escape from the forces of decadence and racial socialism.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.