Just a word of warning: this series of articles were created for an audience that doesn't know that much about theatre. Let's call them theatre virgins, snigger.
West Side Story
In 1949, Jerome Robbins goes to Arthur Laurents with the idea of a ballet/musical about the gang warfare in East Side, New York. The original East Side Story was a battle between Catholics and Jews, this being post WWII the location was moved to the West Side and gangs became the Americans and Puerto Ricans (yeah, cos that’s less racist). This idea became West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and a new kid on the block: Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. If you don’t know who he is then shame on you and get thee to wikipedia! The show premiered in 1957 to rave reviews despite the creators being scared shitless as noone had ever combined dance and storytelling in this way before. This is what makes it such a pivotal show in the history of theatre. West Side Story was almost an operatic ballet, the first to put so much dancing with music and to use the dance to move the story along. It was also one of the first musicals to deal with a realistic storyline rather than the usual “look at us, we’re all happy as we’re singing and dancing”. The first act ended with two dead bodies and the second with another- nothing was resolved at the end of the play. The show went on to be a major hit, having many revivals and showing all around the world. A film was made in 1961 starring Richard Beymer (yeah, I don’t know who he is either) and Natalie Wood whose songs were actually sung by Marni Nixon, the woman behind the singing of Deborah Kerr in “The King And I” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”.
Generally if you know anything about Romeo and Juliet you’ll get the plot. If you don’t, what have you been doing with your life? (Sigh of despair). It’s about a guy and a girl who love each other but their love can never be as they are from rival gangs, so they have to carry out their relationship in secret. When everyone starts to realise what is happening they have to find a way of stopping everyone from killing each other, they’re obviously not very good at that as Tybalt kills Mercutio and then Romeo kills Tybalt in revenge. Romeo runs away to avoid getting jailed for murder making Juliet think he’s dead so she takes a sleeping draft that makes her seem dead. Romeo returns to find a dead Juliet and kills himself, she wakes up to find him dead and kills herself. Phew. Except this was a musical in the 1950s so although the original out of town tryout was faithful to the Shakespeare story, by the time it came to Broadway Maria did not die (those damn stiff upperlip 1950s Americans finding death on stage too upsetting)
Tony (Romeo): The love struck Romeo character and ex leader of the Jets, he fancies Maria.
Maria (Juliet): The younger sister of Bernado, the leader of the Sharks, anyone just worked out the problem? Shit.
Riff(Mercutio): Leader of the Jets and best friend of Tony
Anita (Nurse): Girlfriend of Bernado and confidant of Maria
Bernardo(Tybalt) : Leader of the Sharks, he gets a bit moody if you touch his sister
Jets: The “pure Americans”, they think they own the streets because they got there first.
Sharks: The Puerto Rican newcomers, who also think the own the streets
Songs to look out for:
Tonight: Personally I prefer the end of act one quartet version, but that or the Tony/Maria duet are both amazing
Officer Krupke: Two words: Funny As.
America: So I’m a bit biased (I got to dance this in the MTSoc tour last summer), it’s still a very memorable tune, who doesn’t know bababa bababa ba ba ba….?
Where can I get it?
The DVD is still readily available, as are many different recordings.
It is rumoured that a fiftieth anniversary production is in the pipeline.
If you liked this, try:
Well anything ever made since really. But to give you a few ideas try:
Billy Elliot: This also utilises ballet within it’s storytelling and if you know the movie then you’ll know there’s a lot of male angst here too.
Romeo+Juliet:If you don’t think you can stomach a full blown musical, try Baz Luhrmann’s modernisation of the classic tale. But I won’t be too downhearted if you favour this over the musicals, it’s well made and has a kick-ass soundtrack!