A West Side Girl Comes Home: Carol Lawrence Returns to the New York Stage

By Harry Haun
27 Dec 2013

Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert in West Side Story

She and her co-stars have yet to notice a discernible generation gap. "It's adorable," she purrs. "We have a wonderful relationship backstage. Before we go on, we all give kisses and hugs and support, and then we go out there and face the audience."

Tight teamwork like that is something she first forged 56 years ago on a fire-escape balcony with Larry Kert as the star-crossed Tony and Maria of West Side Story.

"When you're approaching Jerry Robbins, you had to unite as a team and support each other because he was often brutal," she remembers. "Larry and I went through the war together. We were in the trenches. He's my favorite leading man of all time."

These two young icons reunited in middle age for a "Together Again!" set at Rainbow and Stars in October 1990, and it was a more melancholy event than they meant it to be. "As we were preparing the act," she recalls, "he called me and said, 'I just got the worst news of my life—and you may not want to continue rehearsing: I have AIDS.' I was so grateful that he told me over the phone because I would not have been able to hold back the tears. I said, 'Oh, Larry, we have to do the show now. We really have to.' And we did, and he was, of course, magnificent." Kert died the following summer. "I miss him. I still feel that he's going to walk in that door."

Broadway's first and most famous Maria really IS a Maria. She was born Carol Maria Laraia. "When I was 13, I had a nightclub act, and my father suggested the name change. He said, 'They'll never be able to pronounce your name correctly so go with Lawrence. Everybody can spell it. Everybody can read it and remember it.' He was very smart. Today, people will make an effort with odd names, but not back then."

Carol Lawrence made her Broadway debut as one of the New Faces of 1952 (others included Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary and, the book writers, Ronny Graham and "Melvin" Brooks). "Everybody did everything in that show—singing, dancing, sketches. It was a great learning experience for me. Leonard Sillman, who ran it, was a real taskmaster—and a Christian Scientist so you were never allowed to be sick. He would always say, 'No—I would go on!'"

In the Broadway career that followed this, Lawrence has sung the crème de la crème of tunesmiths. In addition to Bernstein & Sondheim, there've been Rodgers & Hammerstein (South Pacific), Hague & Horwitt (Plain and Fancy), Harry Warren and Lawrence & Lee (Shangri-La), Jule Styne and Comden & Green (Subways Are for Sleeping), Jones & Schmidt (I Do! I Do!) and Kander & Ebb (Kiss of the Spider Woman). She replaced in the last two, following her West Side Story Anita, Chita Rivera, into the tangled, Tony-winning web of the Spider Woman. She's pretty much queen of the career that continues after these shows close—their cast recordings.

"Did you know the original cast album of West Side Story is number five on the list of most sold records in the history of recording?" she beams proudly. "Number one is 'White Christmas.' I don't know what's two, three and four—just one and five."

Maria is hardly a supporting role in West Side Story, but Lawrence nabbed her only Tony nomination as a Featured Actress and was the only member of the below-the-title newbie cast to get nominated. If it's any consolation, she lost to Barbara Cook whose Marian the librarian in The Music Man was a hardly supporting role as well.