50th Anniversary of West Side Story Celebrated in Exhibit and Concert | Playbill

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News 50th Anniversary of West Side Story Celebrated in Exhibit and Concert September 26 marks the 50th anniversary of West Side Story's Broadway premiere. In honor of the historic musical's milestone, the Library of Congress will present a new exhibit on the anniversary date, entitled "West Side Story: Birth of a Classic."

Drawn from the Library's extensive Leonard Bernstein Collection, the exhibit will include previously unreleased production photos taken for an unpublished spread in "Look" magazine; Bernstein's annotated copy of Romeo and Juliet; an early script outline and synopsis of West Side Story; Sondheim's lyric sketch for "Somewhere"; choreographic notes from Jerome Robbins; Oliver Smith's original watercolor set designs; original music manuscripts; audition notes on notable actors Jerry Orbach and Warren Beatty; as well as opening-night telegrams from theatre luminaries including Cole Porter, Lauren Bacall and Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

On Oct. 15 the Library of Congress' Music Division will partner with Virginia's Signature Theatre to present a concert featuring readings of papers from the Bernstein collection, early drafts and cut music from West Side Story. The Signature's cast of Merrily We Roll Along will perform under the direction of Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer.

"West Side Story: Birth of a Classic" will be on display in Washington, D.C., through March 29, 2008, at which time the exhibit will travel to the Ira Gershwin Gallery at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for a six-month engagement.

A modern retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set on the West Side of Manhattan, West Side Story tells the tale of two doomed young lovers, Tony and Maria, who are inextricably linked to rival gangs, The Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) and The Jets (native New Yorkers).

In 1949 director and choreographer Jerome Robbins first approached book writer Arthur Laurents with his idea of Romeo and Juliet retold through a Jewish girl and gentile boy falling in love on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Esteemed composer Leonard Bernstein soon joined forces for the project; however, the show took several years of development and remained shelved roughly until 1954. The musical gained creative momentum when Laurents reset the action in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, focusing the drama on Puerto Rican and American rival gangs. Broadway novice Stephen Sondheim, who reluctantly accepted the assignment at the advice of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, was brought on board to assist Bernstein with lyrics for the production. Ultimately, in recognition of Sondheim's enormous lyrical contribution to the musical, Bernstein would relinquish his own lyrical co-writing billing on the musical.

A cast of relative unknowns, including Chita Rivera, Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert, was assembled, and West Side Story set out to present an evening of theatre which combined dance, dialogue and song into one interwoven storyline. Until 1957, musical comedies were rather compartmentalized, relegating dialogue, dance and singing choruses to separate camps.

West Side Story opened to mostly favorable to rave reviews in 1957, and would go on to become a worldwide phenomenon with the popularity of the 1961 film. It continues to be one of the most widely produced musicals in history.

Originally produced by theatrical impresario Harold Prince, West Side Story, for all its artistic ambition and achievement, would win only two Tony Awards for its debut, Best Choreography for Jerome Robbins and Best Scenic Design for Oliver Smith. That year's popular and quaint nostalgic hit, The Music Man, would sweep most of the categories.

The Bernstein-Sondheim score features the American classics "Somewhere," "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart," "Maria," "I Feel Pretty" and "America."

"West Side Story: Birth of a Classic" will be on display beginning Sept. 26 in the foyer of the Performing Arts Reading Room, LM 113, of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C.

Tickets for the concert evening are available by visiting www.TicketMaster.com or by calling (301) 808-6900.

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