7 Behind-the-Scenes Stories From Broadway’s Original West Side Story

Seth Rudetsky   7 Behind-the-Scenes Stories From Broadway’s Original West Side Story
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Chita Rivera, Tony Mordente, and Harvey Evans share memories about breaking onstage, Jerome Robbins, prepping for the London production, why “Cool” was the hardest number ever, and more.
Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

This week I have a brand new episode of my podcast about high school (Seth Rudetsky’s Back To School). I think every star I’ve interviewed was a good high school student…even Jason Alexander, who claimed he was terrible at math, admitted that he got a B+! What? That would have been considered an extremely high grade on a Seth Rudetsky report card. Well, finally, I met a student who did as badly as I did in high school.

Yes, both Bebe Neuwirth and I were not model students. When I didn’t complete an assignment that was due, I would babble excuses as to why I hadn’t done it. Bebe just owned it. She remembers being in class one day and watching her teacher walk around as he collected everyone’s research paper. When he got to her desk, she had nothing to hand him. She simply looked at him and intoned, “Forfeit.” I’m obsessed with that response! Not “OMG! I totally forgot it was due today”…simply “foreit.” Forfeiting was never presented as an option! Basically, Bebe spent her high school years completely focused on ballet and theatre and that was it. End of story; it paid off! (Two Tony Awards). Listen to the whole podcast here.

Every Saturday on Stars In The House, we have Chita Rivera and her amazing Broadway friends. Last Saturday we discussed West Side Story with two original cast members: Harvey Evans and Tony Mordente. Back in the ’50s, Harvey was doing New Girl in Town and, when it was out of town, the producer, Hal Prince, told him there was another show he was working on and Harvey was right for it. The show was called Gangway (which became West Side Story). Hal told Harvey he couldn’t leave one of his shows before it opened to do another show, but Harvey was invited to what was called the “Gypsy run-through” (which is when a Broadway show runs the show in the afternoon for other Broadway folks right before the first preview). Harvey loved it and begged to be in it. He soon became the first replacement in the cast as Gee-tar.

Tony Mordente played A-rab on Broadway but was then cast as Action in the film. He wanted to play his original role in the movie and was very disappointed to be Action and I asked why they switched his role. He said he never asked because sometimes you ask and you don’t like the answer. Regardless, he wound up being very featured in the movie. Look!

He and Harvey remembered that Eddie Role (the original Action) was super-tough in real life, like Action. But when the whole cast was going to London to do the show, they had to get innoculations. Eddie’s reaction to a needle? He was only one in the cast who fainted!

Chita, the original Anita, remembers very clearly being told that the Sharks and Jets were not allowed to fraternize. Well, not only did she fraternize with a Jet (Tony Mordente), they wound up having a daughter (Lisa Mordente)! Chita remembers seeing Tony in rehearsal and feeling like he literally flew. He was constantly up in the air. I found this clip of him at Carnegie Hall and, it’s true! You can see him in the air a lot.

Harvey (who danced in tons of Broadway shows as well as on The Judy Garland Show and opposite Gwen Verdon on The Ed Sullivan Show) said that “Cool” was the hardest dance he’s ever done. I asked him why and he said you have to have great balance to do the double knee turns and have a solid split and Tony added that the intensity of the dance is what made it so hard. You constantly had to be holding in crazy energy. Watch for yourself. Here is the original cast on The Ed Sullivan Show doing “Cool” (You can see Tony, dancing up a storm in a vest).

I asked about recently departed cast member, Martin Charnin, who played Big Deal and later went on to be the lyricist/director of Annie. Harvey remembers one night when Martin started laughing during “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The next night a few other Jets started laughing. Well, they were told to STOP LAUGHING by all the powers-that-be, but more and more Jets kept laughing every night. They couldn’t stop. Finally, one night, they were about to start laughing and suddenly they saw “Big Daddy” standing in the wings. “Big Daddy” was what the cast called Jerome Robbins ,and Harvey said that seeing him there stopped all the laughter in its tracks. And from some of the other stories I’ve heard, that wasn’t the only laughter he stopped! (P.S. All three talked about how much they loved Jerome Robbins and how fabulous he was to work with).

Chita, Tony, and Harvey also talked about how much they loved Larry Kert, who played Tony, and how funny he was. Tony (Mordente) remembered being with Larry on an Eighth Avenue street corner when Larry suddenly hailed a cab, got in and told the driver, “Across the street and step on it!” The driver was furious about the 25 cent cab ride!

Lisa did a production of Anything Goes with Larry. She remembers she had to be lowered upside to down to an open window for a quick scene with him. Hanging upside down nauseated her and she was happy there were only a couple lines. Well, there were many nights when she’d be lowered to the window, and Larry, knowing she wanted the scene to be as quick as possible, would stand there, pause, and then slo-o-o-o-wly say his first line so she was forced to hang there until he was done. Hilarious! And vomit-producing.

Harvey, who was very close to Larry, recalled having a glorious time touring the country with Larry when they both starred in La Cage Aux Folles. Look how great they are together!

To conclude: Here is a number I wrote for The Actors Fund fundraiser Nothing Like A Dame that featured Chita in her original Anita costume. The two soloists are Natascia Diaz and Laurie Gamache.

And don’t forget to watch Stars In The House, every day at 2PM and 8PM ET and watch all the previous episodes at YouTube.com/StarsInTheHouse. And SUBSCRIBE!

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