On September 26, 1957, West Side Story opened on Broadway.
At the time, creators and critics could not know how the work would re-envision the possibilities of storytelling in musical theatre. But West Side Story—once named Gangway—marks a turning point in the timeline of theatre. Jerome Robbins’ direction and choreography (and the work of his contractually uncredited co-choreographer Peter Gennaro) upped the ante for the integration of dance as storytelling in musicals. Berstein’s score remains ensconced as a masterpiece. The production marked the Broadway lyrical debut of Stephen Sondheim and the breakout performance by Chita Rivera. The show even led to a West Side Story baby when Rivera and original Jet Tony Mordente married and welcomed their daughter, Lisa.
On the 60th anniversary of its Broadway opening, Playbill asked original producer Harold Prince, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, original stars Chita Rivera and Martin Charnin, and even the descendants of West Side Story stars about their memories and its lasting legacy.
On creating West Side Story.
“Jerome Robbins insisted that The Jets and The Sharks had nothing to do with each other, during the rehearsal process,” says Lisa Mordente, for whom West Side Story is family lore. A method director, Robbins also called in choreographer Peter Gennaro to work on much of The Shark movement while he focused on The Jets.
“In order to create these two very distinct movement vocabularies for these two very distinct gangs [Robbins felt] it would be a good idea to have another person in there creating those dances,” says Gennaro’s daughter Liza, a professor of dance at Indiana University. “It sounds like something Robbins would do because it was smart.”
The iconic “Dance at the Gym” was created entirely separately. “It was exciting and spontaneous,” says Rivera. “It was created in two separate rooms: one with Jerome Robbins, the other with Peter Gennaro. Then one day Jerome Robbins brought us all together and ‘The Dance at the Gym’ was complete.”
“My father would say he was very unencumbered with dance,” says Gennaro. “He would say he just did it. I think that was so opposite to Robbins who was so thoughtful and intellectual in his creation of movement, and slow.”
Also part of her family lore, Gennaro recalls her father talking about staging “America”:
After working on it at the theatre the Shark ladies “came back and showed it to the cast and the cast screamed and yelled and carried on and were so excited by the number. Robbins said to Peter, ‘Why don't you do this,’ and started giving him some notes and my father said ‘With that sort of reaction I think we should leave it alone.’”
Rivera remembers much of the process as similarly organic: “Everything flowed naturally, it had its own process in creating the brilliant masterpiece that West Side Story turned out to be,” she says.
On memories of Broadway.
“The best memory I have of West Side Story isn't exactly a memory...,” says Martin Charnin, “It's when someone learns that I was actually in the original company of West Side Story, and the look of disbelief appears on their face. I wish I had a camera.” Best known as a writer and director, it’s true Charnin made his Broadway debut as Big Deal in the original company of West Side Story, which seems a birthing ground for greatness. Charnin went on to serve as lyricist and director of Annie.
Stephen Sondheim was also at the precipice of his career in 1957. He had written the title song for Broadway’s Girls of Summer, but West Side Story marked his first full time gig as part of the creative team. And while we exalt his work on West Side Story, the ritualized break from that work was the moment he always anticipated: “A moment that Jerry, Arthur and I looked forward to each night was when a certain song began, one which Lenny was a good deal more fond of than we were. It allowed us to meet in the lobby for a cigarette.”
On the legacy of West Side Story.
For all its artistic forays and firsts, at review time for West Side Story many critics received the work well—the performances more so than the material—but didn’t recognize it for the milestone musical it has become known as.
“Of course most people don’t know that it didn’t win Best Musical,” says Hal Prince. “Actually, most people don’t know what did win Best Musical. And ultimately that’s because it isn’t very important historically, is it? The show has achieved historical status because it was unprecedented, the merger of classical dance, Bernstein’s score, Sondheim’s lyrics, and very importantly Arthur Laurents’ creation of a language for street kids which could merge the artistic elements and persuade an audience that we were observing members of two gangs. A very difficult task and a team of brilliant artists pulled it off. Why was it not recognized as such when it first opened? Well, you can put that down to the fact that it was new, that the critics did not recognize how new it was, and the public had to adjust to its newness over time. Clearly the show ran and paid off, and by the time the film emerged some years later everyone had caught up. That is not unique to adventurous material. It happened the same way with Cabaret. Some shows that were not even successful emerging have reached popular cult status in interim years. Follies and Parade are good examples.”