West Side Story Essay, Research Paper
West Side Story is one of the most influential musicals of all time. It’s integration of dance and song into the plot was very innovative, because even though it had been done before, it had never been done this well.
Jerome Robbins had thought of an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to a Broadway musical in 1949. He began discussions with librettist Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein of a musical called East Side Story, with a plot concentrating on a Catholic girl and a Jewish boy. Other projects forced the work aside for six years, and when they returned to it, times had changed. Their idea became West Side Story, (another early title was Gangway!) and the Montague-Capulet story was translated into gang warfare between white and Puetro Rican teenage gangs, basen on then-current fighting for the turf of Manhattan’s West Side, also known as Hell’s Kitchen.
This new translation was important because the tensions of these groups could be well represented by dance numbers. Robbins found the teenager’s natural slouch, violent energy, and herd instinct useful for his choreography. The battle for Manhattan’s West Side gave the dancing more specific motivation, which Robbins capitalized on. The Latin-American rhythms gave Bernstein a good musical base to start from, and the whole score benefited from a jazzy Manhattan feel, which had been inherited from Gershwin, as well as Copland’s romantic Americana feel.
Robbins choice of a cast was very meticulously done. He wanted a real feeling that had never been reached before in Musical history. He wanted actors that were not well known, and that would get his theme of reality across to the audience. During rehearsals he actually separated the Jets and the Sharks and didn’t allow them to socialize or even talk to one another. He also didn’t allow the actress playing Anybodys to eat lunch with anyone at all.
The show opened on Broadway on September 16, 1957. At first, the critics were not able to fully appreciate the magnitude of the achievement, but one critic, Brooks Atkinson wrote that the ballets “convey the things that Laurents is inhibited from saying because the characters are so inarticulate.” This was done intentionally as a part of the realistic approach to the musical. By making the teenagers inarticulate, they were forced to communicate at an emotional level that almost lended itself to an impressionistic approach.
One innovation of West Side Story was that there really wasn’t a dance chorus. Each dancer was assigned a specific character to play, and all of them sang, danced, and spoke. Robbins knew that by assigning his dancers actual characters he would strengthen the importance of the dancing in the story. This made it so that future shows had to try to achieve an equal level of integration, or the dance numbers would seem to slow the show down dramatically.
Another important aspect of the show is that the adults and the teenagers were not able to communicate across the generation gap. None of the adults in the musical sing or dance, which leaves them alienated form the group. This again strengthens the importance of dancing as a means to communicate the story of the musical to the audience.
Robbins, Bernstein, Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, who made his legitimate theatre debut here as lyricist, made what is called by some the perfect musical in West Side Story. The advent of the choreographer-as-director enabled musical theatre to take this last, significant step in the integration of dance in musicals.
This production ran for 732 performances. It then went on a successful nation wide tour, after which it returned to Broadway for another 249 performances.
The film based on the musical, which came out in 1961, won ten oscars that year. It was largely successful and made the muscial even more well known as an important and groundbreaking piece in musical history