DE . . . DAAAAAH . . . DUM. Heavy on the strings. Snapping fingers.
Curtain up at the National Theatre, Aug. 26, 1957, first performance anywhere of "West Side Story."
Ford had just produced the Edsel. President Eisenhower's Second Inaugural had mentioned "protection for the Middle East from communism." Margarine was beginning to outsell butter. Chairman Mao launched his "Great Leap Forward," and Gov. Orval Faubus would soon turn back nine black children from Central High, Little Rock. Sen. John F. Kennedy was reading the latest James Bond novel, "From Russia With Love."
At the flicks were Bergman's "Wild Strawberries," "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Funny Face." "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" would win the Pulitzer for drama. In a few weeks, the Soviet Union would launch Sputnik I.
And soon the nation would begin humming "Maria" and "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke."
Twenty-three years later, with a new generation of players but with most of the original creators overseeing it, "West Side Story" is opening here again, at the Opera House Wednesday night. The success of the revival is as likely as anything in the theater is likely to be. But in 1957, it was decidedly "experimental." (When "experimental" theater succeeds, the envious condemn it as "commercial.")
Like many experiments, it took 12 years to get into rehearsal after Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents, in 1945, determined to create a New York romance in the form of a danced musical play. By then Laurents had written "Home of the Brave" and, after a couple of flops, "The Time of the Cuckoo" and "A Clearing in the Woods."
A leading dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Robbins then also was known as a choreographer for "Billion Dollar Baby" and was going on to "Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'," "The King and I" and "Wonderful Town," another Bernstein score. He co-directed "The Pajama Game" with George abbott, but in '57, "West Side Story" gave him his first billing that read "choreographed and directed by," a credit he would retain with "Fiddler on the Roof."
Initially, Laurents' story had been about a Jewish girl and a Gentile boy, which sounded like a throwback, with the sexes switched, to "Abie's Irish Rose." The streets of New York changed and Laurents altered his libretto to a conflict between Puerto Ricans and Anglos.
His book was closely modeled on "Romeo and Juliet." Shakespeare had taken his variation from a poem by Arthur Broke who, in 1562, had tied together an Italian story and a French one. Scholars have traced these roots back to a Third-century Greek plot by Xenophon of Ephesus. (After all, there only are about a dozen basic plots and everything is a variation of something earlier.)
Laurents' story remained rooted in enmity "between two houses." Shakespeare called them the Montagues and the Capulets. Laurents made his street gangs: The Anglo Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.Tony is a reluctant fighter just as Romeo was, and he will kill Bernardo, Maria-Juliet's kin, as impetuously and fatefully as Romeo killed Tybalt. By joining the roles of Friar Laurence and the apothecary into the part of Doc, the druggist, Laurents leads into a denouement close to Shakespeare's.
It was a striking fusion of book, music, lyrics, dance and staging, and I enthused the next morning in a lead line I'd never written before -- nor would again for a premiere -- "'West Side Story' is a work of art."
The first producer to take hold of the production was Roger L. Stevens, who, according to his later associate, Harold Prince, had "financed the formative years of the project." Cheryl Crawford, who'd introduced "Brigadoon," was Stevens' associate producer, but called off her participation. While Prince and Robert Griffith were preoccupied with their "New Girl in Town" tryout, they agreed to replace her.
Leonard Bernstein had been the composer from the start, his association with Robbins going back to their ballet "Fancy Free," which had evolved into "On the Town." Its lyric writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, were to do the "West Side" lyrics. Stephen Sondheim, a protege of Oscar Hammerstein II, ultimately would replace them and go on to his strong career as a composer who supplies his own lyrics, as with the current "Sweeney Todd."
The present staging credits read very like the first. Ruth Mitchell, the original stage manager, is now executive producer. Peter Gennaro, later famed for his TV and Radio City Music Hall dances, again is Robbins' co-choreographer. Oliver Smith and Irene Sharaff repeat their set and costume assignments, and there's a deserved, practical sentiment behind the line "Lighting by Jean Rosenthal." She died 10 years ago, but her lighting was central to the dances' effects.
If the players seemed "unknown" in 1957, they were, nonetheless, experienced. Ever since "New Faces of '52," Carol Lawrence had been doing musicals, including a "Follies" with Beatrice Lillie. Larry Kert, playing Tony, had been in "Tickets, Please" and "Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'!" pKen LeRoy, the Bernardo, had been in "Oklahoma," "Brigadoon," "Call Me Madam" and "Damn Yankees."
Washington-born Conchita Del Rivero had danced in "Guys and Dolls," "Canl-Can" and "Call Me Madam." To play Rita, she simplified her name to Chita Rivera, married one of the Jets, Tony Mardente, and -- like Kert and Lawrence -- has become an international star. mThere was another Washington dancer in the cast, Liane Plane.
One of the Jets became a choreographer, TV director and lyric writer: Martin Charnin. Charnin would work five years to create a musical called "Annie," making his "West Side Story" role, "Big Deal," come true.
Because Robbins encouraged his cast to split into opposing groups off stage to intensify their on-stage enmities, everyone had a gang to belong to, travel with, eat with -- except the girl who played "Anybody's." She was Lee Becker and had to become a loner. Becker would form her own American Musical Theater Dance Company, which you may have seen at Ford's.
That original company could have gone on forever at New York's Winter Garden, but the producers sent it touring, and it returned to another Broadway house. The return might have lasted longer; but when it was forced to shift to another stage one block away, the unions refused to give up a half-week's salary to make the move. So, instead of going on for another six months or so, the original settled for 981 New York performances.
London's production ran for 1,040, and then there have been productions from Australia and New Zealand to Argentina and Chile, and throughout Europe. This year a production is planned for the Paris Opera and then will go on to Milan's La Scala.
If you've seen only the movie version, try to forget it. It was soppy, but the strangest "West Side Story" I've seen was in Moscow in July of 1965 at the Operetta Theater. I reported that "The orchestra, 40 strong, plays all the right notes, but they come out sounding like Emmerich Kalman or Jacques Offenbach, whose works are also in the company's repertory . . .
"The set's fire escapes are thin and fragile, the cut of the clothes is all just off, and those angular dances come out round. Instead of teenagers, the cast is roughly, generously, in their late twenties and the odd effect is that somehow all this concerns a faintly bourgeois country-club fracas."
There seems to be no official U.S. record of that Moscow production. The reason is that only lately has the U.S.S.R. subscribed to international copyright law. The Operetta Theater simply stole it -- as other Soviet theaters had done with the works of Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder.
As you see, not too much has changed in 23 years, and I hope "West Side Story" hasn't either.