Six things you didn't know about 'West Side Story'
It boasts some of the best musical theatre choreography of all time. And it’s back in London! Here's the full ‘West Side Story’
Tue Aug 6 2013
© Alastair Muir
We know that the Sharks and the Jets were originally Montagues and Capulets, we know that the girls feel pretty and that the Puerto Ricans like to be in America, and we know that West Side Story is among the few musicals during which you're definitely safe from jazz hands. But we bet you didn't know these six facts about the hit show...
It was originally going to be called ‘East Side Story’
The show’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’-inspired concept, which came from choreographer-director Jerome Robbins, was going to be about rival Irish-American and Jewish gangs on New York’s Lower East Side. But following real-life turf wars involving Mexican gangs in LA, Robbins and his collaborators (playwright Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein) switched it to the other side of town and the Polish-American Jets versus the Puerto Rican Sharks. In between it was called ‘Gangway’ – definitely not as catchy.
The dancers formed real gangs (sort of)
Behind the scenes, to get the dancers in character, Robbins banned the Jets and Sharks from socialising with each other. One day he posted up an article about gang violence for the cast to see, and above a photo of a murder victim wrote: ‘This is your life.’
It’s now seen as revolutionary
Because of the way music and dance drive the plot and characters. At the time the show was a risky idea. It didn’t fit the template for musical razzle dazzle, not least because every time the curtain comes down there are more dead bodies on stage. ‘It has very few of the customary Broadway values of comedy and splash,’ said early backer Cheryl Crawford, who later pulled out.
The soundtrack was a smash
Premiering in 1957, the musical went on to critical acclaim worldwide and the 1961 film version picked up ten Oscars, plus a special choreography award for Robbins. The soundtrack, by Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, spent 54 weeks at Number One in the Billboard chart (that’s 17 weeks longer than Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’).
The choreographer had form
‘West Side Story’ is the thing Jerome Robbins is most famous for, but he was a prolific choreographer for Broadway, Hollywood and classical ballet. Notable works include ’50s hipster ‘ballet in sneakers’ ‘Opus Jazz’ (recently recreated on film in locations around New York – it’s basically the long-form iPod ad that Apple wish they’d made) and ‘The Cage’, where the main dancer is a praying mantis-style man-eating spider. Scary.
James Dean should have been in it
Arthur Laurents originally wanted James Dean to play the lead role of Tony, but Dean died in 1955 before the musical could be made.