Sixty years ago, the curtain at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway rose to reveal the Jets, a teenage gang, snapping, kicking, and rumbling with the Sharks, a rival Puerto Rican gang. It was the opening night of West Side Story, a musical remake of Romeo and Juliet that combined the talents of Broadway big-wigs Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. Their show opened with Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, and Chita Rivera in starring roles.
The next day, Pulitzer-winning critic Walter Kerr wrote, in the New Herald Tribune, “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” The musical became famous for its electric choreography and timely story of gang violence in New York, running for 732 performances with six Tony nominations. In 1961, the film adaptation won 10 Oscars and was later preserved in the National Film Registry.
Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert sang their intimate number, “Tonight,” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958, spending most of the song in a tight embrace. Despite their ages, 25 and 27, respectively, the star-crossed pair was able to convince audiences they were two teens in the throes of youthful passion.
In 1964 the Post covered Lawrence and her workaholic approach to show business in “Lawrence of Illinois.” Normand Poirier wrote, “Few have ever butted with more ferocity. For West Side Story she auditioned 13 times in 11 months. For one TV show she rehearsed 17 hours straight while ill with mononucleosis.” Poirier noted that during the taping of the 1958 Ed Sullivan Show performance Lawrence used the short tech breaks to chat with the orchestra about their upcoming club show. Since she would be using the same guys, she wanted to make sure their timing would be perfect.
Lawrence wasn’t the only perfectionist in the original Broadway production either. According to Humphrey Burton’s biography of Leonard Bernstein, the composer was constantly at odds with Robbins and Laurents, fighting to keep his sweeping, dramatic music in the show that Robbins was intent on making a hallmark of dance theatre. Despite, or maybe because of, their struggle, both were successful in creating a musical that delivered on all fronts. Sondheim made modest contributions in the way of lyrics, but he would go on to become undisputed Broadway royalty.
Though it was thought to be, perhaps, too dark for Broadway audiences at the time (“Who wanted to see a show in which the first-act curtain comes down on two dead bodies lying on the stage?” Leonard Bernstein told The Rolling Stone), West Side Story is now a classic of musical theatre. Performances, from high school productions to Broadway revivals, are still staged prolifically. The tale of young love is supposed to star teenagers anyway, as long as they can nail the tricky note intervals in “Maria.”