Broadway Across Canada wraps up its production of West Side Story this weekend. Based on the sell-out crowd at Tuesday’s opening night performance, I’d say there’s still lots of love for this 1957 classic, at least in Calgary. I’m betting a more than a few people gave and received tickets for this show for Valentine’s day, notwithstanding the fact that the tragic story of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria (aka Romeo and Juliet) set amongst Puerto Rican and Polish American gangs in New York, is more a cautionary tale than an advertisement for romantic love.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Acadia University, where I first got involved in musical theatre with the campus theatre club, MusiCadians in the ’70′s. I remember our choreographer, Barb, was dying to do West Side Story, but we didn’t have the dancers to pull it off, so her dream never came to be, at least not then. If you’ve ever seen West Side Story you’ll know the dancing - originally choreographed and directed by the great Jerome Robbins – is a huge part of the show, so it’s not a musical a lot of amateur companies can pull off well - one of the reasons we don’t see it performed that often. Although sometimes it’s a bit off-putting to see a bunch of somewhat-too-clean-cut gangsters expressing their violent energy through stylized ballet (what a male friend of mine calls a “dance-off”) it’s pretty impressive to watch.
Although I gave the musical “extra points” for choreography in my list of “A Few of My Favourite Shows“, to my mind, it’s Leonard Bernstein’s score that really drives West Side Story, with its exciting rhythms and syncopation in songs like “Something’s Coming,” “America” and “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love.” Bernstein had already penned successful scores for On The Town, Wonderful Town and Candide, but he reached the pinnacle with West Side Story and he might have gone on to write many more great musicals, if he hadn’t left musical theatre to focus on directing the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a successful career writing symphonic and other more “serious” (although no doubt less lucrative) musical works.
West Side Story was also the Broadway debut of a young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim considered himself a composer first and foremost and might have turned down the assignment if not for the encouragement of family friend and mentor, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (talk about connections!), who said he could learn a lot from greats like Bernstein, Robbins and book-writer Arthur Laurents. Fortunately for Sondheim and the rest of the musical theatre world, he took that advice – although, as Martin Gottfield explains in his 1993 book, “Sondheim” (Enlarged and Updated), Sondheim did make the rookie mistake of letting Bernstein keep his share of the lyric writing royalties, when Bernstein offered to remove his name as co-lyricist – if only he’d known how big these songs would become, both on-stage and off!
In his 2010 book “Finishing the Hat, ” Sondheim also explains how he had been hoping to use the first F-bomb in musical theatre history in the humourous Jets song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but his collaborators wouldn’t go for it, so they ended the song with “Krup You!” instead, which he admits probably works better anyway. Much to his chagrin, he also had to “clean up” some of the lyrics for the popular 1961 movie version to please the studio. For example, he turned Anita’s line about looking forward to a visit from her lover Bernardo after the rumble from “He’ll come in hot and tired, so what? Don’t matter if he’s tired, as long as he’s hot” to “He’ll come in hot and tired, oh dear. Don’t matter if he’s tired , as long as he’s near.” (He considers this one of his most cringe-worthy lyrics – which says a lot, as he’s pretty critical of many of his early works).
You don’t get to hear some of Sondheim’s clever lyrics in Broadway Across Canada’s version, because it’s based the most recent Broadway revival in which some of the lyrics and dialogue are replaced with Spanish (As in “I Feel Pretty/Me Siento Hermosa”). While it feels more authentic and adds a little spice, it loses something – and certainly the humour – if you don’t know the original.
While some musicals written 50 years ago seem dated, West Side Story and its universal themes of love, friendship, prejudice and revenge still works today. But the reason it will always be on my top 10 list, to paraphrase a jingle from a grocery store chain from my youth, is that “It’s mainly because of the music.”
West Side Story runs until tomorrow (Sunday). Tickets are still available at http://calgary.broadway.com/