Bernardo faces Riff at the Sharks-Jets "rumble" under the bridge, in a scene from "West Side Story."
by Wade Williams
Like Showboat and Oklahoma before it, West Side Story, which opened at the Paramount Nov. 28 and runs through Dec. 10, is a landmark in American musical history.
Avoiding a fall into the operatic trap, it is the first musical to tell a tragic story with nary "the whisper of a happy ending," as composer Leonard Bernstein put it.
Tragic musicals such as Porgy and Bess and Carousel both opted for uplifting endings.
At the end of Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin wrote, "O Lawd, I'm on My Way," to overcome Porgy's despair at Bess's departure.
Rodgers and Hammerstein rewrote the end of Molnar's "Liliom" for their Carousel. Not so with West Side Story.
The show was first suggested to Bernstein by choreographer Jerome Robbins in January, 1949. It was to be a modern version of "Romeo and Juliet," set in slums at the coincidence of Easter and Passover celebrations, with feelings running high between Jewish Capulets and Catholic Montagues.
By 1955, after six years of postponement due to conflicting schedules, that original idea was abandoned as not being very fresh.
The idea of two teenage gangs, the warring Puerto Rican "Sharks" and the American "Jets," then evolved. With this idea, Bernstein began to feel rhythms and pulses and sense a form.
Finally, in 1957, time to do the show was set aside by its four collaborators, Robbins, Bernstein, librettist Arthur Laurents, and first-time lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The rest, as they say, is history.
Besides the challenge of writing a tragic musical was the added problem that the show was about young people. This meant the collaborators couldn't use any "stars," and the show was going to have to stand on the libretto, music, and dance.
Further, it was felt that casting "singers" was out because the "kid" quality would be lost. During rehearsals, Bernstein was thrilled to actually hear 40 kids who had never sung before up on the stage singing five-part counterpoint.
The production at the Paramount stacks up pretty well. While looking forward to the music and songs like "Tonight" and "Maria," I couldn't help being struck by the dancing. The singing is good, but the dancing is spectacular. The show's director, Alan Johnson, has recreated the choreography of Jerome Robbins, and the show is worth seeing for that alone.
On the down side, the ending seemed slow to me and lacking in emotional power. It just missed, somehow.
What didn't miss was the song "Officer Krupke." In our age of the so-called "cult of victimization," this song seemed unusually prescient, and was an unexpected highlight, drawing a number of laughs.