West Side Story is gang warfare set to music. It’s dance as a weapon. It’s love and death with a Latin beat. West Side Story rocks. The first thing you hear is snapping fingers. That beat. The hoodlums who make up the rival gangs the Sharks (Puerto Rican) and the Jets (Anglo-Irish-Italian) fill the frame in the early going, trying to out-macho one another with charged moves, only to give way to the riveting heroines Maria and Anita.
The inspiration for West Side Story came to choreographer-director Jerome Robbins in 1949. It was just the wisp of an idea at first … Romeo and Juliet updated for modern-day, urban America. Then, in the mid-1950s, he read newspaper accounts of Puerto Rican gangs fighting it out with veteran neighborhood gangs, and something clicked. Robbins was just the person to see it through. He was no stranger to the meaner side of life, having been born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side long before it was a cute place to meet for drinks. He enlisted the help of three brilliant collaborators—Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (book)—and brought West Side Story to the stage in 1957. Not everyone got it. As Robbins biographer Deborah Jowitt notes, “No previous Broadway musical had ended Act I with two dead bodies onstage and Act II with a third.” But a perceptive critic of the age, Kenneth Tynan, called the show a “rampaging ballet, with bodies flying from the air as if shot from guns.”
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