7. West Side Story
Points – 116
Votes – 20
Firsts – 4
Working together the genius of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and William Shakespeare, how on Earth could West Side Story be anything other than incredible?
The show came out sixty three years ago, with its genesis happening another ten years before that. With this in mind, it is amazing that the themes are still as relevant today as they were back then, and the music feels fresh and exciting enough that a second big screen adaptation is currently on the way – and after the success of Cats, I am sure that nobody can wait. It remains to be seen whether it will break Natalie Wood’s production’s record ten Oscar wins – the most for any musical. The remake that is. Not Cats. Cats definitely didn’t…
As musical films go, West Side Story is somewhat of a gold standard. It could have been very different however. It is relatively well known that Audrey Hepburn was the first person offered the role of Maria, but somewhat less known is that the first choice for Tony was Elvis. He turned it down as there were too many songs sung by other people. Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer took on these iconic roles, although they, along with nearly all of the other performers to some extent, were dubbed. Voice of the stars, Marni Nixon deputised for Wood, and for Rita Moreno on some harder parts. There was a stand-off when suggested – somewhat fairly in my opinion – that she should get a cut of the soundtrack royalties. This was only resolved when Leonard Bernstein himself stepped in and offered a generous chunk of his own royalties.
Sondheim’s involvement nearly didn’t happen. After playing Arthur Laurents excerpts from a show he was working on at the time, Laurens liked the lyrics but not the music, leading to one of my favourite Wikipedia lines that I have found researching these shows – “Sondheim did not care for Laurents’ opinion”. Well, Sondheim was of course right, and his entry into blockbuster shows was well allowed.
The show tells the story of star crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, from rival gangs, The Jets and The Sharks. The show went through many revisions which included these groups being a gang of Catholics, Mexicans in Los Angeles and a gang called the Jewish Emeralds – a reference that they snuck into the final script nonetheless. The nature of these two warring factions has been a running theme throughout the many different productions, with the producers of the film not allowing the two groups of actors to socialise between takes, and a 2009 production being performed bilingually, with all of the Sharks scenes happening in Spanish. As much as those who have worked on the production have tried to keep their two groups separate, love always finds away – Chita Rivera, the first Anita on Broadway met her future husband Tony Mordente when he was playing A-Rab in the stage production.
When first performed, they worked with an unprecedentedly long eight week rehearsal process – as a man who has directed this show, I assure you that is not long enough for something of this scope. But it is well worth it. This is one of the finest pieces of musical theatre writing in the world, and the score is something to behold. The script, not so much (“Pow pow, wammo blammo” anyone?). The thought of directing Gee Office Krupke has always been something I have been very interested in doing, and I think we created something pretty impressive as a society. Big shout out at this point to Dave Kerry who created something very beautiful using not very much, showing what an actual genius he is.
As a final factlet, Gee Officer Krupke was not supposed to finish with the lyric “Krup You”. I’ll let you work out what it was that the censors originally objected to.
Alex’s Song Choice – “Something’s Coming” One of my absolute favourite songs in musical theatre, and one that was written only twelve days before opening night.
Lockdown Pick – “America” There is probably a certain irony to the line “I want to be in America “ at the moment.