On August 19, 1957, “West Side Story” began its pre-Broadway tour at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. About a month later, it opened on Broadway, changing the nature of the American musical and challenging the country’s view of itself. The show dealt seriously with violence, adolescent gangs and racial prejudice—themes rarely included in musicals—and ended with one of the show’s leads dead on stage. The integration of music, dance and script, as well as the theatricality of the staging were a revelation to audiences.
The musical’s success must be credited primarily to its creators. Composer Leonard Bernstein created his most memorable score—complex, passionate, tuneful, shocking and bursting with rhythmic energy. Jerome Robbins, credited with conceiving the show, doubled as director and choreographer. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, in his first Broadway musical, exhibited the wit, intelligence and craft that would make him the pre-eminent songwriter of his generation. Arthur Laurents staged the adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in contemporary Manhattan with a lean, concise libretto, which allowed for the integration of language, music, dance and movement. All of these elements came together to create a groundbreaking musical.
If you missed the opening by a few decades, you can still see the online exhibit. “West Side Story: Birth of a Classic,” drawn mostly from the Library’s extensive Leonard Bernstein Collection, offers a rare view into the creative process and collaboration involved in the making of this extraordinary production. Included in the exhibition are unique items such as an early synopsis and outline of the script; Bernstein’s annotated copy of “Romeo and Juliet”; choreographic notes from Robbins; two original watercolor set designs by Oliver Smith; original music manuscripts; a facsimile of a Sondheim lyric sketch for the song “Somewhere”; and amusing opening-night telegrams from celebrities such as Lauren Bacall, Cole Porter and Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Also included are notes that reveal actors who auditioned, such as Jerry Orbach and Warren Beatty, who was described as “good voice—can’t open his jaw—charming as hell—clean cut.” As an added bonus, the Library has the very first prints made of several never-before-seen production photographs taken for Look magazine for a feature spread that never ran.
The composer, conductor, writer and teacher Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of 20th-century America’s most important musical figures. The Leonard Bernstein Collection is one of the largest and most varied of the many special collections held by the Library’s Music Division. Its more than 400,000 items, including music and literary manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, audio and video recordings, fan mail and other types of materials extensively document Bernstein’s extraordinary life and career.