It had a provocative and turbulent subject — gangs, ethnic prejudice, cross-cultural romance — an unknown cast and complicated (albeit danceable) rhythms throughout its score. There were knife fights and murders, and its hero would die at the end of the second act.
Hardly the recipe for a successful Broadway show in the conservative 1950s.
Yet “West Side Story” did, indeed, become a hit on the Great White Way, an even bigger one on the screen, and a half-century later, it remains the same groundbreaking musical it was in 1957.
On Wednesday — 50 years to the day that “West Side Story” opened at the Winter Garden Theater in New York — the Library of Congress will pay tribute to this iconic marvel with a new exhibit, “West Side Story: Birth of a Classic” in the library’s James Madison Building.
“The exhibit will include more than 50 items out of the hundreds we could have selected,” says Mark E. Horowitz. Included are composer Leonard Bernstein’s extensive personal correspondence about the project and opening-night telegrams from such luminaries as Lauren Bacall and Cole Porter.
Mr. Horowitz is the senior music specialist in the library’s music division and the author of “Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions,” a 2003 biography of “West Side Story’s” then-young lyricist, Stephen Sondheim — who would go on to become one of musical theater’s most acclaimed composers.
The library’s narrative of “West Side Story,” Mr. Horowitz explains, is actually the story of its four principal architects: Mr. Bernstein (who composed the musical while simultaneously writing his operetta, “Candide”), the great choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents (who authored the show’s book) and Mr. Sondheim. At 27, he was the youngest member of the foursome and the last one to come aboard.
The exhibit recounts the tortuous evolution of the new show’s story. “One of my favorite sets of things that we have is a six-page outline and synopsis, dated October 1955, of a musical called ‘Romeo,’ ” Mr. Horowitz says.
Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” of course, would form the kernel that eventually grew into “West Side Story.” Like the Bard’s story, its theme centered on a pair of star-crossed lovers (Maria and Tony) — but replaced feuding families in medieval Verona with rival gangs in New York City.
“Initially, they planned to have the tension between Catholics and Jews set during the period of Easter and Passover, but they quickly came to see that concept as old hat,” Mr. Horowitz says. “It also proved difficult to write memorable songs for such an outdated subject matter.”
Reportedly, Mr. Laurents got the idea of using a turf war between Puerto Rican and American gangs while reading a newspaper story about a gang fight in Los Angeles.
Casting was a particular challenge.
“Never before had there been a show where each cast member was required to act, sing and dance,” Mr. Horowitz says. Not only that, he explains, but most musicals are star vehicles, while the show’s cast “were all young people who were unheard of.”
Along with details on cast members, the exhibit recalls those who auditioned unsuccessfully, including Warren Beatty (who tried out for the role of Tony), Suzanne Pleshette, the late Jerry Orbach (“Law & Order”) and, Arte Johnson of later “Laugh-In” fame.
In the end, the role of the show’s heroine, Maria, went to Carol Lawrence (who auditioned 13 times); Larry Kert was selected as her love interest, Tony; Mickey Calin as Jets’ leader, Riff; Tommy Abbott as Sharks’ leader, Bernardo — and 24-year-old District native Chita Rivera as Anita.
A month before its Broadway premiere, the show opened its out-of-town tryout at the National Theatre in Northwest. Here, and later in New York, reviews were mixed — ranging from critical skewerings to bursts of euphoria. Wrote critic John Chapman in the New York Daily News: “The American theatre took a venturesome forward step when the firm of Griffith & Prince presented ‘West Side Story’ at the Winter Garden last evening. This is a bold new kind of musical theatre — a juke-box Manhattan opera. It is, to me, extraordinarily exciting.”
While the original “West Side Story” was a hit, it was not the blockbuster “most people imagine it to be,” Mr. Horowitz says. The show ran for 732 performances before going on tour and was handily beaten by Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” in the 1958 Tony race.
” ‘West Side Story’ did win a few minor Tony awards,” Mr. Horowitz says. “And I’m not knocking ‘The Music Man.’ It was not only brilliant but also a more palatable story. The leading man isn’t dead at the end, and you leave the theater singing ‘76 Trombones.’ ”
WHAT: “West Side Story: Birth of a Classic”
WHERE: Foyer of the Performing Arts Reading Room, LM 113, the Library of Congress’ James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Wednesday through March 29