In January, Musical Cyberspace is going to work through a chain of musicals. This is how it works: each day I will discuss, in brief, a musical linked to the previous day’s musical by some kind of common ground. It follows then, that if you – dear reader – liked the previous day’s show, then you might enjoy the current day’s show. Comments, as alway, are welcome!
If you like Oklahoma!, then you might like West Side Story.
Both Oklahoma! and West Side Story did big things for musical theatre. Oklahoma! made standard an approach to musical theatre that had long been waiting in the wings. West Side Story changed the way that chorus performers were viewed primarily as singers or dancers: suddenly they had to do both, and act too. (That’s not to say that choruses who appeared on stage before didn’t act, but I think it’s fair to say that a greater commitment to characterisation was expected of chorus members as the 1940s moved into the 1950s.) Both shows tell the stories of a split community: in Oklahoma!, your occupation defined you; in West Side Story, it was your race. Both shows also focus hugely on dance as a vehicle for storytelling and characterisation, something that the writer of the book, Arthur Laurents, seemed to forget when he directed the most recent revival of West Side Story on Broadway and cut half of the “Somewhere” ballet.
West Side Story tells the story of Tony, a Jet, and Maria, a sister of one of the rival Sharks gang, who fall in love despite the prejudice that surrounds them. Yes, it’s a Romeo and Juliet story – with a couple of twists along the way, not the least of which is the tragic ending. Highlights include “Something’s Coming”, “Tonight”, “America”, “Cool” and “Somewhere”.
I wonder what the legacy of West Side Story, the debut Broadway show for Stephen Sondheim, working with Leonard Bernstein on the score, might have been without the film version to propel it into the forefront of the public consciousness. What was heralded by critics as a potential milestone for the Broadway musical theatre became a cultural phenomenon when the film was released – and that despite its imperfections. Today people argue about how effective Laurents’s book is because of its made-up slang (some of those exclamations induce unintentional laughter these days), about which version of “America” should be in the stage version (the lyrics for the film are better, but putting the Shark boys on stage distorts the commentary and ruins the asymmetrical structural balance of the characters in the show), about whether the lyrics of “I Feel Pretty” are as bad as Sondheim says they are (I think there are worse offenders in “Tonight”). That said, it is unarguably a classic and holds special places in many a musical theatre fan’s heart and mind.
So, now it’s time to share your thoughts on West Side Story. And what shows would you suggest to fans of this show? See which one we’ll feature here tomorrow…