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date: 23 October 2019

West Side Storylocked

  • Jon Alan Conrad

Extract

Musical in two acts by Leonard Bernstein to a libretto by Arthur Laurents after William Shakespeare , from a conception by Jerome Robbins , with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim ; Washington, DC, National Theatre, 19 August 1957 (New York, Winter Garden, 26 September 1957).

The idea of telling the Romeo and Juliet story in terms specific to New York City and its tensions had been discussed since 1949 by the choreographer Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein. The three collaborators kept changing their minds as to the proper social identity of the rival groups, but the work finally took shape, with Stephen Sondheim added to the team. Bernstein produced his own orchestrations, with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. After a mixed critical reception, the musical proved only moderately successful during its initial Broadway run.

The story is set among two rival youth gangs in New York City in the 1950s, the longer-established Jets, led by Riff, and the Puerto Rican newcomers, the Sharks, led by Bernardo. Riff intends to meet Bernardo at a community dance – neutral territory – and challenge him to a fight for control of the neighbourhood. Tony (tenor), a former Jet and Riff’s best friend, meets Maria (soprano), Bernardo’s sister, at the dance, and they fall immediately in love. They meet that night on her fire escape, and again the next day at the shop where she works, where they enact a mock wedding ceremony. Tony tries to intervene at the rumble but succeeds only in accidentally permitting Bernardo to kill Riff; in a rage, Tony himself kills Bernardo. Maria manages to forgive him and they decide to run away together. She sends a message to Tony who is in hiding with the Jets, by Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, but the gang so abuse her that she angrily tells them Maria is dead. Tony, in despair, runs through the streets begging to be killed; he discovers that Maria is alive just as a Shark shoots him. Maria in her grief manages to persuade everyone to let the retaliation stop, giving a hint of hope for reconciliation as the play ends....

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