David and Art - “Stories from the West Side”
Whether the year is 1957 or 2021, the Sharks and the Jets always remind us of the talents that created them.
“Something’s comin’ / I don’t know what it is / But it is gonna be great.” So sings Tony when he’s overcome by the premonition that something big is about to happen to him. And of course, that something big is meeting Maria, a name that instantly becomes the most beautiful sound he ever heard.
Chances are that you’ve at least heard of West Side Story, the groundbreaking 1957 Broadway musical from which these songs and characters come. The idea of an up-to-date urban version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was something that composer Leonard Bernstein had been pondering since 1949, and by 1955, he, author Arthur Laurents, and choreographer Jerome Robbins were planning it out. After they began working on the project, a 25-year-old Stephen Sondheim, whom Laurents had recently met at a party, was brought on board to help write lyrics.
It opened on Broadway in September 1957, and later saw New York revivals in 1960, 1964, 1980 and 2009. For that last revival, a young playwright who had just scored with a musical called In the Heights was enlisted to translate some of Sondheim’s original lyrics into Spanish. It was then that Lin-Manuel Miranda confided to the legendary lyricist that he was now working on a musical about Alexander Hamilton. The legendary Broadway giant laughed and told the future Broadway giant that he absolutely loved the idea.
In 1961, West Side Story was made into a movie that won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. A few years ago, it was reported that Stephen Spielberg was going to do a remake. Well, COVID delays notwithstanding, he finally made it, and it hit theaters last Friday.
My initial reaction when I first heard about all this was perhaps predictable: Why do we need another West Side Story? But then I considered the musical’s classic status and the fact that it’s been 60 years since the movie came out.
When you think about it, every generation needs to be reintroduced to the classics or they will pass into antiquity, becoming dusty heirlooms that appeal only to a dwindling number of devotees. Art needn’t be like that, because through a new production people may discover something over half a century old that still has the power to speak to them. And in addition to that, in this case, a new generation will learn the name Stephen Sondheim.