The Jews Behind Broadway Hit “West Side Story,” Coming Soon to Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre

Tonight, tonight, it all began tonight….

Wow.  I’m sitting here, writing this post, and reading about the unbelievable MOTs that made “West Side Story” the Broadway hit it once was, and is now, as it tours the U.S. with a stop in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre July 12-17.  My toes are tapping as I listen in the background to “America,” “Cool,” and “Tonight,” songs that will always be fresh, fast, and furious despite the fact that they were first written and performed in the 1950s on Broadway.

One of your own kind, stick to your own kind…

"I Feel Pretty"

The music, the meaning, the dancing, the drama between ethnic gangs, the stories of unrequited love and danger, are just as relevant today, if not more so, than they were half a century ago.

It’s only just out of reach, down the block, on a beach…

We’re so lucky that the stellar Orpheum Theatre is bringing this show to the Twin Cities.  Go buy tickets. Now.

But there’s more to this amazing show than what you see on the surface.  Because for us, as Jews, this show should mean more than mere musical theatre.  On the surface this show is about the Jets and the Sharks, the white working-class gang and the gang of Puerto Rican youth.  You’re unlikely to find a Jewish word in it (let me know if you find one), but yet the major players who put together this brilliant piece of art together are all Jewish.  And their stories are absolutely fascinating.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Bernstein, an American conductor, composer, pianist, and author who the New York Times called “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history,” produced the music for the original Broadway musical West Side Story.  Born Louis Bernstein in Lawrence, Massachusetts, his parents were Ukranian Jews, and his father a hair-dressing supplies wholesaler.  He built his career in the United States, but after World War II, began traveling, including to Israel. In 1947, before Israel was even a state, he conducted in Tel Aviv for the first time, and in 1948, he conducted an open air concert for troops at Beersheba in the middle of the desert during the Arab-Israeli war.  In 1957, he conducted the inaugural concert of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv; and later made many recordings there. In 1967, he conducted a concert on Mt. Scopus to commemorate the reunification of Jerusalem. During the 1970s, Bernstein recorded his symphonies and other works with the Israel Philharmonic.

Steven Sondheim (born 1930).  A prolific Broadway lyricist and composer, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as the lyrics and music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Assassins.  Sondheim was born to a New York Jewish family; his father was a dress manufacturer and his mother designed the dresses.  Fellow MOT Oscar Hammerstein II became his personal and musical theater mentor around the time his parents got divorced, when he was ten.

“I Like to Live in America”

Jerome Robbins (1918 – 1998) was an American theater producer, director, and choreographer known primarily for Broadway Theater and Ballet/Dance.  Robbins was born “Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz” but he changed his name to “Robbins” because Rabinowitz (meaning “son of a rabbi”) identified him as an immigrant.  Despite what could be interpreted as his hiding of his Jewishness early on, Robbins would go on to direct and choreograph Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, for which he won 2 Tony Awards.  Robbins conceived, directed and choreographed West Side Story on Broadway, and choreographed the film version as well.  He also won a Tony award for West Side Story.  On a far more negative note, Robbins gave into the pressure when called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and ratted out more “communists” in the theater/movie business than any other HUAC witness.

"When You're a Jet"

The last of the Jewish pioneers that shaped this play was Arthur Laurents (1917 – May 5, 2011), the script writer for West Side Story (as well as several other Broadway musicals including Gypsy and La Cage Aux Folles).  Laurents was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn as Arthur Levine. He later admitted to changing his name to a less Jewish-sounding name to get a job. One side of his family were Orthodox Jews, the other atheists.  His Jewish education stopped after his Bar Mitzvah, but he continued to identify as Jewish throughout the rest of his life.

Their stories are as amazing as the stories they crafted for the stage.  So this year, as you watch West Side Story at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, an unbelievable musical on stage, be proud of the MOTs who conceived, designed, and dramatized that phenomenal show.  I know I will.

Am I missing any famous Jews who made this show possible?  Let me know in the comments!  Does it matter to you whether a show is produced, directed, composed, etc by Jews? Why?


(Check out this video from the Broadway touring performance!)