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…
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.
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.
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!)
West Side Story was also produced by the great Harold Prince. It opened in 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre, owned, of course, by the Shubert Organization.
A lot has been written about the Jews behind the Golden Age of Broadway. They wrote, produced and directed the shows and owned the theaters, and many of the audience members were Jewish. Even though there are not a lot of Jewish characters or themes in the classic Broadway musicals, they have a very Jewish sensibility. The stories often relate to clashes of cultures, assimilation, feelings of not fitting in, prejudice, etc. That is why they are so universal.
You’ve raised an interesting issue and all those Jewish creators
did NOT originally conceive of the Romeo and Juliet story as the Irish against the Puerto Ricans. It’s my understanding that they first thought of their own backgrounds as fodder for the lack of acceptance of the two lovers from two different backgrounds.
In the end however, who was portrayed and why is a part of American Jewish “integration” or lack of it at the time the production was being planned. Jews were just being accepted in mainstream, or not, depending on ones interpretation, and there is quite a bit of behind the scenes information I would like to share for those of you interested from Deborah Jowitt’s important biography “Jerome Robbins, His Life, His Theater, His Dance.” She does describe some of the situation leading to the decisions of which two groups to put on stage: .I’m going to quote from the book, pages 266-267.
“Despite some flaws, ‘West Side Story’ is an epochal piece of theater. No previous Broadway musical had ended Act I with two dead bodies onstage and Act II with a third. There had been ambitious dances integral to a show’s plot before–such as Agnes de Mille’s often-cited ‘Dream Ballet’ in ‘Oklahoma!’-but none in which dance is a way of defining characer from the outset. The restlessness and hostility of the Jets and Sharks’ choreography and the tragic tale it powered enduring life. In 2000 when some of the stars of the movie got together for the television cameras to commemorate its 40th anniversary, Rita Moreno remarked that people often come up to her on the street and tell her, ‘You are Anita,’ Not, she marveled, ‘You were Anita. You are Anita.’
“In 1985, the four creators of ‘West Side Story’ came together in a Dramatists Guild symposium: Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Jerome Robbins (director-choregrapher), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). thirty-something years later, they were cordial and complimentary to one another. why dwell on disagreemnts? They recalled the excitment of the collaborative process, the ‘aspiration’ that Robbins defined as mattering most to him:
“‘ I wanted to find out at that time how far we three, as ‘long-haired artists,’ (Sondheim joined them later) could go on bringing our crafts and talents to a musical. Why did we have to do it separately and elsewhere? Why did Lenny have to write an opera, Arthur a play, me a ballet Why couldn’t we, in aspiration, try to bring our deepest talents together to the commercial theater in this work? That was the true gesture of the show.’
“As Laurents had foreseen, the tale of the making of ‘West Side Story’ that emerged at that forum was a kind of ‘Rashomon’ a story told from four different points of view. The collaborators’ memories dated from 1949, when, according to Bernstein’s fabricated diary quoted earler, Robbins got him excited with the notion of an updated ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Robbins has said that the idea came to him when a friend, who was considering an offer to play Romeo, complained that the character seemed passive and wondered how he could bring it to life. Jerry came up with modern analogies, such as hostility between Jews and Catholics, to explain the enduring feud between monragues and Capulets.
“Robbins introduced Laurents to Bernstein, who had been brought to tears by Laurents’s play ‘Home of the Brave’ about anti-Semitism faced by a Jewish soldier in W W II. Yet, following some hot discussions, what was originally called “East Side Story” was shelved. One early version pitted Jews against Italian Catholics (news of Juliet’s cousin’s death was to come during a family seder). Both Laurents and Bernstein came to feel that such a conflict would evoke that long-running sentimental comedy of the 1920s, ‘Abie’s Irish Rose,’ and lost interst.
“These two agreed at the symposium that the impetus to take up the project again in 1955 occurred when the two met at the Beverly Hills Hotel in August–Bernstein on the coast to conduct and Laurents there working on a movie. Dangling their legs in the hotel pool, they gradually drifted onto the subject of ‘East Side Story’ and current newspaper headlines about violence between juvenile gangs of Chicanos and Anglos. Eureka! Robbins readily agreed that ethnicity rather than religion should be the crux and gangs, rather than families, the antagonists. The Jewish kids became Puerto Rican and the Italian gang a mix of European immigrant stock (It’s noted in the book that Nora Kaye counseled Laurents to make the hero Irish or Anglo-Seaxon in order to have a light-skin-dark-skin-contrast).” [Nora Kaye was a star of Ballet Theater, friend of Robbins and also Jewish].
I hope this adds some information and subtlety to the issue of why are the characters who they are in this wonderful show.
Respectfully, Judith Brin Ingber, Jewish dance historian, author of new book “Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance,” just published by Wayne State University Press.
As a devout fan of the film version of West Side Story, who has also seen several stage productions of WSS, including the new Broadway stage revival here in Boston, I have this to say:
West Side Story being West Side Story, I did enjoy the new Broadway stage revival of this dynamite musical, but there were certain things that I admittedly found somewhat troubling about this particular stage production, which, imho, detracted from the production considerably:
A) The finger-snapping and the Jet gang whistles, which, imo, happen to be a very integral part of West Side Story (both the orignal Broadway stage show and the film version), were taken out of it completely, leaving a void that somehow couldn’t be filled.
B) Although there were some good voices, notably Karen Olivio, who played Anita in this production of WSS, Tony’s singing voice sounded totally artificial, and the vibratos were so slow and wide, that one could just about skip rope through them, if one gets the drift. Moreover, Tony’s voice also sounded very forced, as well.
C) I have never, ever seen a stage production of West Side Story that sort of screamed at you pretty much the whole time. Nor had I ever observed so much over-emoting by the members of the cast. It was too high pitched, and Doc and Krupke sounded too much like old curmudgeons.
D) It was good that the Bernstein musical score was kept as is, and the fact that it was jazzed up somewhat was interesting, but the orchestra sounded extremely shrill and tinny in a number of spots.
E) The “Somewhere” scene was sung by someone that sounded sort of like a child singing off in the distance, which was somewhat eerie, and not in line with this musical at all.
F) In both the original Broadway stage production(s) and the movie version of West Side Story, there was a hint of possible reconciliation between the two gangs, as several Jets and Sharks came together and carried Tony’s body off after he was shot. There was no such ending and possible hint of reconciliation in this production, which I also found somewhat troublesome, because it took away from West Side Story’s original message of the destructive consequences of hatred and prejudice, and the senselessness of gang violence. Also, there didn’t seem to be a ray of hope at the end of this production, which both the original Broadway stage production and the movie version of West Side Story provided.
G) There was one instance when Tony and Maria seemed to actually be having sexual intercourse on Maria’s bed, which, imho, wasn’t necessary.
Here’s an afterthought; Many people are somewhat bothered by the fact that the Sharks were singing in Spanish in some of the songs. I admittedly felt kind of lost during those times, but it gave the show an interesting twist, nonetheless. While I enjoyed the new Broadway stage revival of West Side Story, I still love the movie as well.