West Side Story was written for a large, young cast. There are lead roles, but the creators weren't looking for stars to fill them.
"Everybody has to seem to be a teenager, and be able to sing a very difficult score, act a very difficult book and dance very difficult dances," recalled Leonard Bernstein at a Dramatists Guild symposium a few years before his death.
Carol Lawrence was 23 when she was called in to audition — over and over again — for the lead role of Maria. The repeated callbacks earned the displeasure of Actors Equity, the performers' union.
"I did 13 auditions, and that got me into all kinds of trouble with Equity," Lawrence recalls. "They did write a law that was, for a while, known as the Carol Lawrence Law, and it says you cannot audition a person more than three times without paying them."
For her final audition, Lawrence was paired with a young chorus boy named Larry Kert, who was up for the part of Tony. The two rehearsed and memorized the balcony scene, but director Jerome Robbins wanted to make the moment spontaneous. He asked Kert to leave the theater.
Lawrence recalls Robbins telling her, "I'm going to ask him to come in and sing 'Maria.' But, first I want you to hide somewhere on the stage where he can't see you. And if he can find you, after he sings 'Maria,' do the balcony scene."
So Lawrence climbed up a ladder and hid in a tiny alcove above, and to the rear, of the stage. Kert came in and sang "Maria," searching for Lawrence all the while. But he couldn't find her. When the song ended, Lawrence whispered to him from her perch above the stage.
"She says, 'Quick come up!," Kert told NPR's Susan Stamberg in 1987. "So, I see a spiral staircase and a pole going up the middle — and I figure the quickest way to get up there is to shimmy up that pole."
"It was the perfect setting for the balcony scene," Lawrence remembers. "And we did it breathlessly, and sang the song — held each other, kissed. He leapt down and sang 'Good night/good night/sleep well and when you dream/dream of me.'
"And it was pin-drop silence, and then they all stood up and applauded."
Then Leonard Bernstein walked down to the front of the auditorium, Kert remembered.
"He says, 'I don't know what's gonna happen, but that's the most mesmerizing audition I've ever seen,'" Kert says. "I went home that night. About five of eight, the phone rings, and it's Arthur Laurents. He says, 'How's it feel to have a lead on Broadway?'"
Musical Challenges and Rehearsal-Room Taskmasters
Kert and Lawrence weren't the only actors to be put through their paces. Chita Rivera auditioned six times for the role of Anita, the girlfriend of the leader of the Sharks. She says she got chills when she first heard the score.
"Hearing 'America' was just mind-boggling, with that rhythm," she says. "I just couldn't wait to do it. It was such a challenge. And, being Latin, you know, it was a welcoming sound."
By all accounts, Bernstein was a dream to work with. Jerome Robbins, on the other hand, was a perfectionist and taskmaster. He had high expectations for his cast, and at times he could be cruel.
"It was the first time that any show rehearsed for eight weeks – we had to get special permission for that from Equity, and we got it," Robbins recalled at that Dramatists Guild event. "It required a different kind of people to do it and a different kind of rehearsal hours to accomplish what we set out to do."
One of West Side Story's many innovations is that everyone in the cast had names and characters – even the chorus members. Since most came from the world of dance, Robbins gave them acting exercises.
"He would suddenly look at somebody and say, 'Well, what's your father's name?'" Chita Rivera remembers. "Do you have any brothers and sisters? Where do you go in the evening? What do you do? What school do you go to? Do you go to school?' And we had to go home and make up a foundation for ourselves."
Another of Robbins' rehearsal techniques was especially effective. Producer Hal Prince says Robbins told the actors playing the Jets and the Sharks to keep to themselves.
"They were not allowed to socialize out of the theater," Prince says. "They were not allowed to take their lunches together. And the sides of the rehearsal rooms and the theater were posted with newspaper items about gang warfare on the West Side of New York."
Grover Dale, who played Snowboy, a member of the Jets, remembers a prank they played after one of those separate lunches.
"One day, the Jets got together and, out of big pieces of cardboard, we built a shark and stuffed it with newspapers and drew on it," Dale says. "It was about five feet long. And we carried it up to the fifth floor, backstage of the theater ... overlooking the stage. And the end of lunch came, and the Sharks were all there, ready to go.
"And Robbins is pacing the stage. He's saying 'Where in the heck are the Jets?' And from the fifth floor, we threw that shark onto the stage and yelled out, 'Sharks have had it!' And it landed right at Jerry's feet. And when he looked up and saw us, he just loved it, because it was like the homework we were supposed to do [had] kicked in."
One of the show's most famous sequences, the "Dance at the Gym," was actually choreographed and rehearsed separately. In this set of dances, the two gangs challenge each other. The Jets worked with Jerome Robbins; the Sharks worked with assistant choreographer Peter Gennaro.
"We never knew what the other group was doing – never knew it, for real," recalls Chita Rivera. "So, when Jerry decided to pull it all together, we got into one big room and it starts, and we're all dancing — and all of a sudden, you hear somebody make a sound like a siren, and it was the Jets that did that. And we actually stopped — all of us, the Sharks, just said, 'What's that?' And that was the whole idea of the number; to take over. It was so real."
Classically Constructed, But Built for Broadway
The other creators were around for much of the rehearsal process.
"I remember sitting next to Lenny and his starting with 'A Boy Like That,' teaching it to me, and me saying, 'I'll never do this, I can't hit those notes, I don't know how to hit those notes,' Rivera says. "And he made me do it, and he taught me how to hit those notes, and once I got past the fact that I was sitting on a piano stool next to Leonard Bernstein, I was okay!"
Bernstein was a classically trained composer, a man who'd written symphonies and conducted the world's top orchestras. So it's no surprise that one thing that really distinguishes West Side Story from other Broadway musicals is the complexity of its score.
"West Side Story is as complete a unit as I can imagine for a score to a musical," says conductor John Mauceri, who studied with Bernstein. "It's as tight and inner-constructed as any opera."
And like an opera, West Side Story has motifs that run through the entire work. Many of the score's songs share some of the same musical building blocks – the Prologue, "Something's Coming," "Maria" and "Cool" all feature an interval called the tritone.
It's "the octave split directly in half," explains jazz pianist Bill Charlap — "a very violent interval."
As rehearsals continued, Bernstein recalled in 1985, the creative team realized they needed what's called a "character song" to introduce Tony, the male lead.
"There was a marvelous introductory page of script for him that Arthur had written, the essence of which became the lyric for this song," Bernstein said. That page of script became a song — and that song, "Something's Coming," became one of the score's highlights.
Something was coming for West Side Story – its out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C., where the cast and creative team would work out the kinks. But first, the cast performed what's called a "gypsy run-through" in New York. Performers from other Broadway shows came to the rehearsal studio to see what their colleagues were up to.
"We were just in leotards," remembers Carol Lawrence, the Maria. "My gun was a pencil, my bed was a piano bench, we had no balcony, we had nothing — nothing but the raw material that we were and that the script was and the score. And they went ecstatic by the end of the show. It was maybe a baby step towards feeling, 'Well, at least we're on the right track, and we've got a prayer.'"
The company packed up and moved to Washington. Laurents, the librettist, was encouraged by the gypsy run-through, but he worried about how paying audiences would react.
"We all loved the show," he says. But "I personally thought it was gonna run three months – maybe. And the show started, and at some point you just felt it in the theater. And Jerry began to pound me on the back, and said, 'They like it, they like it!'"
Tryouts, Tweaks and One Change That Never Got Made
Not many changes were made in Washington, despite the protests of lyricist Stephen Sondheim. He felt strongly that "Gee, Officer Krupke," the comic song in the second act, didn't belong there.
"It was out of place in the second act," Sondheim explains. "It should occur in the first act, and ... 'Cool' should occur where 'Krupke' was. Because here are a group of kids who are running from a double murder, and for them to stop and do this comic number about social situations seemed to me to be out of place.
"And I kept nudging and bugging Jerry and Arthur and Lenny, 'Couldn't we please reverse the two? Couldn't we please reverse the two?' And we didn't."
They didn't because Laurents was insistent: "I thought that the tension in the second act needed relief," he says. "And they thought I was being vulgar and inserting musical comedy. So, I got very high-falutin' and talked about Shakespeare and the Porter scenes and his clowns. It was me taking one position, and I had to convince the other three that it was the right position. And I did."
West Side Story was a hit in Washington, D.C. — and a hit again, in its Philadelphia tryout. But would it be a hit in New York?