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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Fifty years ago tonight, the groundbreaking musical "West Side Story" premiered on Broadway. It was created by a dream team of theater artists - director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and composer Leonard Bernstein. Still, its success was anything but assured back in 1957.

Here is reporter Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN: From its opening moments, "West Side Story" announced it was not going to be just another lighthearted musical.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Based on "Romeo and Juliet," "West Side Story" updated Shakespeare's tragedy of star-crossed lovers and set it instead on the mean streets of 1950s Manhattan. Shakespeare's feuding families became gangs - the American-born Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich says the setting was ripped from the headlines.

Mr. FRANK RICH (Columnist, New York Times): Not that much earlier, Senator Kefauver held hearings in the Senate about youth culture and violence in comic books. And people were sort of dazed by adults' world. And, I think "West Side Story" was one of the first pieces of mainstream popular culture to put its finger on what was going to be a huge movement of social change.

(Soundbite of song "Jet Song")

Mr. MICKEY CALIN (Actor): (As Riff Jet) (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette to your last dying day. When you're a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you've got brothers around. You're a family man.

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) You're never alone. You're never disconnected.

LUNDEN: Putting gangs and violence at the center of a musical was shocking, as Leonard Bernstein remembered at the Dramatist Guild Symposium in 1985.

Mr. LEONARD BERNSTEIN (Composer, "West Side Story"): In the musical, the first act of which ends in two corpses on the stage when the curtains came down, was really reprehensible to many people at that time.

(Soundbite of musical "West Side Story")

Mr. LARRY KERT (Actor): (As Tony) Don't push me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KERT: (As Tony) Riff, what are you doing?

Mr. CALIN: (As Riff) Go, Tony.

Mr. KERT: (As Tony) Quincy, hold on.

LUNDEN: When "West Side Story" opened in September 1957, producer Hal Prince says it was a modest hit.

Mr. HAL PRINCE (Producer): Its reviews were good, not great. Walter Kerr referred to it as cold. We drew audiences. We got no awards. The big hit that year was "The Music Man."

LUNDEN: Dancers dressed as punks doing ballet moves to difficult music was not exactly what a tired businessman was looking for. And the score has the kind of complexity you find more often in an opera than on Broadway.

Jazz pianist Bill Charlap has recorded an album of Bernstein's music.

Mr. BILL CHARLAP (Jazz Pianist): Something pretty interesting about "West Side Story" is that he's using the tri-tone that is the octave split directly in half.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHARLAP: A very violent interval, and he uses the fifth too.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHARLAP: Well, if we listen to this, we have that very violent motive from the opening prologue, which goes…

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHARLAP: If you invert that, you get…

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHARLAP: Pretty interesting. That's real composition. And, of course, he makes it the tender ballad, "Maria." And if you invert that, you get…

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHARLAP: Add the seventh and you get…

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHARLAP: So you have "Something's Coming."

(Soundbite of song, "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story")

Mr. KERT: (As Tony (Singing) Could it be? Yes, it could. Something's coming. Something's good. If I can wait, something's coming and I don't know what it is. But it is gonna be great.

LUNDEN: The way that "West Side Story" seamlessly blended music, script, lyrics and dance was revolutionary. And in some sense, pointed towards the show's future, says lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM (Lyricist, "West Side Story"): We were, I think, influenced by movies. There was the kind of fluidity in the staging that I think had a cinematic quality to it. No show had ever been conceived this way.

(Soundbite of song "Tonight Quintet" from "West Side Story")

JETS: (Singing) The Jets are going to have their day tonight.

SHARKS: (Singing) The Sharks are going to have their way tonight.

JETS: (Singing) The Puerto Ricans grumble, fair fight. But if they start a rumble, we'll rumble them right.

LUNDEN: It was the movie that put "West Side Story" over the top. It was smash hit and captured 10 Academy Awards. Still, the authors didn't care for it, as libreta's(ph) Arthur Laurents told NPR in 2000.

Mr. ARTHUR LAURENTS (Playwright, "West Side Story"): The movie, I thought and still think, was appalling. Film is either realistic or surreal. And a musical to succeed needs illusion. "West Side Story" begins and you see all these boys with dyed hair, color-coordinated sneakers doing (unintelligible) down a New York street, not in this life.

And then when the so-called Puerto Ricans came on, made up to look like (unintelligible) characters for some caricatures of what they think Hispanics are. It was really disgraceful.

(Soundbite of musical, "West Side Story")

Ms. CHITA RIVERA (Actress): (As Anita) (Singing) Lots of new housing with more space.

Mr. KEN LEROY (Actor): (As Bernardo) (Singing) Lots of those slamming in our face.

Ms. RIVERA: (As Anita) (Singing) I get a terraced apartment.

Mr. LEROY: (As Bernardo) (Singing) Got to get rid of your accent.

Ms. RIVERA: (As Anita) (Singing) Life can be frightening in America.

SHARKS: (Boys) (Singing) If you can fight in America.

SHARKS: (Girls) (Singing) Life is all right in America.

SHARKS: (Boys) (Singing) If you're all white in America.

LUNDEN: As a result of the movie's success, not a day goes by when "West Side Story" isn't staged somewhere in the world.

(Soundbite of foreign version of musical "West Side Story")

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: Music Theater International, the company that licenses the show to amateur and professional groups estimates there have been over 40,000 productions since 1957 from Korea to the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the maximum-security prison just north of New York City.

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) When you're a Jet, you're the swingin'est thing. Little boy, you're a man. Little man, you're a king.

Mr. CLARENCE DIVINE I MACKLIN: I played A-Rab, one of the Jets.

LUNDEN: Clarence Divine I Macklin has served 12 years of a 20-year sentence for armed robbery and was a gang member on the outside.

Mr. MACKLIN: The original play was Latinos against white guys. However, being that we're here, we don't really have a large population of white people in our production company. It was more Latinos, blacks. And these are issues that we really deal with in the yard here, in the mess hall here, all throughout the jail system, we really deal with these issues, Latinos and blacks, on how to co-exist.

LUNDEN: It's not often that a piece of popular entertainment transcends its origins to become a cultural touchstone. But "West Side Story's" message of social tolerance delivered in a package of romance and subtly complex artistry seems as relevant today as it did 50 years.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: "West Side Story" was not just revolutionary musically, it was visually startling, too. You can see a slideshow and hear an hour-long documentary about the making of a musical at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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