'West Side Story' West Side Story was an instant sensation, a bold new kind of musical theater that dealt with controversial themes of race and gang violence.

'West Side Story'

'West Side Story'

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West Side Story's composer Leonard Bernstein. Baron/Getty Images hide caption

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Baron/Getty Images

West Side Story's composer Leonard Bernstein.

Baron/Getty Images

Many people know West Side Story as a collection of famous Leonard Bernstein tunes.

NPR 100 Fact Sheet

Title: West Side Story

Artist: Words Stephen Sondheim

Music: Leonard Bernstein

Reporter: Tom Manoff

Length: 12:30

Interviewees: Arthur Laurents, Playwright

Chita Rivera, actress

Recordings Used: 'West Side Story'

'Crazy boy'

'Boy Like That'

'Gee, Officer Krupke'

'One Hand, One Heart'

Many also know the musical as a glitzy Hollywood movie.

But the most important thing to remember about West Side Story is that it comes from the theater.

"We had a vision of what we called, for want of a better phrase, lyric theater," West Side Story playwright Arthur Laurents explains. "And it wasn't just something that we sat down and said, `Now it will be this or that.' It was something that intuitively we all shared and we all felt."

Chita Rivera, who created the role of Anita, expands on this.

"The great feeling, for me, was that it was the first time I ever had an internal understanding of something, totally internal. We never got a chance to step outside of our bodies and look at what we were doing. It was always from the inside. And that's what showed. And the story meant so much to us that we really loved doing it. We really loved living it."

During rehearsals for the dance at the gym where the Sharks and the Jets would meet, each gang rehearsed separately. Dancers weren't allowed to even speak to their rivals. So when they finally got together, even in rehearsal, the dramatic tension was as real as the street.

"Nobody knew what the other side was going to do," Ms. Rivera remembers. "So in the middle of our music, suddenly you'd hear somebody in the back doing either a siren or a girl would scream and we'd all stop. And then, of course, they would take over, you see? So it was very, very real. One day we came in, and on the bulletin board was the front page of the news, The Post or something like that. And there was this young man standing over a body that was dead. Jerry put the whole page on the bulletin board and put in black writing, `This is your life.'"

"One of the problems with writing the libretto for "West Side Story" was what were they going to sound like," Mr. Laurents explains. "Because also, you have to remember, in 1955 or '57, rather, you couldn't use four-letter words. You had to give the illusion that it was tough talk without exactly writing it. But what I did there was to heighten it. And I remember Cheryl Corbin when she was still producer, she said, `Why don't you have them say, "That's how the cookie crumbles"?' which was people were saying in those days. I said, `Because, Cheryl, by the time this play gets on, that will be old-fashioned. You'd have to invent expressions. So I had them say thing like `Cut the frabberjabber.' Well, it sounds like, you know, real talk. Things like `Daddy-o,' which I threw in they picked up on. And then I gave the Hispanic equivalent. Well, that sounds like people would say it, but, you know, it's all invented.

"The most interesting to me was the use of the word 'cool.' It was a word I felt would always be in the vernacular, and it's curious, it always has been. And the meaning keeps changing. What cool meant in West Side Story it doesn't mean today, but it's still a contemporary word."

"We had two disagreements that I remember. One was Jerry wanted Maria to take sleeping pills because in the original she takes a potion. Well, it just seemed foolish. I mean, everybody's going to know she's not dead, and that was a disagreement that lasted maybe 10 minutes. The other was I had to sell them on doing "Krupke." I thought that the tension in the second act needed relief, and they thought I was being vulgar and inserting musical comedy. So I got very highfalutin and talked about Shakespeare and the Porter scenes and his clowns. It was me at taking one position and I had to convince the other three that it was the right position. And I did."

Usually it was Jerome Robbins' job as choreographer and director to create situations in which dancers could experiment with their character and fine-tune their movements, but occasionally these roles were reversed.

"Jerry called for me, and I nervously went into his studio and he said, `Chita, sit right there,'" Ms. Rivera rememberes. "And he did the cha-cha in front of me. It moved me so much I started to tear. I remember the music was biyeta-pa-pa-pa, biyeta-de-da-da, de-da-da-da-da-da, da-de-de-da-da-da, click-click, biyeta. It was so beautiful. He looked at me, tears were coming down my face. He stopped and he said, `OK. You can go back now.' It wasn't until later that I realized he was using me as a, you know, guinea pig actually and see whether or not it was moving."

"I think Jerry Robbins is not only the most brilliant choreographer for musicals that ever was, but he also knew how to stage, to move people on the stage for a musical better than anyone," Mr. Laurents says. "He was really instinctual. He had an instinctual brilliance. Nobody had the eye for the stage picture that I know that Jerry Robbins did."

One of the moments of deepest tragedy in West Side Story began with a single line.

"Steve and I worked very closely," Mr. Laurents recalls. "He does what he called grades the dialogue. He waits for me to write something. Then he gets the character, and he will take phrases from the dialogue and only Steve Sondheim would have the theater sensitivity to realize that that phrase 'a boy like that who'd kill your brother' could be sung."

The way Bernstein responded to this lyric is some of the most powerful music ever written by an American composer. And to sing it, Chita Rivera had to follow Robbins to a place of emotional terror.

"As I did it, I felt the heat come up and the images were in my head," Ms. Rivera remembers. "And I started to back out of the room, and he kept saying, 'Keep singing. Keep singing.' I was backing up and backing up. And I was absolutely uncontrollable. And I needed to let it out in order to understand it. And it was a fabulous moment in my professional life."

"The movie I thought and still think was appalling," says Mr. Laurents. "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 tour jetes down a New York street, not in this life. And all this was accentuated terribly in the movie. And then when the so-called Puerto Ricans came on made up to look like Day-Glo characters for some caricature of what they think Hispanics are, it was really disgraceful."

Arthur Laurents has just published his memoirs and his tales of what happened to his pals after "West Side Story" are as funny and tragic as the play itself. Laurents was always close with Bernstein and his portrait of Lenny's life and music and Lenny's death made me weep because the greatest tragedy about West Side Story is that Leonard Bernstein died with the belief that as a composer he'd failed. Mr. Laurents explains:

"You know, Aaron Copland once said about Lenny, his problem is he's not housebroken. Lenny was outrageous but very un-self-consciously. He was extravagant, and I think his music is extravagant. It's emotional and it pours out. As a nation, we shirk from emotion. We think it's sort of bad taste unless it's hostile or belligerent. Lenny's music is very emotional, and if people think it's over the top, I think that's their problem.

"In those days, we were very obedient," Ms. Rivera explains. "You know, you did as you were told. And to me, I still think it's great if you're working with geniuses. There's always something to learn, and we desperately wanted to do what Lenny and Jerry and Arthur and Stephen told us to do."

"We all grew up in the Depression," Mr. Laurents says. "We went through war. We lived in a time when there were real issues, and people were passionate about them. It was an exciting world even with all that hatred. You fought it. You know, you really took part in life, and that show came out for people who were taking part in life."