Tonight won't be just any night

Staying cool: Gangs in motion in West Side Story at The New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham

 

WEST Side Story opened at The New Alexandra Theatre on April 1 for a three week run after sell out dates around the country and a sold-out season in Paris at Christmas in 2012 and performances in Australia, China, Japan and throughout Europe.

This international touring version uses  the original Jerome Robbins choreography from the 1957 Broadway premier and is directed by Robbin’s former assistant Joey Mcneely.

Roger Clarke is not alone in thinking this is the best musical ever and her he explains why.

  

SO what makes West Side Story the best musical ever?

Well, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins, all from from an original idea by William Shakespeare is a good start.

There are other contenders of course, some stronger then others, such as Les Miserables which has been running continuously for 29 years making it the second longest running musical in history after The Fantastics which ran for 42 years. Then there is The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration, which has its supporters as does the inventive Blood Brothers which is a favourite of some.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s output, particularly Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, can call on torchbearers while among the outsiders Guys and Dolls deserves a mention, if only for the colourful characters from Damon Runyon’s wonderful underworld of Broadway.

La Cage au Folles , involving Arthur Laurents again, could stake a claim as the leader of the coming out of musicals, so to speak, while there can be some surprising contenders among the theatre going public.

Leaving The New Alexandra Theatre one evening after reviewing All the Fun of the Fair I even heard a woman tell her companion it was the best musical she had ever seen – perhaps she did not get out much and I do hope that she returns to the Alex to see West Side Story for comparison – even though David Essex is not in it.

A recent radio station poll had Les Mis top with West Side Story only eighth behind Wicked, Phantom. Sweeny Todd, Rent, A Chorus Line and Into the Woods.

Another list has Gypsy top with Les Mis down in 52nd spot, two below Wicked, while Entertainment Weekly had Guys and Dolls top with West Side Story at five.

It is not an exact science, not even a science at all, just an opinion. You pays your money and takes your choice, so what is the case for West Side Story.

First it is relevant, the Romeo & Juliet theme of star-crossed lovers from opposing families is both universal and contemporary. Shakespeare’s play was set in the Middle Ages but Verona’s Montagues and Capulets easily became the Sharks and Jets, the gangs of Peurto Ricans and Polish-Americans in West Side Story 57 years ago, but you could just as easily read it today as Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics or the divide of Christian and Muslim, Jew and Muslim, black and white, lovers from opposite sides of an intolerant, ethnic divide, facing hatred and threat, lovers who still die in suicides and honour killings . . . honour perhaps being the greatest misuse of a word in any language.

West Side Story took musicals into a new realm with balletic dances and symphonic score closer to opera than pop

Other contenders tell a story but it is not a story with any real echoes today. Les Mis, for example, good as it is, is about a draconian French penal system long gone and a minor insurrection in a small part of Paris in June 1832. It started with barricades one night and was put down the next. The Sound of Music is about escaping Hitler and I suspect not many twins are sold for cash in Liverpool these days – if ever any were. 

It doesn’t make the also rans lesser musicals of course but West Side’s story is just as relevant now as it was even in Shakespeare’s day.

When it comes to the score few musicals can compete. The show opened on Broadway in 1957 with an orchestra of 31 and Bernstein recorded Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, an orchestral piece, four years later, a suite that has become part of the repertoire of many major orchestras.

The full overture is a symphonic piece on its own while every song is recognisable with more standards among them than most musicals can muster, and all were original.

Songs such as Maria, Tonight, Somewhere, I Have a Love, One Hand, One Heart  and so on can be found in the CV of artists from Phil Collins to Pavarotti, 

There is no hint of padding, no feeling a song has been thrown in just to keep someone happy with a solo or to give time for a costume or scene change . . . or because musicals have songs and it is about time we had another one.

These songs are there because they are part of the story, moving the narrative along.

Its opening night was a sensation, a theatrical revolution. Sure, there had been dance musicals before, but they were merely vehicles for dancers such as Fred Astaire, until he went to movies, to show their party pieces.

Musicals up to West Side Story had been musical comedies with paper thin plots, vehicles for singers or dancers, with formulaic dance numbers and a happy, romantic comedy ending.

West Side Story broke just about every rule. The music, songs, dances, characters and story were interweaving, each depending upon the rest, each needed to tell the story with the tendrils of ballet and opera intertwining around them.

Instead of happy-go-lucky cowboys, socialites, sailors or middle class urbanites here was a real drama about gangs, juvenile delinquents, teenagers killing each other on the streets outside, a world it was easier and safer to pretend did not exist.

It had taken ten years but one show changed the way we looked at musicals for ever  

There were no top hat and tails here, no smart cut suits, shiny tap shoes, champagne or sweeping staircases to dance up and down, just grimy tenements, fire escapes, humid summer heat, slums and these kids with attitude in jeans and trainers, with flick knives as a necessary fashion accessory. Not only that but the dance was modern, athletic, aggressive or suggestive with its roots more in ballet than the usual fare of musical theatre with its diet of tap and ballroom.

For the first time the audience had been taken beyond musical comedy, it had reached musical theatre, drama told through music. It was a realisation that a musical could be more that smiles, wisecracks and pretty steps as boy meets girl, obstacles are overcome and then an ending with a big number as love conquers all and boy and girl live happily every after. This had all the drama of the play and a far from happy ending, no feel good factor to head home with here.

The first act ends with two dead bodies sprawled across the stage and second with our dead hero laid out in the shadow of the tenements and there is no big number to finish.

The changes were profound. Under Robbins’ choreography and direction a cast had to not only dance, but sing and act. The dance meant as much as the book, as much as the lyrics and as much as the music. Total theatre.

As for big star names . . . there were none. The cast were young and a conscious decision was taken not to cast singers. Bernstein said: "Anything that sounded more professional would inevitably sound more experienced, and then the ‘kid’ quality would be gone."

All but a tiny handful of the 40 “kids” in the original cast were making their Broadway debuts and Robbins kept the Sharks and Jets well apart to avoid socialising. He wanted a gang mentality to show through on stage.

You could argue that the likes of Miss Saigon or even Le Miserables might not have happened had not someone shown that musicals could be made about stories that showed the raw, ugly side of life. And it was West Side Story that took up the challenge.

The stories in musicals had become more complex through the 1940s, the same storylines but with a harder edge and a glance at some side issues, with a hint of racism, for example in South Pacific.

But West Side Story laid it all bare, exposing the violent underbelly of New York, although it could have been almost any city, with all the prejudice, and racial hatred and the world of violent street gangs. This was life in the raw and for the first time love wasn’t going to conquer all, love wasn’t even going to win. 

There is hope though, there is the ambition to get out in songs such as Somewhere with its dream that “there’s a place for us, somewhere”. And you also see the conflicts that dictate life in the ghettoes in the end of the first act Tonight  quintet from the ensemble as we see the Jets and Sharks preparing for their rumble, Anita getting ready for her hot date, and Tony and Maria  singing about their love. Excitement, threat, danger, romance and tragedy all tied up on one number.

Another multi-voice song comes near the close of the second act with A Boy Like That and I have a Love from Anita and Maria, the supportive Anita changing sides and loyalties and telling Maria to dump Tony who has killed her brother, “stick to your own kind” while Maria sings the beautiful bittersweet I have a love. “I have a love, and it’s all that I Have.”

There is also a pointed shot at society. The Gee, Officer Krupke! song might be funny, and it is, but listen to the words, and that is what these kids were having to put up with. Their problems were hardly going to be solved by labels and probably still aren’t.

Back in 1957 it was a revolution; fabulous dancing and songs that were to become solid gold standards, a great story, thanks to Bill, and symphonic music all pulling together, telling the same story in a stark grimy, urban set of fire escapes amid inner city slums.

So does it deserve to be the best musical of all time? For me yes, but go along to the Alex and then you can make your own mind up.

Roger Clarke

 

The show opened on Broadway in 1957 but had its origins 10 years earlier when Robbins discussed a modern day version of Romeo & Juliet with Bernstein and Laurents. The original idea was a clash between an Irish American family and a Jewish family on the lower East Side, with gangs of Irish Jets fighting the Jewish Emeralds.

It was to be East Side Story and a draft script was produced but the idea just didn’t work and the three went their separate way for five years.

Laurents  was then working in Hollywood and Bernstein was conducting there so the two met up and started talked about the new phenomenon of turf wars between teenage gangs. A clash in Chicago was filling the papers. Bernstein suggested East Side Story could be set in Los Angeles with a Mexican American gang, Laurents preferred New York and Puerto Ricans. Robbins was contacted and work started again - this time on West Side Story.

Bernstein had intended to write the lyrics himself, but decided writing the music would take all his time, so Laurents approached well known writers and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, but they turned it down so Laurents asked the young, inexperienced Stephen Sondheim if he fancied giving it a try. Laurents had heard Sondheim’s score for the still to be produced Saturday Night and had been impressed by the lyrics, less so by the music, but that hardly mattered as it was just words he wanted.

There were still problems ahead though. Two months before rehearsals were due to start the main producer Cheryl Crawford pulled out. Every other producer had already turned the show down as too depressing and gloomy so West Side Story was fighting for its life. The crisis was averted when Sondheim convinced his friend, producer Hal Prince, to listen to the score and that was that. Prince took it on, albeit after cutting the budget, but at last the story was set to be told.

West Side Story runs to 19-04-14

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