Thursday, September 9, 2010

Best of Broadway: West Side Story

Among my friends and family, it’s a well-known fact. I’m not ashamed to admit it. So, here goes. I am a huge musical theatre nerd. I’ve even shared this nerdiness with the internet. I am rarely happier or more content than when I’m sitting amongst a theatre audience, watching insanely talented performers sing, dance, and act on stage, live in front of me.  It started a long, long time ago, my love of musicals. I’ve said before that all my favourites movies as a kid involved people bursting into song at random and inopportune times. C’mon! What a perfect way to express emotion: love, hate, happiness, sadness, a song for every feeling. I know I can’t be the only one who shares this musical obsession, so, now’s the time to show yourselves! I’m going to talk about some of my favourites, and I’d love to hear what you think too. Let’s start at the top, with West Side Story. 

West Side Story is my favourite musical, and its pedigree is simply without peer. A legend is behind WSS at every turn. The book? By Arthur Laurents. The music? Leonard Bernstein of course! And those lyrics? Why, that would be the incomparable Stephen Sondheim. Let’s start with the story, based on Romeo and Juliet. Set in the 50s, The Puerto Rican Sharks and the working-class white Jets rule their turf on the West Side of Manhattan. Tony, a former Jet, is trying to grow up, but Riff, the Jet’s current leader, pleads with Tony to come to a dance at the gym, where the Jets will challenge the Sharks to a rumble. Bernardo, the head of the Sharks, has a younger sister Maria, and when she and Tony meet, it’s love at first sight. At the rumble, a knife is pulled and Riff is killed by Bernardo, and Tony kills Bernardo in a moment of blind rage. Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita runs to tell Tony that Maria wants to meet him, but the gang harasses her, and she tells them that Maria has been killed by Chino. Tony goes to find Chino to be killed himself, since his life is meaningless without Maria, only to find her alive. The shocking and heartbreaking end has Chino shoot Tony dead. Phew!

Amongst the melodrama, the love and hate and dancing and emoting, are some of the most gorgeous songs Broadway has ever produced. Somewhere, Maria, the sublime One Hand, One Heart, I Feel Pretty, Tonight, the hilariously pointed America; the dreamlike quality of Bernstein’s music lifts the cruelty of the story, giving it an almost otherworldly quality. The tension of songs like Tonight Quintet, just before intermission, is almost unbearable. There's no doubt something bad is going to happen here. Performed live on stage, that anxiety is both palpable and irresistible. But despite the raw naturalism of the narrative and setting, the romanticism of Tony and Maria’s love is undercut perfectly by a poetic tone, lifting West Side Story to a level of musical theatricality that is so rare. 

Dance played a major part in the development of West Side Story, with the show originating with choreographer Jerome Robbins. To see West Side Story onstage is a rare treat, and one that every musical fan should take if given the opportunity. If staged effectively, it is unmatched as a production. I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway revival in 2009, and left the show with a tear in my eye. It was perfection on stage, aided by the interesting choice to have the Sharks often speak in their native Spanish, and the brilliance of Karen Olivo's Tony-winning portrayal of Anita. Most valuably, with all the elements working together (performance, staging, music, book), we remain completely invested in the story. This, for me, makes West Side Story the ultimate musical. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!



  1. Amy you've done such a great job at articulating what I think everyone loves about WSS - the tragic love story which brought to life by music and dance. 'America' has to be one of my favourites...I first heard it as a kid and still hummed while walking around the Upper West Side in NYC a few months ago!

  2. Thanks Kirsty! I really love this musical so much, and that Broadway production put such a clever spin on it. It was brilliant. I look forward to seeing West Side Story again in November! Wish I could see a live production every year :)

  3. It's one of the greats, no doubt.

    I reviewed the current Melbourne production and shared my love for it here: