Hollywood Flashback: 'West Side Story' Tackled Gang Violence in 1957

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Leonard Bernstein rehearsed with the 'West Side Story' stage cast as Stephen Sondheim accompanied them on the piano.

Leonard Bernstein, who would have been 101 on Sunday, was coming off the flop 'Candide' when he composed the music at age 39 and went on to have huge success with the tragic tale, which is getting a Broadway revival as well as a big-screen version by Steven Spielberg.

For a Broadway musical that debuted in 1957, West Side Story manages to stay in the news.

Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the score, had his centenary celebrated in 2018 and would have been 101 this Aug. 25; its producer Hal Prince, 91, died July 31; a Broadway revival is coming; and Steven Spielberg is in production on a new screen version that's said to hew closer to the stage production than the 1961 Robert Wise-directed film.

Bernstein had been working on West Side Story since 1949, when choreographer Jerome Robbins casually mentioned the idea of doing "Romeo and Juliet set in the slums." Bernstein, then 39, composed the music while Stephen Sondheim, then 27, was hired to pen the lyrics. The deal was that music and lyrics together would receive 4 percent of the royalties. Bernstein got 2 percent for doing the score and 1 percent for contributing to the lyrics. He later offered to take his name off the lyrics — which Sondheim had written virtually alone — and divide the royalties evenly. But Sondheim said the only thing he wanted was the full lyrics credit. (Years later he admitted, "I'm sorry I opened my mouth.")

The score, as it turned out, was filled with hits and would become incredibly profitable for Bernstein. But back in 1957, he was just coming off the Broadway flop Candide and was depressed. He was worried that West Side Story, with its downbeat tale of two star-crossed lovers from warring communities destined for tragedy after a fatal gunshot, would fail too.

When it performed well in out-of-town previews, he was ecstatic. From Washington, D.C., where it played at the National Theatre, he wrote his wife, Felicia, to say, "Everyone's coming, my dear, even Nixon and 35 admirals."

The Hollywood Reporter gave the Broadway opening a so-so review, saying it "was at times brilliantly theatrical. But there are times where the jazzed up dramatics, the frenetic balletics and the cacophonous music remind the viewer of the over-stylized German theatre of the '20s."

Story was a smash hit that ran for 732 performances before going on tour. But it lost the Tony for best musical to The Music Man — now headed for its own Broadway revival, starring Hugh Jackman, in 2020.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.