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The West Side Story scene is set in 1950s New York City. Tony is a member of the Jets,a gang of American youths from New York. Maria is the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, a gang of immigrants from Puerto Rico. The two gangs hate each other and constantly fight for territory. Despite these rivalries and social divisions, Tony and Maria fall in love, and try to escape the whirlwind of hatred that threatens them.
I Feel Pretty, West Side Story, 1957
The scene is set in 1950s New York City. Tony is a member of the Jets,a gang of American youths from New York. Maria is the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, a gang of immigrants from Puerto Rico. The two gangs hate each other and constantly fight for territory. Despite these rivalries and social divisions, Tony and Maria fall in love, and try to escape the whirlwind of hatred that threatens them.
The Rumble, West Side Story, 1957
Jerome Robbins the choreographer and director originally imagined the story as a confrontation between a Jewish family and a Catholic family living on the East Side of Manhattan. The main conflict would be anti-semitism. It wasn’t until 1955 that Bernstein and librettist Arthur Laurents were inspired by real events to change the focus towards the marginalisation of Puerto Rican immigrants.
With the ambition to modernise Shakespeare’s classic, the authors removed the false suicide of Juliet and brought a contemporary dimension to the narrative highlighting social issues, expressed in songs like America or Gee, Officer Krupke.
Bernstein repeatedly stressed how difficult West Side Story was to compose. The challenge: making a musical that tells a tragic story in musical comedy terms, using only musical comedy techniques, never falling into the "operatic" trap." In fact, in order to preserve the “childish quality” of the characters, the team made the decision not to hire professional singers. Working simultaneously on his operetta Candide, Bernstein juggled between the two works: his song “One Hand, One Heart” was originally intended for a scene between Candide and Cunégonde, however, it became symbolic of the impossible love between Tony and Maria in West Side Story instead.
Although Candide proved to be a commercial failure at the time, West Side Story was a real triumph. Moving to the Winter Garden Theatre in Broadway in September 1957, the production played 732 times before going on European tour, and later received Tony Awards for Outstanding Choreographer and Best Scenic Designer. With its classic songs and sophisticated choreography, West Side Story is still staged throughout the world today. It will be back in Paris in October 2017, along with another classic musical, Singin’ In The Rain.
Leonard Bernstein at the piano, annotating the score for West Side Story, 1955.
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