WEST SIDE STORY: There’s a Place for It By Peter Filichia
It’s still jarring to me – and it shouldn’t be.
While watching Mark S. Hoebee’s excellent production of West Side Story at the Tony-winning Paper Mill Playhouse (in Millburn, NJ), I was reminded of a great Stephen Sondheim lyric that isn’t in the celebrated 1961 film.
It happens during “Quintet,” one of the most exciting musical and lyrical sequences in all of musical theater. We first hear from the Jets, the “American” gang and their sworn enemies, the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Here’s where we get The Best Use of Repeated Lines in All Broadway History. There have been tens of thousands of songs in which a lyric is sung a second time (“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow” … “Wunderbar” … “I could have danced all night.”) But Stephen Sondheim gets the most credit (doesn’t he always?) for using a repeated line in the best possible context:
“Well, they began it!” snarl the Jets, referring to the Sharks, who then insist “Well, they began it!” And each gang genuinely believes it.
“Quintet” continues with Anita, girlfriend to Sharks’ leader Bernardo, singing of how she’s looking forward to her tryst with him. “He’ll walk in hot and tired. So what?” she asks. “Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s hot.”
For those of us who grew up with the soundtrack album and not the original cast recording, the lyric still surprises. We’re accustomed to hearing “He’ll walk in hot and tired – poor dear. Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s here.”
What a loss! When Sondheim was writing for Broadway, he was able to use “hot” twice but in completely different contexts. Anita first means “hot” as “sweaty” and then “sexually charged.”
After West Side Story was sold to United Artists, Sondheim was asked to launder this lyric among others that Hollywood censors thought too raunchy. What a shame to lose a terrific play on words just because finicky arbiters thought it too “dirty” for movie audiences. To reference a much different musical that would dramatically impact West Side Story, these Tinseltown bowlderizers probably would have also cut the hell out of – excuse me, cut the heck out of — Chaucer, Rabelais and Balzac.
(And yet, the “marijuana” lyric was allowed to stay! Sex, no; drugs, yes.)
The original cast album of West Side Story must be credited for another achievement, for unlike the soundtrack, everyone does his own singing. Hear Carol Lawrence as Maria, Bernardo’s sister who falls in love with Tony, the now-retired co-founder of the Jets but still considered The Enemy by Bernardo and his gang. Larry Kert, who’d become a reliable leading man (especially in Company), sings Tony while Mickey Calin gives voice to Riff, the Jets co-founder. No less than Chita Rivera – in her first really big Broadway break – ennobles Anita.
In contrast, the soundtrack album doesn’t always offer the actual voices of Maria (Marni Nixon subbed for Natalie Wood), Tony (Jim Bryant spelled Richard Beymer), Anita (Betty Wand at least did one song for Rita Moreno) and even Riff – although this wasn’t a case of Russ Tamblyn’s not being up to singing Riff; he had a recording contract with MGM, who refused to loan him out to Columbia Records, which would issue the soundtrack. So Tucker Smith – who in fact started out as an understudy to Riff on Broadway and eventually assumed the part, sang the role. (Well, Smith was on the premises, anyway; in the film, he played the Jet known as Ice.)
While we’re at it, may we put to rest a long-held canard? West Side Story did not need the 1961 Oscar-winning film to make it a success.
Did this myth start because the show didn’t do well at the 1957-58 Tonys? It received six nominations and two wins (Choreography and Sets). It bowed to The Music Man, which had ten nominations and six wins, including Best Musical.
Figures don’t lie: West Side Story ran just a little over half as long (732 performances) as The Music Man’s 1,375 performances.
Still, West Side Story was a box-office hit, paying investors more than three-to-one. When it closed on June 27, 1959, 1,262 book musicals had been produced during the 20th century — and a scant sixteen had run longer than its ninety-two week run. Is that a hit, or what?
Co-producer Harold S. Prince (as he was formally known in those days) admits that he and partner Robert E. Griffith were too hasty in closing the show and booking a tour; thus, exactly ten months after they’d closed it on Broadway, they returned it to the Winter Garden, where it racked up 249 more performances.
Would West Side Story have run the aggregate 981 performances had it stayed around and eschewed that ten-month layoff? To quote Tony, “Who knows?” But assuming that it had, West Side Story would have then become one of The Top Ten Longest-Running Book Musicals on Broadway.
So it WAS a hit, as was its original cast album, which stayed on the charts for three-and-a-half months. During the week of March 17, 1958, only FOUR long-playing records in ALL categories of music sold more copies in these United States.
None of this is meant to denigrate the West Side Story film, bit it was in the right place at the right time. The Broadway of the ‘50s catered to adults, who certainly admired the show, but couldn’t be as invested in it as the Baby Boomers of the ‘60s. They were just starting their early teens and could better relate to a story about kids their own age. No, they probably weren’t experiencing intense Jet-and-Shark-like violence in the streets, but many had adolescent discontent, and thus related to the feelings of powerlessness that many of the characters endured.
In 1961, Boomers were now starting to date – and West Side Story was unquestionably THE Date Movie. Romance for the girls, violence for the boys — something for everyone.
In those days, “important” films were “hard-ticket” reserved-seat engagements; you’d sit in the specific seat that your ticket stated. So West Side Story cost a dollar or two more than the average film. Still, it was a rare guy who didn’t splurge and take his girl to see West Side Story.
However, the Boomer boys would roll their eyes at “One Hand, One Heart,” the song in in the bridal shop where Tony and Maria imagine their wedding in what would be the closest that they’d ever get to one. Meanwhile, Boomer girls would weep openly. Many a young man might have come very close to roaring to his date “Come on! We’re going!” if the song hadn’t immediately been followed – without a second’s pause – by the “Quintet.”
But, yes, the film’s success did dwarf the Broadway achievements. Ten Oscars, including Best Picture was sweet revenge against The Music Man. Not that the Meredith Willson classic went head-to-head with West Side Story; its movie version wasn’t released until the following year. Although the 1962 film was nominated as Best Picture, it lost. Of its five other nominations, the best it could do was win Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment.
The Music Man’s soundtrack album reached Number Two on the charts for six weeks during its thirty-five week run. Not bad; not bad at all. But far more impressive was West Side Story’s soundtrack album reaching Number One on November 21, 1961 and – I know this sounds impossible – staying in first place for — you’re not going to believe this — fifty-four consecutive weeks.
Baby Boomers only had so much money, so many bought the soundtrack and wouldn’t hear the cast album for years. To be frank, the soundtrack had the better cover. It was a gatefold, two-jacket job, which looked far more impressive than the single-cover original cast album.
The soundtrack had a far better logo, too. The original cast album simply had a picture of Lawrence and Kert running down 56th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.
(And how can I be so specific about the location? Notice the trash can to Lawrence’s left. Painted on its side is “410 W 56.” Now you know.)
While that picture was set below a field of red, the soundtrack used red for every square inch aside from (mostly) black lettering. The logo had the title in bold letters nestling next to fire escapes. Stage productions now routinely use that dramatic lettering to sell its wares. The Paper Mill does, too.
And so did the 2009 Broadway revival. But this mounting did make big changes (at least for a while), which are reflected on its revival cast album: “I Feel Pretty” is now “Me Siento Hermosa,” “A Boy Like That” has become “Un Hombre Así” and the Sharks’ section in “Quintet” is now in Spanish, too. (The lyrics are by future Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda.) Not only was this decision right for the characters, but also for the 21st century, for Spanish has become our country’s unofficial second language.
One final question: “Gee, Officer Krupke” contains the lyric “Leaping Lizards!” – a phrase that originated with Little Orphan Annie. Performing in the original cast of that number (and playing the character known as Big Deal) was Martin Charnin. Within twenty years later, he’d conceive and direct a show for which he’d also write the lyrics – a musical that would run longer than The Music Man and West Side Story put together. It was a song-and-dance take on that little orphan girl who made “Leaping Lizards!” famous.
So the question is: Charnin, did “Krupke” subconsciously put the idea for Annie into your head?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.