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When West Side Story Was Romeo

When West Side Story Was Romeo

The most fascinating letter replicated in the recently published The Leonard Bernstein Letters isn’t one solely by Leonard Bernstein.

The undated letter – suspected by editor Nigel Simeone to have been written shortly before Oct. 18, 1955 – was a collaboration between Bernstein and Arthur Laurents. We can infer that the latter, the eventual bookwriter of West Side Story, did most of the writing, for the letter, sent to Jerome Robbins, is an outline for their new musical.

West Side Story began its pre-Broadway tryout on August 19, 1957 at the National Theatre in Washington, so what we read here is what its librettist and composer had in mind at this point in time. (Lyricist Stephen Sondheim hadn’t yet joined the project.) What’s astonishing is how much the musical would change in only twenty-two months.

Although West Side Story’s title page, window cards and recordings have never acknowledged that the adaptors took their plot from Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespearean tragedy was obviously on their minds. The two characters we came to know as Tony and Riff were still Romeo and Mercutio. In fact, at this point the show was to be called Romeo.

Benvolio became Benny, who didn’t make the final show, but A-rab and Bernardo were already in place. The former wasn’t called a Jet nor the latter a Shark, for Laurents and Bernstein hadn’t yet found names for the American and Puerto Rican tribes. What they had decided: A-rab has been attacked by Bernardo’s gang and is left with “the Puerto Rican mark,” so Mercutio is spurred to sing “Let’s Have a Rumble.”

Romeo, like the eventual Tony, is losing interest in gang warfare, and prefers to his spend nights at the dance hall which Laurents and Bernstein had already deemed as “neutral territory.” The lad’s motivation is to see Rosalind, a name almost retained from Shakespeare; she’s Rosaline in the Bard’s work. Just as in the original, she’s dumped him. But Romeo is on his way to get her back during a reprise of “Let’s Have a Rumble.”

Scene Two takes place at the dance hall, to which the collaborators gave the seemingly wrong name of “The Crystal Cave.” Something here did get retained in West Side Story: “A wild mambo is in progress with the kids doing all the violent improvisation of jitterbugging.” During the dance, Romeo is looking for Rosalind – until he spots “a lovely young girl, dressed more simply, more innocently like the others; she’s obviously a newcomer being shown around by an older more experienced girl. They are Juliet and Anita.” As we know, only one of those names was retained.

What the letter next states was exactly retained for West Side Story: the dream-like meeting, the bit of dialogue between the soon-to-be lovers and the rash interruption from Bernardo who sends his sister home.

Scene Three takes place at the “Gang Hideout – Later … Mercutio and the gang are horsing around.” Since the film’s debut in 1961, when “Gee, Office Krupke” preceded “Cool” instead of the other way around as it had been in the stage show, there has been endless discussion of which should come first. Here it seems that the creators’ first impulse was to put “Krupke” first and that they later changed their minds. Then would have come a song that we never got to hear, for “Mercutio in song proceeds to give Romeo some advice about love … the gang joins in a razzing, possibly they chase Romeo … at the end he does elude them.”

Scene Four is at the “Tenement – Later” from which “Puerto Rican music” flows. Laurents and Bernstein don’t say if this was to simply be background music or if it would have been fashioned as a genuine song. But soon we’d have “the balcony scene on the fire escape.” As for the song, “In it, these facts: Romeo works for Doc as a drugstore delivery boy; Juliet sews in the bridal shop and Anita is her confidante. Plus, of course, R & J’s mutual lack of caring about prejudice, gangs and hostility. It might end with ‘Good night’ and ‘Buenos noches.’”

Well, we know that “Tonight” left out all that book material and the Spanish good-bye as well. Remember, “Quintet” was written first, and “Tonight” was simply a part of it. Only later did it become its own song on the fire escape.

Scene Five is on the street where we see “Bernardo’s hatred of the American gang and thus his hate for Romeo as opposed to Anita’s feeling that love is love.” As we know, the hatred was retained in “America” but the love wasn’t. But love got its due when Anita’s “attitude is explained in a torch song after Bernardo has gone off to the rumble.” Given that such fiery talents as Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno were to play Anita, we would have probably profited from hearing this song.

Scene Six would take place at Doc’s. “Here the violence, restlessness and lost feeling of these strange kids should be explored … in a violent cold jitterbug kicked off by a record in the jukebox.” Sounds a little too convenient, no? Afterward, Bernardo and Mercutio agree that the rumble will be held – get this – at sunset in Central Park (presumably nowhere near the Delacorte). Romeo does demand “a fair fight with fists,” as Tony would in West Side Story.

The scene with Lieutenant Shrank was there, too, but what happened at scene’s end wasn’t retained: “Romeo closes up the store, turns out the lights as he sings softly of his love.” As we know, in West Side Story this moment essentially happened earlier via “Maria.”

And that was the end of Act One. Act Two would begin with “a musical quintet” whose working title was “Can’t Wait for the Night.” What Laurents and Bernstein describe as the lyrics pretty much wound up in “Quintet”; the only difference involved “Anita, who’s afraid of the night because of what the rumble might bring.”

Scene Two sounds familiar: “The Bridal Shop – Late Afternoon” when “Romeo comes in and he and Juliet arrange mannequins as a bridal party, almost like children playing a game, and marry themselves.” Bur afterward, we have a big difference: when Romeo heads out to the rumble, he takes Juliet with him.

In Scene Three, en route, they run into Bernardo, who’s furious that Romeo is with his sister. Romeo says he’ll take her home and does. One would expect that Bernardo wouldn’t let this happen, and that may be one reason why this scene was dropped in West Side Story.

Bernardo is full of displaced hostility, so in Scene Four in Central Park he demands that the “fair fight” become a genuine rumble. By the time the adversaries get started, Romeo has dropped Juliet off and has returned. That sounds clunky, no?

The rumble was not originally conceived as we now know it: “Bernardo, almost beaten, whips out a knife and stabs Mercutio. Romeo, horrified at what has been done to his protector, grabs a broken bottle from A-rab and plunges it into Bernardo.” And that’s the end of the second act.

Yup, they conceived it as a three-acter, the way that Laurents would later structure Anyone Can Whistle.

Laurents and Bernstein already had the idea to have a happy song full of dramatic irony; we know her brother’s dead, but she doesn’t. And yet, the song they envisioned had “her family sing a gay street song.” That would have had us meet Juliet’s mother and father, which we never did in West Side Story. More interesting still is that this “gay street song” would be sung “in Spanish” — a language that would show up (at least for a while) in the 2009 revival.

Shrank, not Chino, would have broken the bad news, which Juliet would have to break to her non-English speaking parents. Next “the family goes to claim the body,” but Juliet remained conveniently behind for Romeo’s visit. He only tries to plead his case, and does not – as West Side Story would have it – spend the night. Still, Anita comes in, looks out the window and sees him running down the street. And here the letter states that she’d tell Juliet to “stick to your own kind” that would lead to “a duet for both girls.” That stayed, but what didn’t was Juliet’s leaving Anita there to find Romeo. Once she does, there is the “Love Ballet” that we know as the “Somewhere Ballet.” Notice that it goes “from forgiveness to love to passion to actual sex.” Um, where would they have sex?

“Romeo sings a happy song to Juliet about what their world would be.” The collaborators were smart to drop the “happy” component. Matters become more dire when Benny arrives and tells Romeo that the police are hot on his trail. Romeo leaves, runs, but is wounded by a policeman’s gunshot.

The penultimate scene returns to the drugstore, where the gang members do a dance number “to avert suspicion from the police.” Romeo is now in the basement, out of earshot when Juliet arrives there. She receives the wrath that would eventually go to Anita when she showed up there.

The plot then took an unbelievable turn: “The kids tell her Romeo is dead … she almost faints and instead of offering her water, they hideously offer her a kind of poison so she can kill herself.” Laurents and Bernstein also saw this happening “with macabre humor.” Juliet takes the bottle and leaves.

The final scene returns to the bridal shop, where Juliet takes poison, and while waiting for it to work, “puts on the wedding veil and arranges the mannequins as she sings.” Romeo comes in – and “in her delirium, she thinks they are in their own world … he doesn’t realize that’s she has taken poison, but when he does, it is too late. She sinks to the floor; he cradles her in his arms. They both sing a reprise of the balcony song but they never quite finish.” So Romeo survives in Romeo but Maria survives in West Side Story.

Too bad we don’t have the letter that Robbins sent in response. As fascinating as this one is, we might find that Robbins immediately fixed a little, a lot or all to make the flawed Romeo into the masterpiece we call West Side Story.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at His books on musicals are available at