Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
adapted from Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

INFO:

Opened at the Winter Garden Theatre    Sept 26, 1957    732 Performances (Numerous revivals)
Original Director: Jerome Robbins
Original Choreographer: Robbins
Original Producer: Harold Prince, Robert Griffith
Original Leads: Tony: Larry Kert   Maria: Carol Lawrence   Anita: Chita Rivera
Cast Size: Male: 6    Female: 3    Ensemble: around 12-12    Total Cast Size: 30-ish
Orchestra: 28 (!), an alternate orchestration in available for 20.
Published Script: Several, including Chilton Press.
Production Rights: MTI (Music Theater International)
Recordings: The original Broadway is fine, the movie is better, there are others.
Film: Excellent film, better than the play, starring Natalie Wood. It won every award in sight.
Other shows by the authors: Bernstein: On The Town, Wonderful Town, Candide   Sondheim: Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Into The Woods, Sunday In The Park With George, Assassins, Passion    Laurents: Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle, La Cage Aux Folles
Awards: The original production was nominated for 6 Tonys and won two, including Robbins for Choreography.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

West Side Story requires a tight, full orchestra, and some very talented dancers in the cast. It is also a fairly adult story that ends in the two leads dead on the stage. Though there are few shows better known or more loved, perhaps, there are not a lot of theaters that can do this show justice. Could work for Colleges and Universities, perhaps an extraordinary High School with a great dance program. Professional companies such as regional houses might give it a go, if it looks commercial in their market.

Be Warned:

The dance requirements are through the roof, one of the three or four most difficult shows to choreograph and dance. The vocal requirements for the leads are also daunting, almost operatic. And the level of acting required is considerable if we’re going to move past the laughability-factor of much of the dialogue.

This show has significant violence in it, stabbings and deaths and shootings. It is a dark musical, not for children to perform or maybe even to see.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: A street in NYC, brick walls, alleyways. A street gang, the Jets (all white), owns the territory. Their leader is Riff, and their members are Baby John, A-Rab, Action, Diesel, Snowboy. (Nope, no “Bill” or “Fred”, or anything normal.) They are hormonal, angry, and undereducated. They carry knives and other weapons. They are threatened now by another gang, The Sharks (Puerto Ricans), led by their handsome and charismatic leader, Bernardo. (At least they have normal names.) A fight breaks out in dance, and is broken up by the arrival of Officer Krupke, and a plain-clothed officer, Schrank. Both men are inherently violent, and deeply afraid.

The cops confront the kids, who claim they’re all buddies, and who will never rat on each other to the cops even though they despise and will willingly kill each other. The “PRs” (Puerto Ricans) and cops depart, and the Jets confer. They need their old leader, Tony, to lead them into battle and reclaim sole ownership of their territory. Because, as we’re told in “Jet Song”, when you’re a Jet, you’re one forever.

Riff meets with Tony. Tony tries to explain that he’s reaching in his life for something more, something new, but Riff only knows he needs Tony to fight at their side. They will be meeting at a dance that night with the Sharks, to decide on a battle ground and rules, and Tony finally agrees to attend. But for Tony, his attention is on the fact that “Something’s Coming” that will change his life.

At a bridal shop, Anita (a sexy Puerto Rican and Bernardo’s girlfriend), is dressing Maria (a beautiful Puerto Rican) in a communion dress being converted to a party dress. Maria begs her to make the dress sexier, Anita feels Maria is too young. Bernardo arrives to escort them, and is Maria’s brother.

The gym, the big dance. Both gangs dance with their girls, but though the dance is wildly intense, they remain cool, detached. As the dance progresses, the gangs mix uncomfortably, and Tony finds himself dancing with Maria. The connection they feel is immediate and overwhelming. But Bernardo lets Tony know he’s not welcome to touch Maria in any way. Bernardo orders a gang member to take Maria home. The leaders plan a war council at Doc’s Drugstore, and agree to no fights before then. But Tony can only think of “Maria”.

In a back alley, later that night. Tony calls to Maria, and she steps out on the fire escape. Together, they swear their love to each other “Tonight” and always, and they agree to find some way to be together. Tony departs just as Bernardo and the gang, with their girls, p[ass through. Bernardo is very protective of Maria, and claims he understands what a white boy would want from a Puerto Rican girl. Anita tells him he doesn’t understand anything about “America”.

Midnight at Doc’s Drug strore. The Jets wait for the Sharks, to confer. Anybodys, a young girl longing to be a part of their gang, joins them, but is rejected. They are very up-tight, and Riff advises them all to stay “Cool”. The Sharks arrive. A fight is set for tomorrow under the highway. The choice of weapons escalates until Tony laughs at them all. He says they’re afraid to just slug it out with skin. Bernardo agrees to a fair fight, best man against best man. Suddenly, a whistle, everyone pretends to be buddies, and Officer Schrank enters. Doc says he was closing the store, with Tony (who works for him). Schrank kicks the “spics” out. (Word used in the script, you need to know that about the show.) He knows there’s to be a rumble, and demands to know where and when. He offers to help the Jets get rid of the Sharks. No one responds to him, and he promises to finish off who ever is left. They leave, the officer leaves. Tony and Doc close shop.

The next day at the bridal shop. The workday ends, Anita celebrates. Maria offers to lock up. Anita is pumped up for the rumble, because afterwords, she knows Bernardo will want some feminine attention. Then Tony enters to see Maria. Anita is surprised, but loves Maria. She thinks they are idiots and in danger, and Tony says nothing can touch them, they’re magical. Alone in the bridal Shop, Maria and Tony “marry” each other in a mock ceremony they take seriously, promising to forever be joined, “One Hand, One Heart”.

In different parts of the neighborhood, as night falls, the gangs prepare for “The Rumble”. Everyone from the gang members, to Anita, to Tony and Maria, have their own idea of how things will end well for them. (A glorious number, a quintet that Mozart would have been proud to write.)

The fight. Bernardo is to fight Diesel. But Tony interrupts, and Bernardo is thrilled, because right now, it’s Tony he wants to beat up. Bernardo tries to goad Tony to fight, which starts a group brawl. Knives appear. Tony tries to hold Riff back from hurting Bernardo, his “brother-in-law”, and Tony’s interference allows Bernardo to kill Riff. Tony, enraged, grief-stricken, lifts Riff’s knife and murders Bernardo. Crying for Maria as the sound of Police cars approach, Anybodys drags Tony away into the dark, leaving two dead bodies.

ACT TWO: In a bedroom, Maria is joyous, prancing before a mirror and singing “I Feel Pretty”. (Mr. Sondheim has himself often pointed out how inappropriate the lyric is for a girl with Maria’s language skills and background. Ah, well. The music is delightful.) But Chino (second in charge after Bernardo)arrives to tell Maria how badly things have gone. She asks if Tony is okay, and Chino tells her Tony killed her brother. She is stunned. Chino unwraps a gun, placing it in his pocket, and departs. Tony arrives and she beats her fists on his chest, calling him a killer. But she loves him, and can’t keep it up. Tony explains he tried to stop the fight, and then it all went mad. They dream of a place “Somewhere” where there will be peace, people can live together, and lovers can enjoy their lives.

In an alley, later that night, the Jets gather. The cops haven’t caught them, yet, and they lampoon “Officer Krupke” and his view of these “juvenile delinquents.” (One of the great comic numbers of all time, driven by the characters and pressure of the moment.)

Anybodys tells them that Chino and the Sharks are looking for Tony, and plan to kill him. The Jets split up to find Tony first.

In Maria’s bedroom, Anita enters. Tony and Maria have been together, and Anita finds them in partial dress. Tony departs. Anita is furious, Tony is “one of them,” and “A Boy Like That” is death, as he was for Bernardo. But Maria protests that Anita was in love, and that she knows better. And the women agree that love sets all reason aside. (“I Have A Love”) Anita tells Maria that Chino has a gun, and is hunting Tony. Schrank comes by, fishing for clues, but Maria leaves him to “go to her brother.”

Later that same night, the drug store. The Jets collect. Tony is hiding in Doc’s cellar, with Doc. Anita enters, with the intent to save Tony for Maria. But the Jets taunt her, and might rape her if not for Doc’s intrusion. She hates these boys, now. She tells them to tell Tony a horrible lie, that Chino found out about Maria and him…and shot Maria.

The cellar, Doc gives Tony money to escape the city. Doc does not understand the hate inside these kids, but then, he never had a Maria. When Tony is told that Chino killed Maria, he hurries to the street, shouting for Chino to kill him, too. But it’s Maria who finds him first, and they run to each other as a gun shot is heard. The gangs run on to find Maria holding Tony, as he dies. She berates both gangs for the violence and hate, and wonders where it will all end. United for a moment in grief, both gangs bear Tony’s body away, followed by Maria.

THE SONGS:

“Prologue”, “Jet Song”, “Something’s Coming”, “Dance At The Gym”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, “America”, “Cool”, “One Hand, One Heart”, “The Rumble”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Somewhere”, “Officer Krupke”, “A Boy Like That”, “I Have A Love”, “Taunting Scene”, “Finale”

Hits include “Tonight”, “Maria”, “Somewhere”, “America”, “Officer Krupke”

MY OPINIONS:

These are my opinions, and you can elect to ignore them entirely and move on, if you like.  But that finger-snapping you’ll hear in the night will be me, coming for you…Okay, COOL!  Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it…

This show is dated. Not the story, but the way this show presents it. West Side Story was dated by 1970. It was unbelievably ambitious for its time, but the material is dated.  That is unfortunate, because it has some fantastic qualities. Look at the people who created the show – how could it not have wonderful qualities?  But it is dated.

The Bernstein music is unique, remarkable in every way. Melodies soar, harmonies and orchestrations puncture and lacerate, or reach for the stars. Once heard, the music cannot be forgotten. It is an emotive feast, and no one else could have composed it. And it reeks of almost bee-bop “jazz” from the 50s. It is dated, and sometimes almost laughable. “Cool” is simply not a number anyone can take seriously today, as an example. This is partly the finger-snapping music, and partly Mr. Sondheim’s “timely” lyric.

Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics are often wonderful, I think particularly when he’s allowed to go for a wounded, comic effect as in “America”, and “Officer Krupke.” He is the smartest and perhaps most able of all the lyricists who ever wrote for the theater, and there are glimmerings of that astronomical skill level here. That said, I don’t believe Mr. Sondheim has ever been very good at love songs, and this weakness is on full display in West Side Story. “Maria” is intended to be the ramblings of a young, rather foolish boy, who has just fallen in love. Repeating the name over and over again of the focus of his attentions is, well, not a very good idea, and without Bernstein’s soaring melody, it would be laughable. (Singin’ In The Rain made fun of this sort of thing, in a scene where talkies are new, and an actor repeats over and over again his love’s name, as the watching audience howls with laughter. Exactly.) The redundancies continue in “Tonight”, which starts with three uses of the word in the first sentence. Okay, we get that it’s “tonight”, and that “tonight” is important. But we already knew that before the song started, right? And then there’s “I Feel Pretty”, which Sondheim has himself pointed out has a poor lyric, one a Puerto Rican girl with English as her second language would never sing. The lyrics in this show are a mixed bag, and in their totality, they help date the show, and make it feel antiquated.

Even the famous movement feels dated today, when seen in revival or on film. I find myself tempted to shout about what real men look like when knifing each other, but I could almost accept dance-as-violence as a convention is it looked, well, um, violent instead of pretty and ballet-ish. Robbins was a brilliant artist and craftsman, but he feel into the same trap as the writers, trying to create a “contemporary” piece for 1957. They did. It doesn’t work in 2013, not even as a nostalgia piece placed in the 50s, which is the only way it can be done.

The script, adapted from the most famous love story ever written, is as dated as the other elements. In reaching for a show that would feel “contemporary”, and in their success in doing so, the authors guaranteed the show a limited shelf life. The recent Broadway revival proved that West Side‘s time is likely coming to an end. That production worked to give the show a more “real” or honest sensibility, translating some dialogue into Spanish. (I also think this is an attempt to hide some of the silly, nearly pigeon-English dialogue Laurents wrote.)

Can the love story that is West Side Story’s engine still move an audience? Sure. Romeo & Juliet is immortal. West Side Story, however, would largely be forgotten today if not for the fine film of it, with a script by master writer Ernest Lehman that improved the original considerably. But even the film suffers today when watched objectively. There’s too much finger-snapping bee-bopping material to ignore. The piece is dated, and its days are probably numbered as a viable musical in the repertoire…

Unless it is rethought. And even then, I have doubts that it will work as well as a show should. When it was written, West Side Story was an ambitious show. Ambitious shows that succeed are gold, legends. Ambitious shows that don’t live up to their ambitions are eventually forgotten, though historians will speak fondly about the attempt made. It did not live up to its ambitions, even when it first appeared on Broadway, as the critics sometimes wisely noted. Yes, the show has unique, profound strengths. But it is also quite flawed.

So, how to match the actuality of this fascinating show with its ambition? The Choreography needs a complete rethink. It needs to be ugly, brutal, truly violent to make the story work. There should never be a finger snapped again. The original choreography is there, on film, preserved for all history, so let’s move on, now.

The white guys need normal names. Tony is called “Tony”, so why were the others named baby names? Keep the play in English, but straighten up a lot of the dialogue to lose the 50s-ish slang that Laurents actually invented, because no one ever really talked like these characters do. Redo some of the more dated orchestrations, the ones that cry out 50s jazz. Cut “Cool” and its scene.

MY RATING: * (A better-than-average and interesting show, right for many groups)

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

It’s Bernstein, informed by his profound understanding of classical forms, and modern jazz. It is a very complex score, difficult to play, to learn and to teach. You will need a masterful Musical Director to pull it off, and time to get right the nuances of this rich musical experience. Your cast will be largely singing actors, but the gang members simply MUST dance, and extremely well.

Tony – Tenor, clean, lovely, soaring voice with strong high notes, romantic voice capable of emotional expression.

Maria – Soprano, beautiful, well-supported voice with clear, ringing high notes, and great emotional expression.

Anita – Alto, strong belt, clear delivery of a lyric.

Riff – Tenor, clear belt, good range.

Bernardo – Baritone, strong mid-register and some high notes.

Schrank – Non-Singing role.

Chino – Not specified, sings with ensemble.

Action – Lyric baritone, good belt, good high notes.

A-rab – Lyric baritone, good belt, good high notes.

Baby John – Lyric baritone, good belt, good high notes.

Deisel – Lyric baritone, good belt, good high notes.

Doc – Non-Singing role.

Krupke – Non-singing role.

Anybodys – Non-Singing.

Other gang members and ensemble – Both gangs sing, must belt, harmonize well, decent musicianship a plus.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

What’s more, a style needs to be discovered that will support the show today. Robbins athletic ballet with snapping fingers a-plenty worked fantastically well for its day. But I think he would be surprised and dismayed to see people replicating that choreography all these decades later, as if they still work. They don’t. West Side Story was perhaps the height of the Musical that used dance as a part of the story-telling process itself, rather than just as entertainment. A second peak was reached by A Chorus Line, decades later, but a lot of its dance is part of rehearsal for a show-within-the-show. Perhaps no other show relies so heavily on dance to communicate character and plot. That’s cool, and interesting. But the style of acceptable dance has changed. If you could rethink the choreography to focus on modern forms, whatever they may be, and somehow wed those with a feel for the sweep of ballet, you will have done this show an enormous service.

Your Choreographer will be very busy. Some of the number requiring heavy dance include “Prologue”, “Jet Song”, “Dance At The Gym”,“America”, “Cool”, “The Rumble”, “Officer Krupke”, and the “Taunting Scene”. The period the piece is set in will, of course, impact your choreographic looks and choices. But I can’t emphasize too strongly how dated the Robbin’s moves look today, and how damaging I think they are to a modern production.

Generally, the movement needs to be highly energized, but always specific. There are three sets of numbers, each requiring its own approach, but all of them unified with a style, a look, a feel. The story and character developments should be central to the selection of choreography.

The first set of numbers deals with the escalation toward battle, in Act I. A mood is established by “Prologue”, and “Dance at the Gym”, of overall combat. It’s exacerbated in “Jet Song” with lyrics that make it clear there will be a battle, made worse in a failed attempt to stay “Cool”. The battle takes place in “The Rumble”, and bodies are left on the street. Placed in this order (as they are), these numbers should provide the show a look, a movement motif, as well as a sense of rising pressure. The tension build from number to number, exploding at the end of Act I with the rumble. Your choreography needs to abet this rising sense of doom in the show, this feel that inevitably there will be physical violence.

Note, there is a real danger that the energy will drop in Act II, following the arc of rising violence in Act I. That isn’t your problem as a Choreographer, but it is something the Director must solve. The all-important gun Chino reveals early in Act II must be the focus of a second rising arc of threatened violence, but you won’t find much in the songs to support it.

Then there are the numbers connected to the love story, and there are numbers intended to diffuse tension and provide comic relief.

The love story numbers generate an arc of their own, illustrating the star-crossed inevitability the lovers face. They cannot overcome their tribes, their upbringing, they are doomed, and these songs get us there. They include “Something’s Coming”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, “One Hand, One Heart”, and in a darker sense, “A Boy Like That” and “I Have A Love”. Again, for the most part, these aren’t the problem of the Choreographer. “Something’s Coming” is a harbinger of Maria’s impending entrance into Tony’s life, but other things are coming, too, and it could be argued that the number presages the end of the show. The love songs tell the tale of Tony and Maria, they represent the arc of their inevitable love story and end. “Maria” – they have met, just as Tony predicted, and he is in love. “Tonight”, they arte both in love. “One Hand, One Heart”, they are married (more or less). The violent arc then cuts across the romantic arc, and overwhelms it. By the time we get to “A Boy Like That”, and “I Have A Love”, everything has gone wrong, and Maria is hanging on to Tony by her fingernails.

The comic relief numbers are “America”, and “Officer Krupke”. They allow each gang one moment of comic relief, and a moment of release in each act for the audience.

The choreographic feel should be claustrophobic to some extent. These characters live in alleys and under bridges, in small apartments and shops. The wide-open choreography in the movie (and Broadway show) demonstrate a powerful inner desire on the part of the gang members to experience freedom. But I always felt that some of the movement denied the physical actuality of the show, that they are in a dark, narrow prison called New York City, where death could wait around every corner. Theirs is a life walking on eggshells, hence the overstated bravado each day, needed to face the dangers of walking and breathing in such a place. Even Maria and Tony exhibit ridiculous bravado in their love songs, willing to face off the world. In the end, in this play, reality is the only victor. Three characters die, and they die for no good reason. The tragic truth of the lives of the people who inhabit this play is fear, danger, and no escape. I think that somehow, the choreography can help communicate this reality, and not just the deeply held dream of freedom felt by each character. Such high-stepping, open-stanced freedom should be expressed only in a dream sequence, as it is antithetical to their everyday, actual lives.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Tony – 18-25 or so, a bit older than the other Jets. Of Polish descent. Straight-laced, growing into a life of work and responsibility, but enchanted by a dream that there must be something better out there for him. A noble character to some extent, who puts himself between these two gangs desiring to annihilate each other. True to friends, true to Maria, even unto death. Should be attractive, but does not need “leading man” looks. We do need to understand why Maria falls for him at first sight. Cast for voice, type and acting, movement. Must handle all three very well.

Maria – In her mid-late teens. Latina, clean and virginal but blooming, beautiful. She is emotional, hopeful, feels things deeply as is true of many young people. To Maria, everything in the world in life and death. She loves deeply when she loves, without any control over her feelings. At an age where she wants immersion into life. Cast for voice, type and acting, and movement. Must sing and act extremely well, and have the right look. Try to cast with a Latina actress, if at all possible.

Anita – Older than Maria by at least three-four years. Sexy, smart, bright, quick in her feet. She is a born cynic, trusting no one. But there is a true romantic inside that understands true love and what it means, and yearns to own it for herself. Loves Bernardo with a smoldering passion, “America” is a friendly, loving game, not a competition. She loves him, or the story stops working. Cast for voice, type and acting, movement. Must be a true triple threat, a star.

Riff – Late teens or so, a tough, driven, physically wiry and imposing young man with some smarts, and a temper. Not exactly a born leader, but the best the Jets have. Cast for voice, type and acting, dance, must do all three well.

Bernardo – About Anita’s age. In America for a shorter time than Anita, perhaps only about five years. Charismatic, tall, handsome, masculine. A natural leader, excluding his temper, which he cannot govern. Incapable of changing his mind, intractable. Cast for acting and type, dance, then voice.

Schrank – A plain-clothes cop, age 40-55. Tough, weary, street-wise. A man you do not want to cross. A bit smarmy, overestimates his ability to control these kids, to everyone’s detriment. Cast for acting and type, does not sing or dance.

Chino – About Bernardo’s age. Second ion command, slower to boil; perhaps than Bernardo, but loses his mind when enraged. Cast for dance, voice, acting, type.

Action – A “catlike ball of fury.” (script) Cast for dance, type, acting, voice.

A-rab – An “explosive little ferret who enjoys everything and understands the seriousness of nothing.” (taken from the script) Cast for dance, type, acting, voice.

Baby John – Youngest member of the Jets, awed at everything, trying to act like a big man and fit in. Cast for dance,type, acting, voice.

Deisel – second in command, big, slow, steady, nicer than the others and more reasonable. Cast for dance, type, acting, voice.

Doc – 40-65, a small, tired man with a good heart, overwhelmed by life and violence. Cast for acting and type.

Krupke – A big, goon-like cop.

Anybodys – 14 or so, female, of Polish descent, tomboyish, tough. Cast for acting, type.

Other gang members and ensemble – The rest of the Sharks, variously 16-22 or so, all Puerto Rican, perhaps they speak English with varying proficiency. All MUST dance, MUST sing.

SETS:

The dark, brick-lined streets and alleys of a moonlit NYC is where most of the action takes place. Small spaces, with sharp and dangerous edges, corners around which anything might be waiting. No safety, no warmth, cold. You’ll need lots of brick walls that look and feel solid. Perhaps an iron or chain-link gate or fence somewhere that can be hopped.

There must be space enough for the action and dance, but it should all feel constricted, locked in, unable to be escaped or backed away from.

The bridal shop could be lowered from the rafters, a store with a display window facing the street , and various items rolled on or carried on. This could park in front of the street set, as it requires less depth for playing. It can be busy, but not dirty, small, but not quite crushed.

The Gym should take the entire stage, and can park just in front of the street set, white walls with bunting, perhaps a basketball hoop, running the length of the stage. Bring in long tables with drinks, balloons, etc.

The drugstore can be played “in one”, on the apron of a stage with a proscenium, and in front of the closed main drape to aid in a set change behind it. A counter, some stools, maybe a “fridge”. Perhaps a door leading down into the cellar, placed to the extreme side of the apron, leading offstage in fact.

Maria’s bedroom is not large, and is dominated by a bed, dresser and mirror. It opens Act II, and can be placed in front of the street set, a partial backdrop or even a cut away that reveals the street in the shadows, implying there is no escape.

The cellar to the drug store is a small space, all walls and one door leading up, and is perhaps packed with boxed goods. Placed on the weak side of the stage (extreme left), as a cut-away, again implying the street waits for Tony, the place where people go to die. When he runs out onto the street, this will help establish the inevitability of his death.

Curiously enough, these sets are not that big a drain, though they will require work – and a proscenium stage with flies and an apron.

If you have no flies and a limited stage, you should develop a unit set. All brick and chain link fence, dangerous, with edges. Move needed set pieces into the center as you go. A table for the dance. Bridal dummies and dresses, and a sewing machine table for the shop. The counter and stools for the drug store. A bed and mirror for Maria’s bedroom. Have the gangs move these set pieces in and out almost as if part of a ritual, just as they will carry Tony away at the end of the musical. This approach will keep the show inexpensive.

That said, you not only need an open center space for scenes with dance in them, but levels dancers can climb and jump off of. They could climb a chain-link fence and jump down. There could be a stoop or two with stairs, and locked and dark doors at the top. Levels will help the choreographer, but all of that needs to be determined before the first rehearsal.

COSTUMES:

The show is easy to costume. Outside of the one cop, Krupke, almost everything can be costumed from closets. It’s everyday street ware for the time – white T-shirts, dresses, jeans, tennis shoes. Remember, though, it takes place in period.

Schank wears a tired suit, perhaps a white shirt, barely organized tie, a jacket. Doc wears a white apron over normal work-a-day clothes.

Maria should sparkle, and her clothes should accent her virginity and youth. Light should reflect from her. Anita should wear more form-fit, revealing clothes for the period.

PROPS:

Guns, knives, a billy club for the cop. Soda pop for the drug store. Balloons, bunting, drinks, a punch bowl for the gym. A sewing machine that works on a sewing table, with thread and a piece to work on, a wedding dress. Hand mirror and make-up for Anita, who will use it sometime. Pocket combs for some of the gang members. Not too hard a job.

LIGHTING:

The show has a tendency to go dark and moody. It is not a Musical Comedy, certainly. It is a Musical Play. When together, the lovers should be lit lovingly. You will need to isolate them at the dance, subtly but in a way that directs the audience’s attention.

Fights take place on streets bathed by moonlight and street lamps. This would make a surreal, harsh light with various sources and lots of shadows.

Maria’s bedroom is well-lit for the top of Act II, cozy if small. The drug store is cold overhead tube lighting, cheap and unwelcoming. Same with the gym, I would think., but some attempt has been made to “party” the room up, with a few gelled lights.

The lighting needs to add to the artistry of the evening, as well as help tell the story by directing attention and telegraphing moods. Numbers may well have cues inside them, but that will violate the overall “naturalistic” feel the show seems to be striving for, in spite of ballet and the rest. You will need to confer with the director to determine when the show is being “real”, and when it is striving for “art”, and perhaps find a way to light each feel. A job for a talented designer.

MAKE-UP:

Keep this unobtrusive. When the Jet and Shark women go on a date, they get dolled up, and that should happen.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, Set Designer, Light Designer, Tony, Maria, Anita.

MY THOUGHTS:

To some extent, the show suffers from schizophrenia. It asks for gritty realism, and then choreographs deadly knife fights with ballet moves, somewhat masculine, perhaps, but certainly not either gritty nor realistic. It’s a show trying to be “real” and “art” at the same times, in a way that contradicts and undermines each. I think this messy amalgamation is part of what dates and harms the show. It could also be argued that this dichotomy creates a tension that is useful to the show. And in the right directorial hands, that may be.

I like how Mr. Laurents condensed the action from Romeo & Juliet, placing both murders in the final Act I scene, as an example. It is clever, artful, well-considered. Structurally the show is fairly good, though some of the numbers feel like they’re in the wrong place, a fact which Mr. Lehman brilliantly corrected in the film version. Laurents demonstrated that it is possible to take Romeo and Juliet and convert it into a musical libretto. Well and good. Perhaps now it’s time for another fine set of writers to follow his lead, and create a new and modern version.

There may still be street gangs in NYC, but the nature of those gangs has changed enormously in the intervening decades. Will today’s audience accept the kids envisioned by the authors in ’57 as legitimate, believable, and compelling? I have doubts, but a strong directorial and choreographic rethink of the show might convince me and the audience that this story has a few twists left in it. What an audience will not accept with a straight face is the finger-snapping, “daddio” spouting that the authors used to try and make the “kids” feel real. All of that really needs to go, now.

And if you’re considering doing West Side as a period piece, I wouldn’t. The show depends on a sense of urgency for its emotional impact. The love story must feel like now, contemporary, for the power of the musical expression to not seem misplaced and a bit silly.