Fifty-six years ago, on September 26, 1957, “West Side Story,” with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein, made its debut at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in New York City.
The original title of the show, inspired by Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins, and written by playwright Arthur Laurents in 1949, was “East Side Story,” set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
It never saw the light of day in its original form, and was put aside for six years. But a young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim helped to revive it in 1955. Two years later, with no financial backers ready to commit, “West Side Story” seemed to be going nowhere.
Then, producers Hal Prince and Robert Griffith consulted with the “West Side Story” team, and were won over by the music. The show got back on track and ran for 732 performances on Broadway before going on tour.
Set on the West Side of New York in the mid-50s, the musical is about the rivalry between the Sharks gang from Puerto Rico and the Jets, a white, working-class gang. The protagonist, Tony, a Jet, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks.
The dark theme focusing on teenage social problems, thrilling dance scenes, and exciting music marked a turning point in American musical theater. Bernstein's score was highly popular, with such memorable songs as "Something's Coming," "Maria," "America," "Somewhere," "Tonight," "Jet Song," "I Feel Pretty," "A Boy Like That" and "Cool.”
The show received a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical in 1957, and won one for choreography. It had an even longer run in London and a number of international productions. The 1961 film "West Side Story," directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, and starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn, won 10 Academy Awards out of 11 nominations.