​West Side Story as a New York Story

By Julia L. Foulkes

When West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 — sixty years ago today — its connection to New York City was self-evident. Reviews tied the musical to the ongoing troubles of juvenile delinquency and the bright allure of forbidden love, all played out in the “fascinating and fearful town of Manhattan.”[1] The show conveyed New York’s hard truth and its persistent potential. It “came right out of urban America, out of the venom generated between races jammed festeringly together,” one review testified.[2] The realities of urban life show that “these young people are cramped, stifled, crazed by the walls around them,” another, Marya Mannes, wrote.[3] Elsewhere, Mannes expanded on these changes: “The people of this great city are turning dark while the buildings are turning light.” Gleaming skyscrapers, going up in a second building frenzy, “relentlessly bright and cheap,” did not hide the entrenched poverty and discrimination.[4] Critics believed the musical thrived in spite of this disheartening picture—not only because of the moments of love and hope that peeked through, but also because of the artistry of its creators. “Here we breed evil in our cities, but here we also parade a [Leonard] Bernstein and a [Jerome] Robbins.”[5] The city, the place in which the gangs of Jets and Sharks fought to belong, became one of the complicated stars of the show.

New York played a role in the creation of the musical from its inception. As the legend goes, around 1948, the actor Montgomery Clift, friend and lover of the dancer-choreographer Jerome Robbins, was struggling to bring to life a monologue from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Both Clift and Robbins were students of Method acting, which directed the actor to plunge into a character’s background and emotions to fully inhabit the role. Such in-depth knowledge was hard enough to achieve in any situation, even when the topic was contemporary. How was a gay man in the mid-twentieth century to understand the iconic young heterosexual lovers caught up in family feuds in sixteenth-century Verona?

Just a few years earlier, Robbins had burst onto the choreographic scene with Fancy Free (1944), a saucy tale of three sailors on leave that mixed pirouettes with bravado fist-pumps and competitive camaraderie. The piece captured the desperate need for relief in a war-weary city and revivified ballet by featuring everyday movement and scenarios that could be seen right outside the stage door. The challenge of enlivening Romeo and Juliet thus called on Robbins’ strengths. He specialized in taking the ordinary and making it newly relevant. Robbins suggested that Clift place Romeo and Juliet in modern-day New York, to see the age-old story in the new day.

This insight prompted Robbins to dash off a cryptic scene outline, noting a street carnival as the setting for the star-crossed lovers’ meeting, a mock marriage in a bridal shop, and a fight on a playground.[6] The development of the idea required compatriots. Robbins called upon the young composer Leonard Bernstein. Their first collaboration, Fancy Free, had created a splash for both of them and was followed by the musical On the Town (1944). With Bernstein on board, Robbins enlisted playwright Arthur Laurents, best known for the play Home of the Brave, which depicted how the army was ensnared in the underlying anti-Semitism of the era. (Bernstein and Laurents also cruised the homosexual arts scene of the city.)

Three egos clashed at the first meeting as music, words, and dance vied for dominance. But the trio emerged quickly with a fuller scenario initially titled “Gang Bang,” then “Romeo,” and, eventually, “East Side Story.” (Stephen Sondheim would later join the team as lyricist.) The first crisp two-act outline set up the conflict on the Lower East Side between Jews and Italian Catholics at a street festival, possibly in Chinatown, and situated the famous balcony declarations of love between Romeo and Juliet on a fire escape. Even in this early version, the collaborators emphasized movement and space; a “stylized prologue” would show “the restlessness of the youths and indicat[e] the various areas in which they let off steam.” Within a couple of weeks of the first meeting, the New York press proclaimed a new musical in production.[7]

It was January 1949. The musical did not debut until September 1957.

For the creators, fame and other projects intervened in the making of the musical. So too did politics and a changing city. The years between the spark of the idea and the musical’s opening night were crucial to keying the production to its time and place. In the 1950s, New York was ascendant: home to the United Nations; to Abstract Expressionists, a school of poets, jazz and rock ‘n roll; to a dizzying number of newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and television programs that broadcast all the action to the world. Swaths of the city were demolished and rebuilt with urban renewal funds, sprouting public housing projects, private office high-rises, and networks of bridges, roads, and tunnels. While the city’s total population remained largely stable in the postwar period, it was also in flux, with African Americans and Puerto Ricans claiming a larger presence. Increased Puerto Rican migration in particular became a wedge that exposed questions of space, housing, and discrimination.

As years passed and successes accumulated, the men continued to cross paths and talk of working together. In 1955, Robbins stopped the drift and pushed Bernstein and Laurents to commit to a project. They considered an opera based on James M. Cain’s novel Serenade, about an opera singer’s dramatic love life, including a struggle with his homosexuality. Robbins, though, wanted to go back to the Romeo idea. Bernstein and Laurents talked about the possibilities that summer, hitting on the possibility of something about the “juvenile gang war news” that was “all over the papers every day.” At this point, Laurents favored a non-specific locale.[8]

Later that summer, though, the locale came into focus. Laurents and Bernstein talked again when they were both in Los Angeles, Bernstein conducting a five-concert series at the Hollywood Bowl called “Festival of the Americas,” with music from the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America, and Laurents plying his skills in writing screenplays. Newspaper headlines again caught their attention: stories of gang violence, particularly between Chicanos and whites. What about placing Romeo and Juliet in Los Angeles? That got something right—a volatile new ethnic conflict among youth rather than religious strife or family feuds—but Laurents claimed he know nothing about L.A. They then transferred the idea back to their home in New York. Shifting the conflict from animus between Jews and Catholics to gang violence between whites and Puerto Ricans set minds whirring. Laurents promptly wrote a new outline, now in three acts with some characters identified and named, such as Bernardo (Tybalt), Anita (a revision of Shakespeare’s Nurse), Doc (“possibly a Jew”), and with mambo and jitterbugging central to the action.[9]

The inspiration of Los Angeles stood behind the setting in New York. A city with overt Mexican influences, Los Angeles was also a city undergoing massive infrastructural changes, as highways expanded and diffused the urban core. Seeing New York from the perspective of Los Angeles highlighted the notable influx of Puerto Ricans that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s and the impact of urban renewal on the city’s landscape. Buildings in the Lower East Side had been razed and replaced with high-rise public housing projects, nearly erasing the Jewish-centered neighborhoods and tenement life of the early twentieth century. And the impact of cars was becoming ever more noticeable, with the construction of a regional network of highways and a dramatic upsurge in parking lots in Manhattan itself.

Looking at New York with Los Angeles in mind, the latest and most extensive razing by Robert Moses stood out. In 1955, Moses declared almost fifty-three acres on eighteen city blocks on the west side of Manhattan between 60th and 65th streets as blighted, thus eligible for Title 1 funds from the federal government. (Eventually the project decreased to fourteen city blocks, about forty-eight acres.) This led to the dramatic transformation of the neighborhood known as San Juan Hill by some and Lincoln Square by others. In the place of two- to five-story brownstone buildings, small shops and local businesses, and a mix of low- and middle-income families would arise the largest performing arts complex in the world, high-rise apartment and office buildings, and a midtown campus for Fordham University. The replacement of religious conflict between Jews and Catholics on the Lower East Side with that of racial and ethnic conflict between whites and Puerto Ricans on the west side connected the story to contemporary social and political strife. It also placed the story in the rifts occurring in the specific landscape of New York.

The years between when the creators first discussed adapting Romeo and Juliet and when they picked up the idea again proved critical to West Side Story’s eventual innovation: the musical was bound to an evolving sense of place, even a fragile one. In 1957, just prior to the opening of the show, Arthur Laurents noted that the building in which the creative team’s first meetings about the idea had occurred, in 1949, had come down—as had the building in which they revived the project in 1955. “Wreckage proceeds faster these days,” he quipped.[10]

Aligning the star-crossed lovers with 1950s New York street gangs instead of elite families in Verona shifted the meaning of the classic tale, raising the stakes of loving across lines. The gangs claimed turf in the city as part of their dogged fight to be full citizens, to be embraced as worthy individuals, to define the world they wanted rather than accept the one they were given. Fights over whose block, whose city, and whose nation molded the fevered dancing, discordant sounds, and escalating conflict. Rather than the blinding power of love evoked by Shakespeare, in 1950s New York the theme became the quest to find one’s place, to belong, in an ever-shifting city.

Julia Foulkes is Professor of History at The New School. This post is excerpted from her most recent book, A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York.

[1] John Chapman, n.p. [Daily News?], n.d. [September 27, 1957?], b.69 f.11, Jerome Robbins Personal Papers, Library for the Performing Arts of New York Public Library.

[2] NY World-Telegram, n.d. [September 27, 1957?], box 326, Scrapbook, Hal Prince Papers, Library for the Performing Arts of New York Public Library.

[3] Marya Mannes, “Theater: A Question of Timing,” The Reporter, November 14, 1957, 38.

[4] Marya Mannes, “Black and White in New York,” The Listener, January 9, 1958, 59.

[5] NY World-Telegram.

[6] Original materials are in box 81, folder 1, Jerome Robbins Papers, Library for the Performing Arts of New York Public Library.

[7] Rough drafts of scripts in box 81, folder 1, Jerome Robbins Papers, Library for the Performing Arts of New York Public Library; Louis Calta, “’Romeo’ to Receive Musical Styling,” New York Times, January 27, 1949, 19.

[8] Arthur Laurents to Leonard Bernstein, July 19, 1955, reprinted in Leonard Bernstein Letters, ed. Simeone (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013): 342-43. Laurents also sent a copy to Robbins.

[9] Laurents, “Romeo,” n.d. [1955], box 81, folder 1, Jerome Robbins Papers, Library for the Performing Arts of New York Public Library.

[10] Laurents, “The Growth of an Idea,” New York Herald Tribune, August 4, 1957, Sect. 4, 1.