Monday, April 7, 2014

The Forgotten Revival & the Rest of the West Side Stories

1964 West Side Story Revival
Photo courtesy: PlaybillVault.com
Spielberg has mentioned that he will be directing a remake of the classic movie musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story. You know, the musical version of Romeo and Juliet set in NYC polarizing the Puerto Rican and American gangs as they show off their intimidating finger-snapping, jumping, and eventually knifing (Is that a word? It's Monday. No rules apply) skills. Well, it just so happens that tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the show's first Broadway revival

Despite the success of the original 1957 production, this revival was not very publicized or popular. In fact, I'm finding virtually no information about it at all, not even a review, much less videos. From what I can gather from PlaybillVault.com and a few other places, it was a limited-engagement of 31 performances by The New York City Center Light Opera Company at the New York City Center. Stars included people I've never heard of, who went on to do very little else on Broadway. Julia Migenes (Maria) actually later originated the role of Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof, but that's the extent of this West Side Story revival cast's fame. 

Reading about this sadly overlooked revival made me want to re-examine the production history of this show that Broadway-lovers everywhere consider to be a classic. Was it really as much of a hit as we all consider it to be? Let's check this out together and see how well this legendary show actually fared when it played on Broadway.

Original 1957 Playbill
Photo courtesy: PlaybillVault.com
West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 and ran til 1960. That production starred Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence as Tony and Maria (respectively), and a young Chita Rivera as Anita. The only Tony Awards it won, out of the 6 for which it was nominated, were for Jerome Robbins for choreography (obviously) and Oliver Smith for Scenic Design. Fun fact about this show: It opened at the Winter Garden Theatre just months after the final Ziegfeld Follies closed (having flopped). It changed theatres a few times, running three months at the Broadway theatre in 1959, then moved back to the Winter Garden. Also, West Side Story took a short hiatus between June 1959 and April 1960, for a musical called Juno to have its limited engagement premiere, then WSS returned for 6 months, then closed the last 2 months of its run at the Alvin Theatre. Why any of that made sense is beyond me.

Check out this awesome video of Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence performing "Maria" and "Tonight" live on "The Bell Telephone Hour"! As I described it to a friend, this clip might be the Holy Grail of Broadway videos. Though this was actually filmed 10 years after they were on Broadway, these two are still flawless. (Remember yesterday when I tweeted about being in tears over a new video?)


The following year, the movie was released, which of course won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno as Anita (Starting the semi-tradition of nominating Anita for major awards) and Best Supporting Actor for George Chakiris as Bernardo and also won Golden Globes in all three of those categories. Yeah, it's kind of a big deal.

(Above is probably an example of
what Playbill art to use to guarantee
a flop). 1980 revival
Photo courtesy: PlaybillVault.com
Just three years later, it was revived again, which was way too soon for a revival, even limited engagement (remember how the 2006 Les Mis revival did?). One significant element that makes this revival important to this timeline is that this was the first time that Anita was billed first. The movie made everyone realize how important she is, and had this production been better, the actress would have been nominated for the Tony for Best Featured Actress. As it was, the show was only nominated for Musical Direction and Best Producer, which makes me wonder if it was for some reason ineligible for most awards.

So the world took a break from the racist, snapping teens for a while. In 1980, it was finally revived again. I guess I can't say it was a flop, but since it ran only from February to November, I can't very well say it was a success. I must point out that this revival was in the same season as one of the way too many Peter Pan revivals, as well as the original production of a little show called Evita. It was nominated for Best Featured Actress for both Josie de Guzman as Maria, and Debbie Allen as Anita (oh hey, didn't I say it was a tradition?) I won't post the video from the Tony Awards that year, because it was painful. They performed "America" (obviously to showcase Debbie Allen), but the singing was piercing and over-the-top. Oh, and the choreography (a reproduction of Robbins' original) was fairly lame. If you're morbidly curious, check it out here. Fortunately, not ever number was awful, so check out this compilation below! 


Finally used the movie poster!
2009 Revival
Photo courtesy: PlaybillVault.com
After more than 20 years of absolutely no West Side Story on the Broadway, the show was finally revived in 2009. This time it was totally revamped with a darker twist, and directed by original book-writer Arthur Laurents himself. Laurents said that he realized that gangs like this were serious business, not just some fun dancing kids who accidentally stabbed each other to death. Not only did he throw some actual evil into the characters, but he also changed many of the Puerto Ricans' lines to be spoken/sung in their language rather than English. Of course, after audience members left the theatre royally confused during previews, large portions of the Puerto Rican lines were changed back to English. 

This was the same year as the fairly lame and much less successful Guys and Dolls revival, as well as the Pal Joey revival starring Stockard Channing, but they all lost the Tony for Best Revival to the Hair revival. So the show was nominated for four Tony Awards but only won one, which was- you guessed it- Karen Olivo for Best Featured Actress as Anita. This production made me so happy, because they finally gave Anita this uncontrollable, long hair. I know hair should not be that important, but seriously, you can't be a sassy, independent, dancing Rican with short hair. The length added so much to her character! Check out the video below of Ms. Olivo and the cast performing "America" on Letterman! They're just amazing.


And with that, we have all just had an impromptu West Side Story appreciation day! How about that? More importantly, for the first time this year, I managed to write a blog post that didn't involve Disney, Brian d'Arcy James, Brian Stokes Mitchell, or Audra McDonald. What is this?!

Sally Henry www.BroadwayWorld.com/author/Sally-Henry // Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwayginger // Facebook: www.facebook.com/singularsensationbway

Read More:
History of the Winter Garden Theatre
West Side Story Revivals on PlaybillVault.com
West Side Story movie on IMDb.com
West Side Story on Wikipedia (don't hate)

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