Chita Rivera as Anita

Fred Fehl, Courtesy DM Archives

#TBT: How West Side Story Created a Broadway Revolution

When West Side Story landed on Broadway in 1957, it had been a long time coming.

Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein toyed with collaborating on a contemporary musical loosely based on Romeo and Juliet for years, picking up and putting down the project multiple times as other creative endeavors demanded their attention. Along the way, they brought in a young lyricist who had never written for Broadway by the name of Stephen Sondheim, and the story morphed into one of gang violence in New York City.

A young Stephen Sondehim, dressed in a white button down and a tie, smirks as he sits at an open piano covered in sheet music. Leonard Bernstein leans against it, listening, while a half dozen young women arrayed around them listen to corrections.

Lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the piano, composer Leonard Bernstein and members of the cast

Zodiac Photographers, Courtesy DM Archives

"It's funny how insulated we are," Robbins said of his research in the August 1957 issue of Dance Magazine. "My office is on Lexington Avenue and 74th Street, and just twenty blocks away life is entirely different. The streets are darker, the signs are in Spanish, and the people lead their lives on the sidewalks. Those kids live like pressure cookers. There's a constant tension, a feeling of the kids having steam that they don't know how to let off."

The resulting musical reshaped Broadway. It garnered six Tony nominations and won two (Robbins for choreography, Oliver Smith for scenic design), launched the now-legendary Chita Rivera (who originated the role of Anita) to stardom, and proved just how effective dance could be at telling a story.

Latest Posts

Charlene Gehm MacDougal as Lead Nursemaid in Petrushka. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy the MacDougal family.

In Memoriam: Joffrey Dancer Charlene Gehm MacDougal, 69

Former lead dancer with The Joffrey Ballet, Charlene Gehm MacDougal died of ovarian cancer on January 10 at her home in New York City, age 69.

Gehm illuminated the inner life of each of the varied characters in her extensive repertoire. Whether she was the gracious hostess in George Balanchine's Cotillon, the riveting Lady Capulet in John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet, or in the tumult of William Forsythe's Love Songs, she drew the viewer's eye and heart to the essence of the role.

As Forsythe puts it: "Charlene was certainly one of the most elegant dancers I have had the privilege to work with. Her striking countenance flowed into her work and, joined with her wicked sense of humor and intelligence, created thoughtful, mesmerizing and memorable art."

February 2021