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West Side Story opened on Broadway on this date in 1957, to run for 732 performances before going on tour. With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (his Broadway debut), direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, and book by Arthur Laurents, this 20th-century adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is one of America’s great contributions to world culture, and has been performed in countries on every continent. The 1961 film version won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In his original concept, ten years earlier, Jerome Robbins had proposed a plot featuring conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side during the Easter-Passover season; the “Maria” character would have been a young Holocaust survivor who emigrated to the U.S. from Palestine. Laurents had called his first draft “East Side Story.” The project was shelved for nearly five years before the team assembled and tried again, with Harold Prince as producer.
“Everyone told us [it] was an impossible project . . . . no one was going to be able to sing augmented fourths, as with ‘Ma-ri-a’ . . . And then we had the really tough problem of casting it, because the characters had to be able not only to sing but dance and act and be taken for teenagers. Ultimately, some of the cast were teenagers, some were 21, some were 30 but looked 16.” —Leonard Bernstein