Since it is a leap year, today is February 29 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how comfortable are you with imperfection?” West Side Story is a musical with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and conception and choreography by Jerome Robbins. It was inspired by William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet.
The story is set in the Upper West Side neighborhood in New York City in the mid-1950s, an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood (in the early 1960s, much of the neighborhood was cleared in an urban renewal project for the Lincoln Center, which changed the neighborhood's character). The musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The members of the Sharks, from Puerto Rico, are taunted by the Jets, a white gang.
The young protagonist, Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang's leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre.
The original 1957 Broadway production, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and produced by Robert E. Griffith and Harold Prince, marked Sondheim's Broadway debut. It ran for 732 performances before going on tour. The production was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical in 1957, but the award for Best Musical went to Meredith Willson's The Music Man.
Robbins won the Tony Award for his choreography and Oliver Smith won for his scenic designs. But such success remained far from guaranteed early on during the development stage.
As Bernstein said in a Rolling Stone interview: “Everyone told us that [West Side Story] was an impossible project ... And we were told no one was going to be able to sing augmented fourths, as with "Ma-ri-a" ... Also, they said the score was too rangy for pop music ... Besides, who wanted to see a show in which the first-act curtain comes down on two dead bodies lying on the stage?... 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. Some were wonderful singers but couldn't dance very well, or vice versa ... and if they could do both, they couldn't act.”
In A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre, Anne Bogart wrote “Most of the truly remarkable experiences I've had in theatre have filled me with uncertainty and disorientation” Such was the case with West Side Story. So much of life is uncertain. How comfortable are you putting your time, energy, and resources into a project with an uncertain outcome?