On January 9, 1949, Leonard Bernstein entered this into his log: "Jerry R. [Robbins] called today with a noble idea: a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations. Feelings run high between Jews and Catholics. Former: Capulets; latter: Montagues. Juliet is Jewish." The newly formed State of Israel and the resultant war made the idea topical, and Bernstein, of Jewish descent, was familiar with Catholicism.
From the beginning, Robbins suggested that Arthur Laurents write the book, which was to be called East Side Story. However, other projects forced them to put off work until 1955. In the late summer of that year, while in Los Angeles with Laurents, Bernstein saw a newspaper article about fights between Mexican and Anglo gangs on Olivera Street. The two decided that recently arrived Puerto Ricans and first-generation Americans born of European immigrants would be a more accessible alternative to the Capulets and Montagues than would Jews and Catholics, and Latin American rhythms began to take shape in Bernstein's head. Neither Laurents nor Bernstein wanted to compose the lyrics for the songs, and they enlisted the 26-year-old Stephen Sondheim in October 1955. The title was changed to West Side Story when the creators realized that gang warfare in New York had moved from the East Side to the West. West Side Story opened at New York's Winter Garden Theater on September 26, 1957, and has remained in the repertory ever since. The film version of 1961 was a smashing success, earning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. West Side Story is one of Bernstein's most impressive achievements in any style of composition. Its mixture of Latin American rhythms, big band jazz harmonies and instrumentation, contrapuntal writing, and colloquial language is handled with such skill and sensitivity that the result makes it seem as though these elements had always coexisted.
Arthur Laurents' book for West Side Story is not really a retelling or paraphrase of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but rather uses the play as a point of departure. Feuding families become rival gangs of different ethnic backgrounds, and Tony (Romeo) kills Maria's (Juliet) brother, but the "star-crossed" lovers do not have the chance to commit suicide. The most powerful and musically complex moment in the show occurs at about the midpoint, as Tony and Maria sing of their love in a reprise of "Tonight," Anita anticipates her upcoming date with Bernardo, and Riff and Bernardo, with their respective gangs, prepare for the rumble that evening. The result is a quintet with moments of dense rhythmic and melodic polyphony, conveying musically the meaning of the simultaneous but unrelated lines of text. Other highlights include the energetic "America," with its alternating 6/8 and 3/4 time signatures, while "Tonight" and "Maria" boast some of the most memorable melodies from the American stage. "Somewhere," in its opening phrase, features a melodic line borrowed from the slow movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73.
Another factor contributing to the musical's success was its strong dance element, evident in songs such as "America" as well as in confrontations between the rival gangs. The setting for the gangs' "neutral turf" negotiations, for example, is a gymnasium dance at which a distinctive mambo serves as the musical backdrop. Bernstein, even as he broke new ground, drew on a tradition of Broadway choreography that was reaching its high point as the work took shape, and the result was a work that combined rhythmic energy, kinetic appeal, romance, and compositional sophistication. The action on-stage may seem a bit dated in this day of the modern gangster, but the work's virtues are undimmed. It may well be a strong candidate for an innovatively updated production.