“It sure looks like a smash and all our experiments seem to have worked. The book works, the tragedy works, the ballets shine, the music pulses and soars… It’s all too good to be true.”
—Letter from Leonard Bernstein to his wife, Felicia (Aug. 23, 1957), regarding the Washington, D.C., debut of “West Side Story”
Fifty years ago, on Sept. 26, 1957, “West Side Story” opened on Broadway. The show went on to become a landmark musical in a league with works such as “Show Boat” and “Oklahoma!” The Library of Congress celebrates the golden anniversary of this historic musical with a new exhibition, “West Side Story: Birth of a Classic.”
Made possible through the generous support of the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Trust for the benefit of the Library of Congress, the exhibition opens on Sept. 26 and remains on view through March 29, 2008, in the foyer of the Performing Arts Reading Room, Room 113 of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C. Exhibition hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
When “West Side Story” opened to critical acclaim and enthusiastic audiences, it changed the nature of the American musical and challenged the country’s view of itself. The show dealt seriously with violence, adolescent gangs and racial prejudice—themes rarely addressed in musicals.
The musical’s success must be credited primarily to its creators, extraordinary artists who brought out the best in one another. Composer Leonard Bernstein created his most memorable score—complex, passionate, tuneful, shocking and bursting with rhythmic energy. Jerome Robbins, credited with conceiving the show, doubled as director and choreographer. No previous musical had included so much dance or used it so dramatically and inventively to reveal character and plot and to further the action. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, in his first Broadway musical, exhibited the wit, intelligence and craft that would make him the pre-eminent songwriter of his generation. Arthur Laurents staged William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in contemporary Manhattan with a lean, concise libretto, which allowed for the integration of language, music and dance. All these elements came together to create a groundbreaking musical.
The exhibition of more than 50 items drawn mostly from the Library’s extensive Leonard Bernstein Collection offers a rare view into the creative process and collaboration involved in the making of this extraordinary production. The material is arranged thematically, mostly in chronological order, beginning with background and planning for the musical and ending with the show’s legacy (the film, Broadway revivals, etc.).
Included in the exhibition are unique items such as an early synopsis and outline of the script; Bernstein’s annotated copy of “Romeo and Juliet”; choreographic notes from Robbins; two original watercolor sketches for set designs by Oliver Smith; original music manuscripts; a facsimile of a Sondheim lyric sketch for the song “Somewhere”; amusing opening-night telegrams from celebrities such as Lauren Bacall, Cole Porter, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green; and notes about actors who auditioned, such as Jerry Orbach and Warren Beatty. Bernstein describes Beatty as “good voice—can’t open his jaw—charming as hell—clean cut.” In a series of letters written to his wife Felicia while she was visiting her family in Santiago, Chile, Bernstein faithfully chronicles the show’s progress during the final weeks of rehearsal through its out-of-town opening in Washington, D.C.
As an added bonus, the exhibition includes prints of several never-before-seen production photographs taken in 1958 by Paul Fusco, a staff photographer for Look magazine, for an unpublished feature spread on Carol Lawrence (the first “Maria”). When the magazine folded in 1971, Cowles Communications donated the bulk of the Look archives—totaling nearly 4 million published and unpublished photographs—to the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. Exhibition curator Mark Eden Horowitz and exhibition director Cynthia Wayne searched the Look Collection and found contact sheets for behind-the-scenes images by Fusco.
“These photos, as well as unique items from the Bernstein Collection, provide a window into the creation of the show,” said Horowitz.
The exhibition, which will be online at www.loc.gov/exhibits/, will also have a multimedia component. A video will include performances by Broadway cast members appearing on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and documentary interviews with Sondheim and Laurents.
Following its closing on March 29, 2008, the “West Side Story” exhibition will travel to the Library of Congress/Ira Gershwin Gallery at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where it will be on view for six months.
Erin Allen, a writer-editor in the Public Affairs Office, and Mark Eden Horowitz, a senior music specialist in the Music Division, contributed to this story.