When West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957, 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 included in musicals—and ended with one of the show’s leads dead on stage. The integration of music, dance and script, as well as the theatricality of the staging were a revelation to audiences.
The musical’s success must be credited primarily to its creators, extraordinary artists who brought out the best in each other. 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. 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, dance and movement. All of these elements came together to create a groundbreaking musical.
The Library pays homage to one of the Great White Way’s most beloved musicals with “West Side Story: Birth of a Classic.” The exhibition, 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. 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 set designs by Oliver Smith; original music manuscripts; a facsimile of a Sondheim lyric sketch for the song "Somewhere"; and amusing opening-night telegrams from celebrities such as Lauren Bacall, Cole Porter and Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Also included are notes that reveal actors who auditioned, such as Jerry Orbach and Warren Beatty, who was described as "good voice—can’t open his jaw—charming as hell—clean cut." As an added bonus, the Library has had the very first prints made of several never-before-seen production photographs taken for Look magazine for a feature spread that never ran.
Although the exhibition closes at the Library on March 29, it 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.
To mark the exhibition’s opening on Sept. 26, 2007, an article ran in the September 2007 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin. Featured is a selection of images from the exhibition. The Information Bulletin reports on the policies, programs and events of the Library to members of Congress; public, academic and research institutions; learned societies and allied organizations; and to the more than 1,000 depository libraries in the United States. Archived issues as far back as 1993 are available online.
The composer, conductor, writer and teacher Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of 20th-century America's most important musical figures. The Leonard Bernstein Collection is one of the largest and most varied of the many special collections held by the Library’s Music Division. Its more than 400,000 items, including music and literary manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, audio and video recordings, fan mail and other types of materials extensively document Bernstein's extraordinary life and career.