West Side Story is not only a classic musical, it is also one of only a handful of landmark shows that fundamentally changed the form of musicals. Arguably, its greatest influence was in the theatricality of its presentation—the seamlessness and cinematic flow of its staging—and the integration of script, song, dance, and set. In its original Broadway run, West Side Story ran for 732 performances—a success, but not a smash hit. Not until the overwhelming success of the film in 1961 (and its ongoing popularity) were the show and its score fully appreciated and embraced by audiences.

Almost every song from the score is now considered a standard and many of them are continually performed in concerts, nightclubs, and on recordings. Some recordings have become platinum sellers, such as both the Barbra Streisand and the Pet Shop Boys renditions of “Somewhere.” The score as a whole exists in dozens of recordings from around the world, including cast albums from London, Australia, Japan, Sweden, and Italy, and recordings in various styles, instrumentations, and interpretations. These include jazz renditions by Stan Kenton and Oscar Peterson, one featuring the classical violinist Joshua Bell, and even a punk rock version titled Punk Side Story

West Side Story continues to be mounted regularly in high schools, universities, community and regional theaters, and in first-class revivals around the world. There are more than 250 domestic productions every year and the libretto has been translated in over 26 languages, including Chinese, Hebrew, Dutch, and six separate Spanish translations based on countries and local dialects—making it a classic indeed.

French Version of Song “America!”

Prestigious French music publisher Editions Salabert’s sheet music edition of “America!” was published as “Si Tu Vas en America” in a translation by André Salvet.

Leonard Bernstein. “Si Tu Vas en America.” Trans. André Salvet. Paris: Editions Salabert, 1957. Music Division, Library of Congress (45).

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Souvenir Program

Souvenir program for West Side Story film. New York: Program Publishing Co., 1961. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recording Sound Division, Library of Congress. (46) [Library of Congress does not have permission to post wss0046 online]

Poster for the 1968 Revival at Lincoln Center

Under the auspices of Richard Rodgers as president and producing director, between 1964 and 1974 the Musical Theater of Lincoln Center produced a summer series of limited engagements of classic musicals. West Side Story opened at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, on June 24, 1968, and ran for eighty-nine performances, closing on September 7, 1968. The cast included Kurt Peterson (Tony), Victoria Mallory (Maria), Avind Harum (Riff), Alan Castner (Bernardo), and Barbara Luna (Anita.)  The sets were designed by Oliver Smith.

Poster from the revival of West Side Story. New York: Artcraft, 1968. Artcraft Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (47).

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West Side Story on DVD

West Side Story (Special Edition DVD collector’s Set, 1961). Los Angeles, California: MGM Studios, 2003. Private Collection (48) [Library of Congress does not have permission to post wss0048 online]

Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story: The Making of the Recording

Bernstein was initially dubious about conducting a recording of West Side Story, but when he realized that he had never conducted a full production of the show or a recording of the complete score, he recognized it as an opportunity that he could not pass up. 

The project also allowed Bernstein to create a studio recording whose casting would be entirely based on the voices rather than requiring a cast who had to both sing and dance.  Produced in September 1984 for Deutsche Grammophon, the recording featured opera and Broadway stars Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Tatiana Troyanos, and Kurt Ollmann.  The recording was released in 1985 to great acclaim.  This documentary of the week-long recording session was filmed by the BBC and shown on the PBS series “Great Performances.”

Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story. 1984. DVD. Deutsche Grammophon. Private collection (49) © Susesh Bayat/DG.

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Carol Lawrence’s Ballet Slippers from the “Somewhere Ballet”

According to Ms. Lawrence:  “[These] were the last pair of dance slippers I used in the show. . . .the pink pair [were] only used in the actual ballet sequence.  They took quite a beating and were probably replaced two or three times.  Jerry Robbins wanted all my shoes to be simple ballet slippers, but I felt the need of some kind of heel for better balance.  He and Irene Shariff agreed to a low curved heel; and I was grateful.  Originally, Jerry Robbins had chosen dancers from the American Ballet Theatre to play the parts of Tony and Maria in the ballet, but I asked him if Larry Kert and I could at least learn the steps and try to play our own roles.  He finally agreed and we worked like demons to please him.  We did get to dance and it was one of my favorite times on any stage.”

Carol Lawrence’s ballet slippers worn in West Side Story. Fabric. Courtesy of Doug Wilson (53).

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Sections: Birth of a Musical | On "The Rumble" and "Somewhere" | Letters from Bernstein | The Legacy of West Side Story