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 and the theatricality of the staging were a revelation to audiences. At a time when most musicals were star vehicles, with separate dancing and singing choruses, West Side Story was cast with relative unknowns who acted, sang, and danced in this exceptionally demanding work.

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. No previous musical had included so much dance nor 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, dance, and movement. All of these elements came together to create a groundbreaking musical.

This exhibition draws on the Library’s rich music materials, especially the Leonard Bernstein Collection, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this extraordinary work.