Fifty years ago, on September 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 “West Side Story: Birth of a Classic.”
The exhibition, which opens on Sept. 26 and remains on view through March 29, 2008, is showcased in the foyer of the Performing Arts Reading Room, LM 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 even 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 owed its success largely to composer Leonard Bernstein, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist Arthur Laurents. 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 extraordinarily demanding work. All of these elements came together to create a groundbreaking musical.
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.
Following its closing on March 29, the 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.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Library’s Music Division and Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., will present a unique concert on Monday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street S.E. Members of the cast from Signature’s current production of “Merrily We Roll Along” will perform songs cut from “West Side Story,” early versions of songs with variant lyrics, readings from some of the papers in the Bernstein Collection and other surprises. The program will be directed by Signature Theatre’s artistic director Eric Schaefer, with Jon Kalbfleisch as the musical director and pianist.
Tickets are distributed by TicketMaster at (301) 808-6900, (410) 752-1200 and (703) 573-7328. Each ticket carries a nominal service charge of $2.75, with additional charges for phone orders and handling. Tickets are also available at TicketMaster outlets and online at www.TicketMaster.com
on Sept. 12. Although the supply of tickets may be exhausted, there are often empty seats at concert time. Interested patrons are encouraged to come to the Library by 6:30 p.m. on concert nights to wait in the standby line for no-show tickets.
Media are invited to view the exhibition. Contact Erin Allen at (202) 707-7302.