By Amelia Willingham
The idea for West Side Story came to Jerome Robbins seven years before he brought the idea to Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents. Working at the Actors Studio in 1947, Robbins had attempted to help Monty Clift settle into his role as Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by suggesting he imagine that the story took place “among the gangs of New York.” Bernstein and Laurents reached out to Robbins in 1955 with an idea for a new musical, but Robbins ended up trashing it. Instead, Robbins proposed the idea of a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and West Side Story was born.
Jerome Robbins filled the role of choreographer, director, and “show doctor,” seizing control over the entire project. At the onset of production, he requested eight weeks of rehearsal, as opposed to the Broadway standard of four. He made changes to Bernstein and Sondheim’s music, even up until the show’s opening night at the DC National Theatre. His taxing methods accompanied intense choreography, but the product proved worth it; the physically demanding dances express musical themes, capture every nuance of the score, and narrate the story through movement. Robbins’ storytelling style is especially evident in his choreography for “Cool,” shown below:
Working with Robbins proved a challenge for Bernstein, who had to leave his ego at the door in silently accepting critique and criticism from Robbins. Robbins reflected on the dynamic between them as being a “continual flow,” but Bernstein looked back on it as “composing with [Robbins’] hands on [his] shoulders.” He even lamented to his wife, Felicia, “all the things I love most in it are being dropped.” However, Robbins found a way to express visually what Bernstein initiated musically, and to brilliant effect.
Amelia Willingham is a Senior Music Major and Hispanic Studies Minor at Davidson College from Charlotte, NC. She works for Davidson Technical Services and spends much of her time arranging music for and singing with her a cappella group, The Nuances.
In 2018, music lovers everywhere are celebrating the centennial of legendary artist Leonard Bernstein. To help give our listeners a deeper dive into Bernstein’s life and musical genius, we have partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Bill Lawing’s seminar on Leonard Bernstein to produce a blog series sharing details about Bernstein’s family, career, friendships and more. This intimate look at Bernstein’s personal life is a part of that series.
Click here for additional blog posts highlighting different aspects of Leonard Bernstein’s experience.