In 1956 and 1957, My Fair Lady, Candide and The Music Man all debuted on Broadway. That’s an impressive group of works, but the most interesting premiere from that two-year period, in my mind, is that of West Side Story. Re-imagining Juliet as a young Hispanic immigrant and her balcony as a rusty, midtown fire escape was a brilliant stroke; bringing it all to life with a score that one-upped Broadway conventions from every perspective took a one-of-a-kind confluence of remarkable minds.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story’s debut and there’s been surprisingly little fanfare. Surprisingly little except here, that is: the North Carolina School of the Artshas mounted a production of the musical that’s running for the next two weeks, as well as symposia featuring author Arthur Laurents, orchestrator Sid Ramin, and actors Carol Lawrence and Michael Callin, who created the roles of Maria and Riff fifty years ago.Famously punishing for the performers, West Side Story asks them to portray characters loosely based on Shakespeare, dance Jerome Robbins’s athletic choreography, and sing Bernstein’s trademark tritones and polyrhythms to Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics.

The orchestration is radical, considering the genre, with, among other things, five percussionists. The rhythmic profile is like nothing else previously heard on the Broadway stage.

My experience with West Side Story, until this week, was just with the film and the cast album. Seeing it live is a completely different story: Robbins’s choreography coupled with Bernstein’s music have a visceral power on the stage that’s flattened out in the film. The tenuous line that separates youthful, testosterone-driven horseplay from searing violence is captured unforgettably. I’d always known it was a good show, but I had never fully realized how good.

This production is directed by Gerald Freedman, who was the assistant director for the original production fifty years ago. The Music Director is Bernstein protégé John Mauceri. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original script, has made some adjustments for this production — script edits he says he has long contemplated. The budget was in the hundreds of thousands, which translates to an enormous amount when one considers that none of the participants were paid. It’s a fine production, by any standards. But don’t take my word for it – here’s the review.

The North Carolina School of the Arts production of West Side Story opened on May 3; it’s running here through May 13, after which it will pick up and move to Ravinia in June.

photo of college junior Jenna Fakhoury as Anita courtesy of the Winston-Salem Journal.

 

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