If you’re familiar with our Big Before Broadway site, you know that great shows start with a great team. Few teams have been more significant than the four men who came together to make West Side Story. Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and playwright Arthur Laurents were major players in their own right, while young lyricist Stephen Sondheim went on to become arguably the most successful and influential voice in American musical theatre. Under the eye of producer Harold Prince, himself a future Broadway legend, the quartet overcame their artistic differences to produce a groundbreaking musical.
Jerome Robbins was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in New York on October 11, 1918. After being deprived of a college education by the financial constraints of the Great Depression, Robbins embarked on a career as a dancer in an experimental troupe before catching the eye of George Balanchine, the influential ballet instructor and choreographer who welcomed him into the American Ballet Theatre. Robbins chafed at the Russian-influenced constraints of classical ballet and eventually broke away to create work in a more American style. He soon recruited composer Leonard Bernstein to create Fancy Free, a jazz-infused ballet about three sailors on leave. It debuted to a rapturous reception in 1944, and was later adapted into the musical On the Town, which featured a racially integrated chorus (unheard of at the time) and effectively launched Robbins’s career as a serious Broadway player. Robbins won his first Tony Award for choreography a few years later with High Button Shoes (1947) and was soon collaborating with Broadway royalty when he choreographed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic The King and I (1951). As his star was rising, however, Robbins suddenly found himself under investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a Congressional body that prosecuted supposed communists, perpetuating an atmosphere of fear and ideological suppression. Because Robbins was a former member of the Communist Party, he soon found himself in hot water, and, after facing threats that his homosexuality would be revealed to the public, he “named names” and turned other artists over to the Committee. Robbins was forever haunted by what he had done, but continued to enjoy success in ballet and musical theatre. After making the leap to director-choreographer with The Pajama Game (1954), Robbins joined forces once again with Bernstein to realize a project he had been ruminating on since 1949: West Side Story. Robbins went on to reprise his role as director-choreographer (in collaboration with Robert Wise) for the film of West Side Story (1961). Despite eventually being fired for going over budget thanks to his high demands, Robbins won two Academy Awards for the film, one for choreography and a shared one for directing. Following the stage success of West Side Story, Robbins reunited with Laurents and Sondheim for the hit musical Gypsy (1959) and later directed and choreographed the classic Fiddler on the Roof (1964), for which he won Tony Awards for directing and choreography. Following Fiddler, he returned to the ballet and created groundbreaking work with the experimental American Theatre Lab in the 1960s. His last major Broadway production was a celebratory retrospective of his work entitled Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), which he directed and for which he won his final Tony Award. Robbins continued to be a presence in the dance world until his death in 1998. His estate passed into the Jerome Robbins Foundation, which funded, among other things, extensive AIDS research and helped the New York Public Library establish one of the finest dance archives in the world. Robbins leaves behind a complex legacy as a brilliant artist whose working methods could be demanding to the point of abusive; indeed, many of the behaviors he exhibited in the rehearsal room are unacceptable today. Nevertheless, many great performers give enormous credit to him for influencing their careers.
Leonard Bernstein was born Louis Bernstein in 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts to Jewish immigrants from Russia. By age 12, he was already studying at the New England Conservatory of Music and asserting his wish to become a musician, despite his father’s objections. Bernstein played piano throughout school and produced several of his own shows before going on to Harvard. However, it was not until he encountered the work of composer Aaron Copland that he became interested in creating his own work. After graduating from Harvard, Bernstein developed another major connection with Serge Koussevitzky, who established a new school in Tanglewood, Massachusetts and invited Bernstein to study there. It was Koussevitzky who helped Bernstein emerge onto the national stage by becoming the first American assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic at the unheard-of age of 25. As an assistant conductor, Bernstein was rarely meant to be called upon, yet he was summoned in extraordinary circumstances after both the guest conductor and lead conductor of the Philharmonic were suddenly unavailable for a major concert to be broadcast on CBS radio. With three hours of sleep, a hangover, and no rehearsal time, Bernstein took to the podium and wowed onlookers. He quickly became an in-demand conductor and set about carving out a career as a composer. His works included symphonies such as Jeremiah (1942), The Age of Anxiety (1949), and Kaddish (1963), operas such as Trouble in Tahiti (1953) and A Quiet Place (1983), and a wide range of sonatas and other compositions. He found success on Broadway and in Hollywood, including with Jerome Robbins on the ballet Fancy Free (1944), which later became the musical On the Town (1944). Prior to West Side Story, Bernstein had composed the musicals Wonderful Town (1953) and Candide (1956) and the score for the film On the Waterfront (1954). Bernstein was a committed educator and reached a wide audience through the medium of television by hosting his Young People’s Concerts and the educational Omnibus programs, which eventually earned him a prestigious Peabody Award. After enjoying an 11-year run as the head of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein took on a number of projects around the world and frequently delved into politics. He became known for his support for civil rights and for protesting the Vietnam War, and in 1989 he rejected a National Medal of the Arts in protest of the National Endowment of the Arts’ decision to withdraw funding for an arts show on AIDS. Throughout his life, Bernstein was renowned for being gregarious, hard-living, and passionate. He was married to Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, with whom he had two children. He also had several illicit affairs with men that he kept secret from the public for fear of repercussions. He died in 1990 due to complications with progressive lung failure.
Laurents was born Arthur Levine on July 14, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York to middle-class Jewish parents. He developed a love for the theatre while enjoying Broadway trips with his aunt. Laurents read prolifically while attending college at Cornell University and later enrolled in writing classes at New York University while working at a department store. After breaking into radio, Laurents wrote a number of training films and sketches during military service. The experience helped him draft his first Broadway play, Home of the Brave, a critique of anti-semitism, which debuted in 1945. By the time West Side Story came around, Laurents had already enjoyed a successful Broadway career and written a range of films showcasing the talents of Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman. Laurents later reunited with Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins on Gypsy (1959), the tale of a famous stripper named Gypsy Rose Lee and her overbearing mother. He won his first Tony Award for Best Musical for Hallelujah, Baby! in 1967 and later found success as a director of musicals, winning another Tony for directing the premiere of La Cage aux Folles (1983) and nominations for revivals of Gypsy in 1975 and 2008. Laurents also made a return to West Side Story as director of the 2009 Broadway production, which briefly included Spanish-language lyrics in two of the songs. Laurents often confronted political issues, particularly the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings, in his work, including in such plays as The Time of the Cuckoo (1952) and the film The Way We Were (1973). Despite frequently writing for the screen, his relationship with Hollywood was disrupted by people meddling with his material; this was especially apparent in changes made to the film version of Home of the Brave and efforts to tone down the politics in The Way We Were. In addition to writing for stage and screen, Laurents also left behind an autobiography, Original Story By (2001), and a memoir, Mainly On Directing (2009). He died in 2011.
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 in New York City to parents who worked in the fashion industry. His parents divorced when he was young and he and his mother, with whom he had a famously contentious relationship, later moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. There they became neighbors of the great Oscar Hammerstein II, part of the iconic musical duo Rodgers and Hammerstein. Hammerstein quickly became an artistic mentor and surrogate father to young Sondheim. While studying math and music at Williams College in Massachusetts, Sondheim wrote several student shows, and upon graduating earned the Hutchison Prize, a fellowship that allowed him to study music in New York City. After briefly writing for the TV show Topper, Sondheim returned to New York in 1955 and began work on his first professional show, Saturday Night, with Broadway producer Lemuel Ayers. Unfortunately, Ayers died unexpectedly from leukemia, and the show was abandoned. Soon after, however, Sondheim was recruited to be the lyricist for West Side Story. Though he disdained his own contribution to the show, working with established names opened up a number of opportunities, including another job as lyricist on Gypsy (1959). Sondheim first struck out on his own as a composer-lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1962), a bawdy retelling of the comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus, which earned several Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Though well established as a major talent, Sondheim suffered a relatively fallow period during the 1960s, a time punctuated by the commercial failure of Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and the death of Hammerstein, who left work for Sondheim to finish in Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). In 1970, however, he began a truly extraordinary run of success, starting with the Tony-winning hit Company (1970). This was followed by Follies (1971), which was acclaimed if financially disappointing; A Little Night Music (1973), a hit which included the famous, Grammy-winning song “Send in the Clowns”; The Frogs (1974), an experimental adaptation of the play by the 4th century Greek playwright Aristophanes; and Pacific Overtures (1976), which was heavily influenced by Japanese haiku poetry and kabuki theatre. In 1979, Sondheim produced one of his most celebrated works, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, an operatic masterpiece. He continued to experiment while producing hits such as the Pulitzer Prize-winner Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and Tony-winners Into the Woods (1988) and Passions (1994), as well as relatively under-appreciated gems such as Merrily We Roll Along (1981) and Assassins (1990). In addition to winning a host of Tony Awards, Sondheim has earned an Academy Award, several Grammys, a National Medal of the Arts in 1997, and the highly prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Sondheim’s work has been collected and celebrated in numerous retrospectives, and he has the distinct honor of having theatres named after him in both New York City and London. He was an avid theatre-goer and beloved mentor right up until his death in 2021 at the age of 91.
From the Archives
While Playbill has been providing basic programs for theatre productions all over the country for over a century, many shows also produce a glossy, in-depth program highlighting the key contributors of the production and describing the process. It just so happens that The National Theatre Archives has an original program of West Side Story, featuring profiles of the four major players as well as photographs of the rehearsal process. Peruse the gallery of selected pages below to get a look at the artists’ perspective.
Hawtree, Christopher. “Arthur Laurents obituary.” The Guardian online. The Guardian, May 6, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/may/06/arthur-laurents-obituary.
“Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About: About the Artist.” PBS.org. Public Broadcasting Service, January 27, 2009, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/jerome-robbins-about-the-artist/1099/.
Oja, Carol J. “An Out and Out Plea for Racial Tolerance: West Side Story, Civil Rights, and Immigration Politics.” Arts & Culture. Google, accessed 30 July, 2021, Oja, Carol J. “An Out and Out Plea for Racial Tolerance: West Side Story, Civil Rights, and Immigration Politics.” Arts & Culture. Google, accessed 30 July, 2021, https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/IgJCyxXwWyd8Kg.
Oliver, Myrna. “Leonard Bernstein Dies; Conductor, Composer: Music: Renaissance man of his art was 72. The longtime leader of the N.Y. Philharmonic carved a niche in history with ‘West Side Story’.” Los Angeles Times online. Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1990, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-10-15-mn-1946-story.html.
Pender, Rick. “About Stephen Sondheim.” Everything Sondheim. Signature Theatre, accessed January 6, 2020, https://everythingsondheim.org/about/about-stephen-sondheim/.