West Side Story, the tragic musical about star-crossed lovers from two rival gangs, was a hit on Broadway in the 1950s and then exploded across the country when it came to the silver screen.
At the time, New York City’s demographics and landscape were rapidly changing, and choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, author Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim wanted an updated Romeo and Juliet that wrestled with what those changes meant. Who could belong in this new America?
But more than 60 years later, many Puerto Ricans see West Side Story as an albatross. They say even though it has nothing to do with their actual experience, it’s still the outdated lens through which many white, mainland Americans see them. Broadway legend Chita Rivera and Broadway director and choreographer Grover Dale reflect on the production’s early days. And producer and author Jack Viertel reveals how West Side Story upended expectations for musicals, which previously had been strictly upbeat.
Studio 360’s New York Icons series is made possible by a grant from the Booth Ferris Foundation.
This podcast was produced for Studio 360 by Jennifer Vanasco, mixed by Wayne Shulmister, and edited by Andy Newman.
Thank you to the following for their time and assistance: Barbara Bengels, Grover Dale, Julia L. Foulkes, the Kennedy Center, Yasmeen Khan, Andy Lanset, Nora Lyons, Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Urayoán Noel, Chita Rivera, Bobby Sanabria, Smithsonian Folkways, Jack Viertel, Joe Curcio, and Danny Lewis.
Update, Nov. 19, 2019: This post has been updated to include an additional thank-you.
Studio 360 is a smart and surprising guide to what’s happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt introduces the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy—so let Studio 360 steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life. Produced in association with Slate.