How we made West Side Story

‘I wanted to be the first guy to use a four-letter word in a musical – but the line ended up as “krup you” instead’

Stephen Sondheim, lyricist

I was at a party with Arthur Laurents who was about to write a musical with Leonard Bernstein based on Romeo and Juliet. I asked who was doing the lyrics and he said: “Gosh, we’ve been thinking about that. We don’t have anybody.” Lenny wanted Comden and Green (Singin’ in the Rain) but they were in Hollywood under a contract. Arthur asked if I’d play for Lenny.

I really wanted to be writing my own music as well, not just lyrics, but thought it would be nice to meet Bernstein. So I played him some of Saturday Night, about a group of kids at the time of the stock market crash. It was a very New York show, all colloquial. Lenny liked to intimidate people. He asked: “Haven’t you got anything poetic?” I said, well, they’re kids in Brooklyn in 1929. It wouldn’t be terribly appropriate. But he liked what he heard.

Stephen Sondheim.
Stephen Sondheim. Photograph: AP

When we worked together, Lenny would sketch out something that was purple prose not poetry. It screamed: “Look at me! I’m being poetic!” I’d learned from Oscar Hammerstein, my mentor, that the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself. Poetry makes, generally, very poor lyrics unless you’re dealing with a certain kind of show. It’s too allusive, that’s not what you want. When Lenny failed, he failed big. He was always jumping off the top of the ladder. When you’re young, you want to take chances but you get discouraged by failure. I learned, as a composer, to be less square – that you don’t always have to write in four-bar phrases.

Jerome Robbins was a taskmaster, as choreographers are. He’s the only genius I’ve ever met but he was demanding and easily offended. You came out scarred, but you came out with good work.

There’s a lot of plot in West Side Story but its scenes are probably the shortest of any book musical that’s ever existed. Arthur packed so much into it. He also did something very smart. He said the trouble with street slang is that it dates. So he made up a lot of language and has the guys say things like “riga tiga tum tum”. It’s a sort of Alice in Wonderland language that doesn’t date. There is almost no real slang. The simplest songs, like Maria, were the hardest to write. Gee, Officer Krupke was easier. I wanted to be the first guy to use a four-letter word in a musical. I did but the line became “krup you” instead. The record couldn’t have been shipped over the state line if I’d used an obscenity.

We knew we were going to write a number about America for the Sharks and their girls. Lenny went on vacation to Puerto Rico and said: “I’ve been listening to this wonderful musical form called huapango.” He played this very fast tune and I said, boy it’s going to be hard to shoehorn lyrics into that but I’ll try. It’s a very crowded lyric: some of it works and some of it doesn’t. I found out, years later, that he’d written the tune in his teens for an unproduced ballet called Conch Town. Someone at the Library of Congress sent it to me and said turn to page 17. I looked and found: “yuh-duh-duh yuh-duh-duh durr-durr-durr.” Lenny had made up this entire story to make it seem more spontaneous, then just pulled out an old tune that he liked.

We opened out of town. By the time we got to New York the audience had heard the show was a “work of art” and sat as if at church. The first half hour was just deadly. They forgot they were at a musical until the girls came on and did some fancy dancing and shook their skirts for America. The reviews were great but the danger is always: don’t get complacent.

You know something? There aren’t any fantastic rhymes in West Side Story. They’re almost all day and may, go and show. It would have been betraying the characters if they’d rhymed too well. I Feel Pretty still bothers me. It’s just too elegant for a girl like Maria to sing. I mean, “It’s alarming how charming I feel”? That wouldn’t be unwelcome in Noël Coward’s living room. I don’t know what a Puerto Rican street girl is doing singing a line like that.

Choreographer Jerome Robbins, second left, with Chita Rivera.
‘We desperately wanted to please our choreographer’ … Chita Rivera, centre, with Jerome Robbins to her left. Photograph: AP

Chita Rivera, actor

I must have had about five auditions. I decided to perform My Man’s Gone Now from Porgy and Bess, which is usually sung soprano but I’m sort of bass baritone. Lenny chuckled when he asked me to do it again. He was either thinking, she has a lot of guts or she’s pretty stupid.

I loved playing Anita: she’s a mother image to Maria, protective of her, but also saucy and passionate, very much in love with Bernardo. We had a whole cast of young, excited dancers and all that energy in a room feeds off itself. America was tremendous fun to perform because of the tempo, the Latin rhythm. Stephen’s lyrics for that song are so biting and comical. I got letters from Puerto Rican people who had totally misunderstood it – they thought that I really meant it was an “ugly island” and didn’t realise that Anita was joking to make a point. They were highly emotional about it.

We were taught how to sing America so every word could be heard clearly. You had to put air through certain consonants and hit the “k” in “like” very hard. You’re dancing at the same time so it’s hard, but it’s your job to make it seem easy. We desperately wanted to please our choreographer – that’s how dancers should think. We expected things to be hard and we liked it that way. But Jerry Robbins only allowed me to do the taunting scene – in which Anita is tormented by the Jets – once a day because he wanted to keep it as fresh as possible. I wouldn’t have wanted to be Mickey Calin, who played Riff. He had to be pushed a little harder. He was perfect for the role – smooth, handsome, and the girls loved him. During rehearsals he’d take breaks upstage and the girls would be all around him. One time I walked past Jerry and he was about to let Mickey have it. I said: “Please, don’t do it!”

We came out of the stage door one night and there were six or so gang members who’d come to take a look at the guys portraying their lives on stage. After the Broadway run, we went to Manchester – I’d never seen so much fog – and then London, where Terence Stamp was a stagehand at our theatre. One day Judi Dench took class with us.

I was asked to audition for the part of Anita in the movie version but had agreed to be in Bye Bye Birdie in Philadelphia with the delicious Dick van Dyke. My agency asked if they’d hold the film until I’d finished the show. I’m a little embarrassed to remember that. I’d signed up to do Birdie and just thought it was wrong to leave.

When we were putting West Side Story together in New York, Jerry had a phenomenal idea – he said the actors playing the Sharks and the Jets shouldn’t socialise, in order to make things much more tense when they meet on stage for the dancehall competition. So we rehearsed in different rooms – Jerry had the Jets in one and Peter Gennaro had the Sharks in another. I not only spoke to a Jet but I married one – Tony Mordente – and we had a Shark-Jet daughter.


Interviews by Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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