Fans of West Side Story – and of musical theatre in general – were treated to an hour-long documentary this Christmas produced and directed by Ursula Macfarlane and fronted by choreographer Bruno Tonioli and broadcaster Suzy Klein. Richly illustrated with archive footage, new interviews and musical excerpts played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra – conducted by Gareth Valentine – and sung by, among others, Rob Houchen, Stewart Clarke, Zoe Doano and Gemma Sutton, West Side Stories: The Making of a Classic is a respectful and fascinating contribution to the history of musical theatre.
Sondheim, of course, features heavily, being the last remaining of the four core creatives, alongside Leonard Bernstein (composer), Jerome Robbins (choreographer) and Arthur Laurents (writer).
From his home in Turtle Bay, New York, Sondheim speaks with Klein about his experience on the show. “Musically, I learned a lot from Lenny, seeing how he approached writing,” said Steve. “Osmosis, you know? He never lectured me – none of that.”
However, he goes on to explain how difficult it was working with Bernstein at the beginning of the process. “He was very fond of changing my lyrics. ‘Wouldn’t this be better?’ I was 25 years old and he treated me like a kid! He treated me nicely and very well, but always that condescension was there. It took a long time for him to accept that I was my own man.”
Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein illustrates the value of Steve’s contribution with a delightful example from the song “Maria”. She explains: “There are some sketches that exist of preliminary lyrics that my father wrote:
Maria, it’s a sound like there’s music playing
It’s a sound like in church when they’re praying
“I thought, ‘That’s so inelegant. That is really so inferior to:
Maria, say it loud and there’s music playing
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying
“Now that’s a lyric! But that was Steve!”
Jamie goes on to say that her father found composing a lonely profession, which is why he liked the collaborative nature of musical theatre and working with his “buddies”, even if later in the show excerpts from his letters to his wife reveal how tormented Bernstein was by the process.
“I think he was very happy to have a collaborator that was a musician,” suggested Steve, tempering this in his typical self-effacing way with: “I may be flattering myself…”
Sondheim is thanked for bringing Larry Kert into the production as Tony, after seeing him singing in a TV commercial. “Dozens of bright young hopefuls” were auditioned, explains host Tonioli, but it was Sondheim who saw something in the 25-year-old Kert, who had already been turned down for three different roles in the show.
Kert explains: “It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, and I’m singing [in a high-pitched camp tenor], ‘This shirt is forty-three percent cotton, twenty-two percent wool…’ one of those silly things you do. Stephen Sondheim happened to be there that morning. He came backstage and said, ‘Boy, I’ve seen your auditions. How come you don’t sing high for us? You’ve always sung this low stuff’. I said, “Listen: every day I read in the paper that you’re looking for a six-foot, blond, Polish tenor for Tony. I’m a five-foot eleven Jewish baritone!’ Sondheim said, ‘I’m setting you up for an audition as Tony!” Kert, of course, got the job.
Sondheim is also credited with bringing Hal Prince into the production after producer Cheryl Crawford, fearing that the show would never be a hit, pulled out just weeks before rehearsals were due to start. (In an amusing aside, “The Boys”, as they were known, attempted to console themselves at the Algonquin Hotel but were barred entry because Arthur Laurents wasn’t wearing a tie! “Arthur and I went to drown our sorrows and figure out what to do,” says Steve. “Talk about adding insult to injury! Gee whiz! Our entire lives had just fallen apart and I’m terribly sorry, you can’t have a drink because you don’t have a tie!?”)
Prince, a friend of Sondheim’s, flew to New York to meet the team. “Steve had played the whole score in my apartment and in his apartment, so I knew it very well and I love it. But he said, ‘Please don’t tell anyone that you’ve heard the material because Lenny is very finicky about it and doesn’t want anyone to have heard any of it.’ I said okay.” Prince goes on to say how he and Steve visited Bernstein’s apartment, where the composer played the score, nervously and loudly – “Lenny can play loud!”, Prince notes. “During the playing of the score, I suddenly started to hum one of the songs inadvertently. I didn’t ever realise I was doing it. I thought, ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’ Lenny stopped and said, ‘That’s what I’ve always wanted, a musical producer! By the time I left his apartment, we’d agreed to do it!”
West Side Stories goes on to detail the show’s opening and movie adaptation, interviewing many of the those involved at the time. There’s plenty of fascinating archive footage shown alongside the newly filmed interviews, so there’s much here to interest musical theatre and movie historians. Don’t miss it.
West Side Stories: The Making of a Classic is available on BBC iPlayer here.
BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gareth Valentine
Singers: Christine Allado, Ava Brennan, Nathanael Campbell, Christopher Chung, Stewart Clarke, Zoe Doano, Rob Houchen, Debbie Kurup, Oliver Ormson, Gemma Sutton, Jon Tarcy and Kayi Ushe.