Blood on the stage, racial tensions turned violent, dissonant music and serious dance: from the beginning, the whole idea of West Side Story was definitely a disconnect from conventional musical theatre. Why should it be any different sixty years later; and, what lessons can we glean from this saga?
Most recently, within the past month, legendary film director Steven Spielberg, whose accomplishments include three Academy Awards and a long list of innovative movies such as Jaws, ET, Jurassic Park, and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, has demonstrated, once again, how difficult it is to succeed, anew, with what has arguably been the most successful musical idea in American musical theatre. What is so elusive about successfully bringing West Side Story to the screen, and why would someone as experienced as Spielberg even try?
To begin with, even an old version of West Side Story was never new. Its lineage began with William Shakespeare’s epic Romeo and Juliet, and culminated, or so we thought, in 1957 with an original Broadway play, West Side Story. Jamie Bernstein, the daughter of the composer of West Side Story’s music, Leonard Bernstein, admits that she’s “seen and heard West Side Story more times and more ways than I can count… including…. a one-woman version by Cher(!)”. Notably, besides the original Broadway version, in 1961, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins directed United Studio’s cinema version, which essentially adapted the stage version for screen, and featured Nathalie Wood, George Chakiris and Rita Moreno. It is the version that most people are familiar with. The impetus for this motion-picture effort was a recognition that the market for entertainment was changing fast, and movie theaters were increasingly preferred by American audiences over live productions. Despite being considered a risky endeavor, this version enjoyed considerable success; earning eleven academy award nominations, winning ten, including Best Picture.
Spielberg’s 2021 effort has made no real substantive pretense at newness, and for a serial risk-taker it is hardly the type of innovative effort with which to crown such a successful career. Admittedly, the original Broadway play would be hard to beat, on any dimension, having achieved legendary success and widely acclaimed as the greatest musical in American history. Furthermore, Spielberg would not even be the first to remake the Broadway play; besides the 1961 movie, several other revivals have appeared over the years, including, in 2008, a new stage production by Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original Broadway script, and which featured a bilingual revival where the Sharks performed in Spanish. None of these efforts had anywhere near the impact that the original Broadway play had.
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Spielberg’s $100 million budged version, West Side Story 3.0, we might call it, debuted on November 29, 2021, to a less than impressive market response. In its first month in theaters, the new movie generated approximately $36.6 million in box-office revenues, of which only $10.6 million was generated in its critical opening weekend. There were, of course, extenuating circumstances contributing to such dismal financial results: the Covid-19 pandemic, and constraints on public gathering; the growing availability of streaming video entertainment allowing the convenience of home-viewing; and a perceived reduction in audience acceptance of reworked past successes. No matter what the reason, a box office bomb on its first weekend, and seemingly endless criticism for the artistic results, thereafter, was surely not what was expected by Spielberg or his investors. What, then, would have led to such a decision to yet again adapt West Side Story? And, why was it so difficult to enjoy greater project success?
A Possible Back-Story
We think that there is a back-story associated with the creation of the original Broadway version of West Side Story that has more to do with who created it, and how they did so, than it is about what they did. We also surmise that this back-story is, in large part, why Spielberg found the project so compelling; maybe even irresistible. In its original Broadway form, West Side Story was the work of a team of passionate, ambitious, and risk-taking geniuses, who set-out to change the face of American musical theater, and succeeded. In a way, they were not so different from Spielberg, himself, in these respects. There is also a contextual dimension at work; a story of industry disruption, based, in this case, not on cheaper prices, but on smarter approaches, and a better customer experience. Once again, something that would have appealed to Spielberg. We also believe that if anyone working today would have been a welcome addition to the original team, it would have been Steven Spielberg. We speculate that it was the creative magic that made this team great that drew Spielberg in, not to renovate, but, instead to add expertise and technology not available in the mid-twentieth century, in an effort to ensure that the story would continue to resonate with the very different America of today.
The Original Virtuoso Team
The original Broadway play was much more than merely a team effort, it was a “virtuoso team” effort. The brainchild of classical ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins, who was a lifelong Romeo and Juliet aficionado, Robbins chose to partner with others in order to access critical expertise domains that were so necessary to make West Side Story an iconic work. Needing the best of the best, he built a team around legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, celebrated playwright Arthur Laurents, and the incomparable lyricist Stephen Sondheim to create the original Broadway offering. This assemblage of big talent into one team was inevitably accompanied by equally big egos, as well, which made it a leadership nightmare. Not surprisingly, the original play careened between prospects of great success and dismal failure throughout its development, from Robbins’ first call to Bernstein, when the project was called East Side Story, until September 1957, when it premiered on Broadway. They were young, accomplished and self-assured, and the frequently recurring clash of their differing temperaments led one observer to warn them that if they were ever actually brought into the same room, the result would only be to bring the walls down. The project proposal was rejected by all but one of the investors that they pitched their idea to. And, yet, despite all of this, the team not only stayed together, but they created history by changing the acceptability of complex music and classical ballet, as well as uncomfortable social themes, on the Broadway stage. The original play won two Tonys, was nominated for an additional four, and captured the heart of the American public. It took eight years to make this project work, but it was worth it artistically, and financially. Even today, sixty years later, the music is instantly recognizable, and Tony and Maria, while not exactly Romeo and Juliet, have become a part of our modern cultural heritage.
What Made This Original Success Possible?
The creative efforts that launched the original play, in 1961, adopted several, then unusual, practices, that today are associated with innovative success:
Context, the timing was perfect: Context is often the undervalued factor determining the success or failure of leadership and artistic decisions. Unlike the nineteen-fifties, it is widely accepted, today, that great innovation begins with issues and interests that are emerging in the marketplace, outside of the creative unit itself. West Side Story was all about what was happening in post World War II American society; and, in many ways, the content was, instinctively, faithful the essence of “outside-in” as a philosophy of innovation. The play addressed important issues that America was struggling with in the immediate post-war period: immigration, cultural diversity, and the poverty and crime found in the gritty streets of America’s urban centers, all of which were otherwise hardly visible in what were then contemporary entertainment offerings. The original West Side Story team recognized that such topics were too important to be left out of America’s social discourse. They also recognized that there was a latent yearning among sectors of America’s entertainment audience for more sophisticated offerings than were commonly available. West Side Story presented complex music (Bernstein), classical ballet to inform the kinetic motion of the play (Robbins), and memorable lyrics to accompany the musical drama (Sondheim), at a time when most Broadway musicals were plain vanilla as content, with simple plots and happy music. West Side Story, instead, represented profound departures from the common entertainment offerings of the time. The original team had a generous belief in their audience and took them seriously. They recognized the audience’s potential to rise above the diminishing audience stereotypes that Broadway was then designing for, and offered them, instead, mind-stretching content, music and dance, unlike anything seen before in American musical theater. This was a heroic belief in the capacity of an audience to accept more sophisticated content, and take part in such offerings, despite the competing conveniences of television in the home and air-conditioned viewing conditions.
Teamwork That Thrived On A Risky Challenge: The original West Side Story team was deliberately assembled from the best talent available for each position, but was also a high-stakes bet on individual career success for each of the original team members. One way or another, each of the four had been warned that dallying with West Side Story could be detrimental to their careers, yet each also recognized that being a part of this project represented an unusual opportunity to make a lasting mark on their profession. Spurred on by ambition, their talent rose to the occasion, and, in the end, their membership on the West Side Story team became the highlight of their extraordinary professional achievements.
Success was never guaranteed, however, and Jerry Robbins, who was the inspiration behind this project, was not easy to work with. He was a perfectionist who never let up; he was never satisfied, demanding of the artists and unrelenting in his expectations of excellence. Even rehearsal breaks were stressful, as Robbins insisted that in order to maintain a real feeling of rivalry, the Sharks and Jets must remain separated, as they would be in real life, allowing neither side to mix with the other. One production team member was heard to exclaim that “I’m not afraid of Hell when I die, because I’ve worked with Jerry Robbins.” There was never any suggestion compromise in what they were about; the idea of settling for “good enough” never once entered into their conversations, resulting in their leading by demonstration in every aspect of the project. As Stephen Sondheim recalled, in a video review of the making of Leonard Bernstein’s life, “Lenny always said that “if you’re going to fall off a ladder, pick a high rung,”” and this is exactly how the team approached the risks inherent in West Side Story.
Perhaps most of all, the members of the original team recognized that if one member won, they all won, and so the diversity of their backgrounds became a great source of innovation and strength, rather than an invitation to divisiveness. Bernstein observed “it was as if the four of us were all writing the same script; a rare and unusual thing on Broadway,” and while the play was Robbins’ idea, Bernstein was so deeply committed that he referred to it as “his baby.”
A Team That Grew Together In Learning: West Side Story was such a diversion from the norm that learning was taking place all of the time. On the road, before their Broadway launch, many of the dances had more than one possible ending, and an observer, positioned behind the curtains, would appraise audience reaction and then call-out what they felt would be the appropriate way to conclude each dance. This was stressful, but it was learning in the moment. Robbins, in particular, was relentless in his drive to learn more, whether it was venturing into street gang territory to ensure that his choreography was faithful to the way these alienated young people moved, or enrolling in night school for a course on basic music, so that he could communicate more effectively with Bernstein. Bernstein, himself, well-known for his “excitement, [and whose]…open-mindedness, his willingness to listen, appreciate, and share [were] infectious,” put these attributes to good use in coloring the drama with music so that the impact of both of his and Sondheim’s work became so much greater. Despite each of the four team members possessing their particular professional expertise at its highest level, there was never any resistance to suggestions from the others. They were willing to rework, and rework, anything and everything, so that the instincts of all were satisfied. This was an exhausting, seemingly never-ending, labor, but, years later, Robbins recalled that the continuous flow between he and Bernstein was a source of great energy for the entire project. One observer at the time suggested that great collaboration often leads to great competition, and that was true for West Side Story, as well. No one wanted to be left behind in this highly-talented, and evolving, project, so the desire to keep up with everyone else’s talents led to both collaboration and cooperation, and these two forces drove the success of the project. There is no doubt that this was a team effort, from start to finish, and Robbin’s assistant remembered that it was never about making a hit, it was about achieving excellence, and from that came a wonderful commitment to the work.
The Rationale for a New Version
We believe that Steven Spielberg recognized and appreciated the genius that authored the original West Side Story, and was attracted to the idea of adding his own expertise, not available in the nineteen-fifties, to the existing project. Spielberg’s 2021 version refreshes the original in ways that pays homage to the success of the original team. Stretching the bi-cultural aspects of the production in ways unthinkable in the nineteen-fifties, he has added a degree of authenticity that ultimately ennobles everyone’s roles. The application of new technology to the cinematography opens-up viewing vistas in ways that were not possible in 1961; never before have the streets of New York City’s slums looked as realistically gritty and replete with gang-triggered tension. Spielberg “directs the hell of this thing,” and, in doing so, has added his own genius to that of the original team’s, so that West Side Story will once again be part of a new generation’s cultural heritage. Add that to great music, a compelling story, and a talented cast, and Spielberg’s artistic risk has already paid off appreciably.
On the financial side, it is possible that Spielberg’s version could eventually yield somewhere between $50-61 million, as well as some Oscar attention; but, perhaps, the headwinds of changing tastes for content and delivery have proven to be greater than expected. While America still struggles with diversity, inclusion and opportunity, it’s not exactly the same as it was in the 1950s. The content has changed, enough at least, to revisit the suitability of the delivery vehicle. Stephen Sondheim is credited with preaching that content dictates form, with respect to the kind of music you are writing, but surely this also applies to the play, itself? Can you tweak material from sixty years ago, and still be as effective in your arguments as they were then? These are questions that will ultimately determined by the marketplace, but, for sure, Spielberg deserves our admiration for not shying away from big challenges, and not reinterpreting the original West Side Story materials in ways that make it unfamiliar, or less complex. We see this as a valiant effort, late in an already successful career, that makes a statement about the art, more than about the money, and maintains the contribution of West Side Story, or Romeo and Juliet, for yet another generation.