New Herald Tribune, 8/57
From New York Herald Tribune, 8/4/57
This article by Arthur Laurents, author of the play for West Side Story, appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on August 4, 1957:
Once upon a long time ago, not too long after the invention of the horseless carriage, Jerome Robbins began to burst with an idea for a rather different kind of musical. He proposed that I write the words and that Leonard Bernstein the music for a modern telling of "Romeo and Juliet," set on the lower East Side of New York. The young lovers were to be contemporary adolescents, their families in religious conflict: Juliet a Jewish girl, Romeo a Catholic boy.
"'Abie's Irish Rose' to music," gibed a part-time witch we all knew. (Full time, she is the ballerina Nora Kaye). "The dance of the garbage cans," she muttered into her steaming cauldron. But the garbage-can naturalism was the last thing any of us wanted to see in the theater, particularly the musical theater. Our hope was to make the stage more theatrical, more lyrical, more magically exciting.
We talked, for example, of the balcony scene played on a gossamer fire escape; the language lifted above modern street level until it soared into song at the moment the lovers first kissed. And at that moment, the surrounding buildings would disappear, leaving the lovers in space, in their own world.
Too Much Temperament
The witch liked that notion and others similar. "Nevertheless, you'll never write it," she predicted cheerfully. "Your three temperaments in one room, and the walls will come down."
The walls did come down. In fact, the whole apartment building where we first met came down with a great crash. And while conferences were held and actual writing was begun, where our temperaments did not clash, our commitments did. The show, like the building, fell to pieces, and the witch salted her brew with a knowing smile.
That, as I said, was long ago, 1949 to be exact. But Robbins is a man of distinct determination. In 1955, the three of us met again (in another building which has since been torn down: wreckage proceeds faster these days). Human wreckage, too, and we found ourselves discussing a headline aspect: juvenile delinquency.
And there it was: time had brought us a new, a better background for the musical; today's confused adolescents forming gangs to give them a sense of belonging to something: two juvenile gangs for "both your houses!" Excitement turned into plans, promises, cross-my-heart hope-to-die pledges.
Several months later, Bernstein and I were both in Hollywood finishing tax-paying projects, and serious talks began. In Shakespeare, the nature of the conflict between the two houses is never specified. We had begun with religion, but that was dropped into the roomy swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Instead, the racial problems of Los Angeles influenced us to shift our play from the Lower East Side of New York to the Upper West Side, and the conflict to that between a Puerto Rican gang and a polymorphous self-styled "American" gang.
Bernstein left, Robbins arrived. Sample discussions: should the play follow Shakespeare closely, almost paraphrase the original? Should it keep only key scenes and characters? Or should it simply use the original as a reference point and let the story wind its own way, led by the character of today's youth?
Looking back, I see that the latter answer was inevitable, if only because the entire second half of the Shakespearean play rests on Juliet swallowing a magic potion, a device that would not be swallowed in a modern play. Thus, while this version does have scenes or parts of scenes and characters adapted from or suggested by the original, there are also scenes and characters and plot turnings which are new because, in terms of today, they had to be new.
That indefinable word "style" cropped up when the three of us were at last free and together and picking everything apart in New York. By that time, we needed a fourth: a lyricist, to collaborate with Bernstein. I had heard the highly talented work of an unproduced but very productive young man named Stephen Sondheim. Very soon, he was double-taking "style" with as much confusion as the rest of us.
No Garbage Cans
We all knew what we did not want. Neither formal poetry nor flat reportage; neither opera nor split-level musical comedy numbers; neither zippered-in ballets nor characterless dance routines. We didn't want newsreel acting, blue-jean costumes or garbage can scenery any more than we wanted soapbox pounding for our theme of young love destroyed by a violent world of prejudice.
What we did want was to aim at a lyrically and theatrically sharpened illusion of reality. In the story, I have emphasized character and emotion rather than place-name specifics and sociological statistics. The dialogue is my translation of adolescent street talk into theater: it might sound real, but it isn't. The music has the feeling of juke box, of transplanted Puerto Rico, but the expression is pure Bernstein. The movement resembles jitterbugging in some places, street fighting in others, but it is all Robbins in dance.
Just as Tony and Maria, our Romeo and Juliet, set themselves apart from the other kids by their love, so we have tried to set them even further apart by their language, their songs, their movement. Wherever possible in the show, we have tried to heighten emotion or to articulate inarticulate adolescence through music, sung or danced; wherever possible, we have tried to use everything that is lyrical and fun and exciting in the theater. And always, we have insisted on being true to our characters, speaking, singing or dancing.
Lovely words--but juvenile delinquency is not the most lyric subject in the world. Nor is the last part of any Romeo and Juliet story the most fun-provoking in the world. The result? Well, our part-time witch, for one, is delighted she is out of the predicting business. She has swapped her broomstick for a prayer rug and, being bored with naturalistic theater, she is wishing very hard for the success of this venture into lyric theatricality. Being tolerant, forgiving and unselfish men, we are wishing very hard that her wishes come true.