Preview: West Side Story

Leyla Gumusdis 26 February 2016

Ellie Coote and Tom Taplin give us an insight into their directorial debut: West Side Story.

West Side Story is arguably the most iconic musical of all time. Constructed from Shakespeare’s classic love story, Stephen Sondheim’s infamous lyric, Leonard Bernstein’s soaring melodies and Jerome Robbins’ ground breaking choreography; every theatregoer, and many non-theatre-goers, feel a connection to this show.

Though a gang of ‘juvenile delinquents’ leaping and clicking their way across New York’s Upper West Side is now considered an old-time classic, West Side Story was in fact a completely revolutionary musical during its time. Up until the original Broadway production in 1957, musicals were still being called ‘musical comedies.’ Bernstein’s classic marked the change that blurred the line between musicals and opera, creating an entirely new form: musical dramas.

Many elements of West Side Story remain rooted in the conventions of the 1950s. The Dream Ballet, which occurs in the second act and dramatizes through dance the lead character’s deepest fears, was a convention pioneered by Rogers and Hammerstein in their classic ‘Oklahoma!’ This convention has slowly been dropped from modern musicals since, and many revivals choose to cut them from the classic shows. Along with the occasionally out-dated line – “Great, Daddy-O!” – this seems to raise a difficult problem for West Side Story: how do you make the show relevant to modern audiences without modernising it?

The ultimate failing of the show’s legacy is that the darker elements are often entirely forgotten. We remember the jovial, clicking, out-dated Jets, but not the death or the assault or the police corruption. It’s a show that ultimately advocates tolerance in its tragedy, but can become clouded in audience’s memories by the lighter elements and ‘I Feel Pretty’ la-la-la-ing.

Yet these light elements are what make the show so affecting. Without them, we’re plunged into darkness. With them, it uses the somewhat goofy wackiness that musical comedies are so adept at, and sets them off against the greatest tragedy ever written.

West Side Story is the only musical in history to combine in equal measure music, drama and dance, to use all three elements to tell a story, and to bridge the gap between musical comedy and opera. It is a musical born of its time, but not confined to its time. Though the script may be 50 years past its sell-by-date, its vibrancy, its portrayal of discrimination and its score are timeless.

West Side Story is running 9th-19th March at the ADC Theatre. For more information visit www.adctheatre.com/westsidestory