Bernstein almost quit work on 'West Side Story'
It is regularly judged one of the best musicals of all time, yet West Side Story, with its famous Leonard Bernstein score, came close to being abandoned before it reached an audience.
A new, comprehensive collection of Bernstein's letters, most of which have never been made public before, will reveal next month that the extent of bad feeling between the composer and the playwright, Arthur Laurents, put the whole production in serious jeopardy.
The correspondence, to be published by Yale University Press and edited by British musicologist Nigel Simeone, contains a 1949 letter from Laurents to Bernstein that clearly refers to a recent threat by the composer to pull out of the project. "I'm sorry you've decided not to do the show," writes Laurents, who goes on to observe that "hostility had popped up" between them.
West Side Story, which contains the hit songs America and Maria and is now credited with changing the shape of musical theatre, was dropped until friends persuaded the composer to return to it years later.
The idea for West Side Story dated from 1947 when choreographer Jerome Robbins approached both Bernstein and Laurents about a modern musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The plot would centre on conflict between the Irish Catholic community and the Jews living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Laurents' first draft was called 'East Side Story', but Bernstein is thought to have been disappointed by a lack of originality in the themes and to have disagreed with Laurents about whether it should be a piece of lyric theatre, or an operetta, as Bernstein would have preferred.
Simeone's book shows that by 1955, however, Bernstein had again committed himself to the musical. The involvement of the young lyricist Stephen Sondheim cemented plans for a story about rival gangs. The tale was turned into a film starring Natalie Wood in 1961.