Arguably the greatest post-war musical of them all turns fifty this year. I don't mind admitting that whenever I hear America I still get tears in my eyes. How many baby-boomers had their first feverish glimpse of New York life, warts and all, courtesy of this song?
Was the show an instant popular favourite? Well, it ran for nearly a thousand performances on Broadway, and there were all those Oscars for the film version a few years later. But Meryle Secrest's biography of Bernstein's lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, presents a much more mixed picture of the early response:
If West Side Story had never become a film, its score would have languished in obscurity because, despite the reviews, the musical was not successful, as [Hal] Prince and Sondheim have testified. "It got excellent critical press and people left in droves," Sondheim said. That, he thought, was because people did not go to musicals expecting experimental work. They went for an evening's diversion, and when a musical did not meet those expectations, audiences felt cheated. Sondheim recalled standing at the side of the aisle during the second night. "And I was so proud, you now, of my first show on Broadway. I'd been savaged and/or ignored in the reviews, but nevertheless I had a show on Broadway! So I'm standing on the side, the curtain goes up, there are six guyson stage." He started snapping his fingers and humming the opening bars of the Prologue. "About two minutes into the number I see a guy in the rear of the orchestra, "Excuse me, excuse me." And I think he's going to the bathroom, but he has a coat over his arm. "Excuse me, excuse me." And he came out to the aisle and caught my eye. He knew I must be connected with the show, because I was standing there instead of sitting in a seat, and he just said, "Don't ask."
BTW, I don't know whether it's easy to get tickets - they tend to sell out pretty quickly - but if you happen to be a show tune person, a new run of Ian Marshall Fisher's invaluable series, The Lost Musicals, starts at Sadlers Wells on April 1, continuing on each Sunday for the rest of the month. The idea is brilliantly simple: exhume a show that hasn't been in seen in London for decades (sometimes never, in fact), gather a group of actors on a stage with the scripts, no sets and a pianist, and then let rip. Next up is Cole Porter's Can-Can. (Silk Stockings, his re-working of Ninotchka, came magnificently to life last summer.) The perfect antidote to Lloyd Webberisms. As for where the new British musicals, if any, are coming from, critic-blogger Mark Shenton has been eavesdropping.
And now, here come the Jets...