Sometime in the 1940s, it occurred to choreographer Jerome Robbins that an updated musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet could be a good idea. He pitched it to composer Leonard Bernstein and librettist Arthur Laurents, and when they actually got to work on it, in the mid-1950s, Laurents brought in a 25-year-old with a talent for lyrics, Stephen Sondheim.
And so the stars were aligned for the creation of West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957 in a production directed by Robbins and is now playing in a faithful, all-too-relevant revival, directed by Francesca Zambello at Lyric Opera as this season’s spring musical.
The story is set in mid-20th century Manhattan, but it could be taking place on the streets of Chicago today. Initially conceived by Robbins as an “East Side Story,” with Jewish and Catholic protagonists, it became the tale of Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, and Tony, a Polish-American boy. They fall in love at first sight in spite of the animosity between their communities, which plays out as a gang war between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the “American” Jets, offspring of a not-that-much-earlier wave of immigration from Europe.
West Side Story was groundbreaking in 1957, in part because it put dance at the center of its storytelling and had operatic elements (including a tragic ending), but also for the issues it addressed: immigration, discrimination, evolving gender roles, urban neighborhoods in transition, disenfranchised youth, corrupt policing, violence on the streets, and senseless killing. It was ripped from the headlines of its day, but now—even allowing for 21st-century scruples about stereotyping and appropriation—feels like it could have come from ours. It was, as they say, woke before woke was a thing.
The current Lyric coproduction with Houston Grand Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival retains Robbins’s original choreography, reproduced by Julio Monge. It opens with the now-iconic whistle and finger-snapping prelude that introduces the two gangs as they chase and confront each other on a gritty city street—a foretaste of the explosive combat choreography that’s one of the show’s principal glories. The gangs are led by Bernardo, Maria’s older brother (elegantly played by Manuel Stark Santos), and Riff (Brett Thiele), Tony’s best friend. It’s Riff who explains the virtues of gang life (“From your first cigarette/To your last dyin’ day”) in an opening earworm of a song, and then convinces former chief Jet Tony (Corey Cott) to join the gang at a dance that evening. Tony, already sensing that “Something’s Coming,” meets Maria at the dance, setting the wheels in motion for the rumble that’ll end with the deaths of both gang leaders. It’s a poetically compressed plot (timeline: two days), richly expanded by the diverse music of its composer/lyricist dream team, from the brilliant satire of “Gee, Officer Krupke” to the sublime duet, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” sung by Maria and Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Which brings us to two compelling performances.
West Side Story‘s creators intended it to be an ensemble work rather than a star showcase. They cast it with a group of young, mostly unknown performers. But ever since its first run, when she was played, indelibly, by Chita Rivera (Rita Moreno had the role in the film), it’s been Anita’s show. (Sondheim’s unforgettable lyrics for her big number, “America,” don’t hurt.) Amanda Castro, who plays Anita in this production, is a great dancer, with the singing and acting chops the part demands. She does it full justice.
But there’s a surprise here: this show belongs to Maria. Mikaela Bennett, cast as the sweet but usually less-than-dynamic ingenue, is a major emerging talent with a soprano voice so extraordinary, it dominates the production. If that’s a flaw, it’s an elevating one.
The popularity of the Bernstein/Sondheim score, with stand-alone hits like “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere,” along with the classic 1961 film, have made West Side Story so familiar, performances can take on a ritual aspect. But a chance to see it in a production at this operatic scale, with a 40-piece orchestra (conducted by James Lowe) is rare. v