West Side Story - Critical Reaction

Critical Reaction

The creators' innovations in dance, music and theatrical style resulted in strong reactions from the critics. Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on September 27, 1957:

The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning. Director, choreographer, and idea-man Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons .... the show rides with a catastrophic roar over the spider-web fire-escapes, the shadowed trestles, and the plain dirt battlegrounds of a big city feud ... there is fresh excitement in the next debacle, and the next. When a gang leader advises his cohorts to play it "Cool", the intolerable tension between an effort at control and the instinctive drives of these potential killers is stingingly graphic. When the knives come out, and bodies begin to fly wildly through space under buttermilk clouds, the sheer visual excitement is breathtaking .... Mr. Bernstein has permitted himself a few moments of graceful, lingering melody: in a yearning "Maria", in the hushed falling line of "Tonight", in the wistful declaration of "I Have a Love". But for the most part he has served the needs of the onstage threshing machine ... When hero Larry Kert is stomping out the visionary insistence of "Something's Coming" both music and tumultuous story are given their due. Otherwise it's the danced narrative that takes urgent precedence ...

The other reviews generally joined in speculation about how the new work would influence the course of musical theatre. Typical was John Chapman's review in the New York Daily News on September 27, 1957, headed: "West Side Story a Splendid and Super-Modern Musical Drama".

The American theatre took a venturesome forward step when the firm of Griffith & Prince presented West Side Story at the Winter Garden last evening. This is a bold new kind of musical theatre – a juke-box Manhattan opera. It is, to me, extraordinarily exciting .... the manner of telling the story is a provocative and artful blend of music, dance and plot – and the music and the dancing are superb. In, there is the drive, the bounce, the restlessness and the sweetness of our town. It takes up the American musical idiom where it was left when George Gershwin died. It is fascinatingly tricky and melodically beguiling, and it marks the progression of an admirable composer ...

Time magazine found the dance and gang warfare more compelling than the love story and noted that the show's "putting choreography foremost, may prove a milestone in musical-drama history ..."

While critics speculated about the comic-tragic darkness of the musical, audiences were captivated. The story appealed to society's undercurrent of rebellion from authority that surfaced in 1950s films like Rebel without a Cause. West Side Story took this one step further by combining the classic and the hip. Robbins' energetic choreography and Bernstein's grand score accentuated the satiric, hard-edged lyrics of Sondheim, and Laurents' capture of the angry voice of urban youth. The play was criticized for glamorizing gangs, and its portrayal of Puerto Ricans and lack of authentic Latin casting were weaknesses. Yet, the song "America" shows the triumph of the spirit over the obstacles often faced by immigrants. The musical also made points in its description of troubled youth and the devastating effects of poverty and racism. Juvenile delinquency is seen as an ailment of society: "No one wants a fella with a social disease!" One writer summed up the reasons for the show's popularity in these terms: "On the cusp of the 1960s, American society, still recovering from the enormous upheaval of World War II, was seeking stability and control."

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