Tweetingit: 4* A revealing documentary tracing the anatomy of a musical that broke all the rules and took the genre into new territory.
Among the many delights on BBC I-Player is this excellent documentary presented by Bruno Tonioli and Suzy Klein. Made in 2010, it provides a fascinating insight of a classic that almost never happened. The genesis of Westside Story began in the 1940s when choreographer Jerome Robbins had a spark of inspiration, a contemporary musical based on Romeo & Juliet. He recruited composer Leonard Bernstein and acclaimed playwright Arthur Laurents. However, the dream team failed to agree on the project’s direction and it was mothballed. With the addition of whizz-kid lyricist Stephen Sondheim a legend of musical theatre was eventually born.
We are presented with a highly intelligent study of a musical that re-defined the genre first on Broadway then the West End. Musical theatre was awash with bright, frothy productions like My Fair Lady and Oklahoma! But Westside Story was completely different. Dangerous and edgy, it had a Bernstein score tinged with Latin rhythm. A Shakespearian tragedy was duly transformed. Romeo & Juliet had decamped to New York as Tony and Maria, the Capulets and Montagues morphed into the Jets and Sharks warring over disputed territory. Sondheim added the flourish with dynamic lyrics that enlivened Laurent’s book. It was the perfect combination of song, dance and drama.
Tonioli and Klein land in New York to capture the show’s essence. They interview Stephen Sondheim and surviving members of the original Broadway cast. Conversations are interspersed with analysis and re-enactments of key passages from the show. The dazzling film version is scrutinised. They show how an impossibly beautiful cast created a screen classic and that unforgettable performance of America led by Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Westside Story is the closest anyone could possibly come to perfection on stage and screen. I think Shakespeare and cohorts would have been quite happy with that?
Watch the show here