Library Exhibit Commemorates ‘West Side Story’

‘Birth of a Classic’ Opens 50 Years After Musical’s Broadway Debut

Posted September 25, 2007 at 4:26pm

Celebrated with critical acclaim and beloved by theatergoers, the classic “West Side Story” will receive a little more recognition today, with the Library of Congress’ launch of “West Side Story: Birth of a Classic.”

The exhibit commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Broadway opening of “West Side Story,” taking visitors through its rocky birth with handwritten letters from the musical’s creator Leonard Bernstein and telegrams from famous admirers praising the Broadway show’s eventual triumph.

One of the major themes throughout the one-room exhibit is the collaboration between the four main creators: director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, librettist Arthur Laurents and composer Bernstein, said Mark Horowitz, the exhibit’s curator and a senior music specialist at the LOC.

The showcase’s opening today comes exactly 50 years after the Broadway musical’s premiere. According to Horowitz, the exhibit draws mostly from pieces already owned by the LOC, especially those that are part of the Bernstein Collection.

“We wanted to highlight our collection, so we intentionally wanted to use things we had,” he said.

The only item that was borrowed for the exhibit is the pair of ballet slippers worn by Maria, played by Carol Lawrence.

The exhibit gives viewers a chronological history of the creators’ collaborative efforts, starting with letters passed between the four main creators about the soon-to-be-written musical’s plotline and message of social tolerance.

Also on display in the beginning of the exhibit are two pages from some of Bernstein’s casting notes. Not only do Bernstein’s original documents make mention of actors such as Larry Kert, who were included in the original Broadway cast, but they also include actors who were cut from the show, like Warren Beatty, who later rose to fame.

“Good voice — can’t open his jaw — charming as hell — clean cut,” wrote Bernstein about Beatty.

The next section of the exhibit features two original set design watercolors by Oliver Smith, which usually are housed in the Bernstein Collection, according to Horowitz.

Displayed alongside Smith’s set design for the scene “Rumble” is a handwritten paper by Robbins with choreography notes and a sketch of what he thinks the set of “Rumble” should look like. When put side by side, it becomes obvious that Smith’s watercolor resembles Robbins’ sketch and was influenced by Robbins’ vision.

Bernstein’s musical notes for “Rumble” also are on display, along with the other “Rumble” items.

In a third section of the exhibit are letters from Bernstein to his wife about his thoughts on “West Side Story,” chronicling his early concerns and eventual elation over the evolving Broadway production.

“What is interesting is that they started off so negative,” Horowitz said about the letters. “Then gradually you can see the excitement build.”

From Bernstein’s thrill over the musical comes his peers’ passion for his work, with telegrams on display from notables such as songwriter Cole Porter and actress Lauren Bacall.

The exhibit ends with never-before-seen photographs of the cast taken for a spread in Look magazine that never ran. Also featured are a display of the “West Side Story” DVD and a short video of performance clips.

“We wanted to close with a sense of the show’s ongoing success,” Horowitz said.

In addition to the LOC exhibit commemorating the musical’s golden anniversary, the Library’s Music Division and Signature Theatre will perform songs cut from “West Side Story” on Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Thomas Jefferson Building.

“West Side Story: Birth of a Classic” will be on display in the foyer of the Performing Arts Reading Room, LM 113, of the James Madison Building until March 29, 2008. The exhibition hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.