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'West Side' stories: fun facts about the musical

Posted 8:54am on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013

Most seasoned theatergoers know West Side Story well. But if you do not remember the Eisenhower administration, you may not be up to speed on this legendary musical. Here are some of the most basic facts, and a few lesser-known bits of trivia, about this show.

Wait - I've seen this somewhere before

If the plot of West Side Story seems familiar, it should. It is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, moved to some of Manhattan's meaner streets. But instead of warring families, the Montagues and Capulets are the Puerto Rican and Anglo (or, more exactly, first and second generation European immigrant) communities who object to the love affair between the Hispanic Maria and her white beau, Tony.

A hit - but not the biggest hit

West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957 to strong reviews and ran for 21 months -- something that was no surprise, given the team who created it. But when it came time to dish out the awards for that opening season, WSS was beat out for Best Musical by another classic show, Meredith Willson's The Music Man, which took the Tony and New York Drama Critics awards in that category. But the lack of top awards had little impact on the popularity of the show. It has enjoyed three Broadway revivals (including the 2009 version that provides the basis for this current touring production), for a total of more than 2,000 performances on the Great White Way.

On the big screen

West Side Story got the full Hollywood treatment in 1961 in a film version starring Natalie Wood. The musical was a hit with movie audiences as well, so far more people know it from its celluloid incarnation than from the stage version. It was the second highest grossing film of 1961 and won 10 of the 11 Oscars for which it was nominated in 1962, including Best Picture. It occupies the 41st spot in the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest Films. The only musicals placed higher are The Wizard of Oz (sixth) and Singin' in the Rain (10th).

Anybody got a compass?

In its earliest incarnation (in 1949), West Side Story was titled East Side Story because the two sides involved were Irish Catholics and Jews. After years of false starts, as the members of the creative team would sporadically cross paths, change the basic plan (a Los Angeles setting for the story was considered at one point) and then get distracted by other projects, it was finally determined that show would pit Puerto Ricans against Anglos in Manhattan.

Sources: IMDB.com and IBDB.com

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