By Brian Scott Lipton
Sixty years and one day after history was made at the Winter Garden Theatre with the opening of the “West Side Story,” history of another sort happened just a few blocks away at St Luke’s Theatre, as 11 original cast members of the show’s Broadway production gathered to reminisce, share stories and secrets, and celebrate the creation of that magical musical.
Produced by Dancers Over 40, the evening – hosted by journalist Matt Rodin – featured a panel moderated discussion by Tony winner Martin Charnin (the original Big Deal) and featuring Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, Tony Mordente (Rivera’s ex-husband, with whom she remains on great terms), Grover Dale, Marilyn D’honau, Ronnie Lee, George Marcy, Liane Plane, Jaime Sanchez, and David Winters.
Each actor spoke movingly about what “West Side Story” meant to them, personally and professionally, and many gave praise to the show’s legendary creative team: director Jerome Robbins, book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and associate choreographer Peter Gennaro (whom Rivera noted did all the choreography for the Sharks, including the beloved number “America.”)
Some amusing tidbits were revealed, as well. Lawrence had to sing the aria “Un Bel Di” for her first audition, and her agent, who had never heard her perform opera, was so sure Lawrence would be bad, he held his hand over his ears. Meanwhile, Rivera laughingly admitted her audition song was “My Man’s Gone Now” from “Porgy and Bess,” and Bernstein made her do it twice. (“I think he was making fun of me by making me sing it again,” she said. “He probably couldn’t believe what he was hearing.”)
Here are a few fun facts we found out. The show had two titles, “East Side Story” and “Gangway,” before it was called “West Side Story.” The top ticket price was $8.25. Lawrence made the most money of anyone in the cast, $325 per week, while Charnin said the Jet ensemble was paid $165 per week. Back in 1957, actors only got biographies in the Playbill if they had speaking parts.
And while it wasn’t strictly on topic, the effervescent Dale had the evening’s funniest story, recalling that during the run of “West Side” he lent Charnin $1,000 so that Charnin’s own musical, “Fallout” could be produced Off-Broadway – and he only got paid back when he knocked on the stage door of the Alvin Theatre 20 years later during the run of “Annie” (which Charnin directed and wrote lyrics for) and asked for a check.
The 90-minute program also included clips from the show, a special performance by Jay Armstrong Johnson (who sang a truly dynamic rendition of “Something’s Coming”), and a preview of an upcoming documentary about the show that will further ensure that the legacy of “West Side Story” lives on. Ole!
Photos: Maryann Lopinto