East Side Story was the original title of the Shakespeare-inspired musical conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins, written by playwright Arthur Laurents and scored by composer and lyricist Leonard Bernstein in 1949. A tale of star-crossed lovers—one Jewish, the other Catholic—on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the show in its original form never went into production, and the idea was set aside for the next six years. It was more than just a change of setting, however, that helped the re-titled show get off the ground in the mid-1950s. It was also the addition of a young, relatively unknown lyricist named Stephen Sondheim. The book by Arthur Laurents and the incredible choreography by Jerome Robbins helped make West Side Story a work of lasting genius, but it was the strength of the songs by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein that allowed it to make its Broadway debut on this day in 1957.
The re-conception of West Side Story as a tale of love across the divide of two street gangs, one Latin and one white-ethnic, came quickly once the creative principals returned to the project in 1955. With the support of producer Carol Crawford, plans for the show proceeded over the course of two years, but by the spring of 1957, with no financial backers ready to commit to a controversial show in which Act I would end with two principal characters dead as a result of gang violence, Crawford announced she was pulling out of the project. West Side Story seemed to be dead.
What saved the show was the relationship between Stephen Sondheim and Broadway producer Hal Prince, whom Sondheim called with the bad news. Prince and his partner Bobby Griffith made arrangements for a quick visit to New York to consult with the West Side Story team, and it was there that they were won over by the power of the music Bernstein played them in his midtown apartment. “About halfway through the audition,” Prince later recalled, “I started to sing along with the material….At the end of the whole thing, Bobby and I looked at each other, and we said, without hesitation, ‘We’ll do it!'”
With Prince and Griffith’s backing, West Side Story got back on track for a premiere on September 26, 1957, that would begin one of the longest initial runs in Broadway history.