Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fifty Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today, WEST SIDE STORY opened on Broadway.

I've heard so many Sondheim stories surrounding this show.

1) Like the fact that he's embarrassed by the lyrics he wrote for I FEEL PRETTY.

He really wanted to show himself off as a lyric writer, but when his friends saw the show in previews, they said, "You have an uneducated Puerto Rican girl singing like she's Noel Coward!"

Sondheim tried to change the lyrics to something more appropriate, but the producers wouldn't have of it. They LOVED the song.

2) Or how his friends - - probably the same friends - - refer to SOMEWHERE as the "Uh" song.

You know, "There's UH place for UH-s. Somewhere UH place for UH-s."

3) Or how, when Jerome Robbins was staging Tony's song MARIA, Mr. Robbins asked Sondheim what exactly Tony was "doing."

Sondheim said that Tony was singing about a girl he just met named Maria.

Robbins said, "Yes, but what is he DOING."

Sondheim was unable to answer much more than "he's singing about a girl he just met named Maria," so Robbins threw the music down and said, "Then YOU stage it!"

Fun and funny stories, but I think they show what Sondheim learned when he was working on WEST SIDE STORY (he was 27 at the time). He then applied what he learned in his music and lyric writing. And because of that, all of Sondheim's songs are character driven with the action built into the song.

Sondheim's songs are so specific to each character and to the musical in which they appear that you can't interchange them. A song from PACIFIC OVERTURES would never fit in FOLLIES. And vice versa.

However, you could switch the title songs from MAME and HELLO, DOLLY and no one would blink and eye.

Happy 50th, WSS.

By the way, did I ever tell you that in high school I played the wimpiest and faggiest Riff in the history of musical theatre? I did. It wasn't pretty.


Valyna said...

The "UH" song... hahahaha, that's hysterical!! I never thought of it that way :)

In high school I was in drama but typically only designed the playbills, painted backdrops and decorated the sets for our school plays. I was the artsy-fartsy one of my school ;) But I did play a "ghoulish henchman" for the Snow Queen in 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' and I just acted like a zombie and snarled a lot. (Perfect role for me I think!)


But I've secretly always wanted to be Maria.

Or Juliet.

Stephen Rader said...

Valyna - I always wanted to be Anita. It speaks volumes, doesn't it? :)

Blockade Boy said...

And I played the world's spindliest, least-threatening "Ado Annie's Dad" in "Oklahoma." They had to show me how to hold the shotgun!

Sondheim once said that Bernstein liked for his shows' lyrics to be as poetic and flowery as possible, which is something Sondheim found hard to deliver, as he thought Bernstein's tastes in lyrics tended toward the overdone/purple variety. ("Poesy" is the exact term Sondheim used in the quote.)

Stephen Rader said...

Blockade Boy - I'll bet Ado Annie's Dad and Riff would have made a Hell of a pair!

A long time ago, Playbill ran a contest asking people to re-write songs from OKLAHOMA as if they had been written by Stephen Sondheim. The winner wrote that the show would be exactly as it is, but at the very end, Aunt Eller would walk to the front of the stage, raise her right arm and say...



Aaron said...

As far as the "uneducated girl singing like Noel Coward," um, wasn't this a MUSICAL number? A flight of fancy that took place in Maria's imagination? Geez, Stephen Sondheim's "friends," lighten up! :-)

I played Dr. Chumley in "Harvey" when I was in high school. I played someone's dad in the next play. Yes. I played 50- and 60-year-olds in high school. I was born to be old.

Stephen Rader said...

Aaron - It's like that line from Elaine Stritch's one-woman show. "I was 20. I looked 40. I got the job!" I'm right there with you - - I was born 26.

Master Aaron said...

Everybody knows that Riff turns to gang life when Tony gets over his "adolescent phase," cancels the weekly Riff/Tony sleep-over, and begins to make whoopie-doodle with the ladies. If you played Riff a little light-in-the-loafers, you got it just right. Remember darling, it is ALWAYS a CHOICE!

cb said...

WSS is still my favorite musical of all time

Stephen Rader said...

Master Aaron - Yep, as my advisor in colledge always said, "There is no right or wrong choice, there are only stronger or weaker choices. This happens to be a very WEAK choice."

Stephen Rader said...

CB - I agree. I love it!