CLOSE
Original image
getty images

10 Star-Crossed  Facts About West Side Story

Original image
getty images

After this daring musical made its Big Apple debut on September 26, 1957, critics reacted as if an atomic bomb had gone off over Manhattan. The next day, Walter Kerr of The New York Herald Tribune wrote that “The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway.” Theatergoers were stunned. Here was an edgy, electrifying show with some of the boldest choreography ever staged. An emotional rollercoaster from start to finish, Tony and Maria’s tragic tale has been moving audiences for over half a century.    

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE ABOUT A CATHOLIC BOY & A JEWISH GIRL.

Religion and national identity would’ve driven the drama of East Side Story, which is what choreographer Jerome Robbins & composer Leonard Bernstein called the project they started working on in 1949. But eventually they decided that “the whole Jewish-Catholic premise [was] not very fresh” when they were having a poolside meeting in Beverly Hills six years later. Under the California sun, they decided to instead focus on—in Bernstein’s words—“two teenage gangs … one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’” Because Manhattan’s eastern neighborhoods had been largely gentrified by then, their production was soon given its present title.

2. THE DIRECTOR INSISTED ON AN UNUSUALLY LONG REHEARSAL PERIOD.

Before opening night, your average 1957 musical cast was only given four or five weeks’ worth of practice. Robbins (who also sat in the director’s chair) demanded eight. “We had a lot of work to do,” he recalled, with the show’s intricate dance sequences requiring extra attention.

3. THE JETS & THE SHARKS WERE PROHIBITED FROM INTERACTING OFFSTAGE.

Robbins tried generating real hostility between these fictitious gangs. According to producer Hal Prince, the Broadway veteran kept both groups of actors as far away from each other as possible. “They were not allowed to socialize out of the theater, [and] they were not allowed to take their lunches together.” Obviously, this was an extreme approach. But over time, it started working.

“One day,” says actor Grover Dale (an original Jet), “the Jets got together and—out of big pieces of cardboard—we built a shark and stuffed it with newspapers and drew on it.” They then hauled their masterpiece up over the stage. From a height of five stories, they patiently waited for the Sharks and Robbins to return from lunch. When everyone arrived, the fake fish landed with a thud at their director/choreographer’s feet and the Jets shouted “Sharks have had it!” As Dale recalls, Robbins couldn’t have been happier. “He just loved it because it was like the homework we were supposed to do kicked in.”

4. FOUR-LETTER WORDS WERE REPLACED WITH INOFFENSIVE JIBBERISH.

Through West Side Story, lyricist Stephen Sondheim wanted the F-bomb to make its musical theater debut. Initially, this choice word appeared in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but Columbia Records (which released their original cast recording) noted that using such language would violate obscenity laws and—hence—prevent the show from touring across state lines. Defeated, they went with “Krup you!” instead.

5. SPOILER ALERT: MARIA HAD A DELETED DEATH SCENE.

Shakespeare may have killed off both title characters in Romeo & Juliet, but one of West Side Story’s star-crossed lovers lives to see the final curtain drop. Things almost ended much differently. Maria’s untimely suicide was part of an early draft—until composer Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) offered his two cents. “She’s dead already, after this all happens to her,” he told Robbins.

6. BERNSTEIN PLUCKED "ONE HAND, ONE HEART" FROM A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT MUSICAL.

At the time, he was scoring West Side Story and Candide—which was based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name—simultaneously. Though Bernstein crafted “One Hand, One Heart” for that production, he repurposed it as a romantic duet between Tony and Maria. In exchange, "O Happy We," which was originally a duet for West Side Story, moved to the first act of Candide.

7. “SOMETHING'S COMING” WAS WRITTEN LAST-MINUTE.

Just 12 days before West Side Story premiered in D.C. (it’d debut in New York later), Bernstein and Sondheim wrote Tony’s hopeful ballad. Their inspiration came from a piece of dialogue that the character was to deliver during his first scene. The line, as penned by playwright Arthur Laurents, went like this: “Something’s coming, it may be around the corner, whistling down the river, twitching at the dance—who knows?” When asked if he’d mind letting the sentence get turned into a number, he enthusiastically replied “Yes, take it, take it, make it a song.” This late arrival had to be re-orchestrated several times, making it a bit of a headache for the pit band.

8. AUDREY HEPBURN WAS TAPPED TO PLAY MARIA FOR THE FILM VERSION.

In 1959, the screen legend was pregnant—and because she’d already suffered two miscarriages, Hepburn wasn’t about to over-exert herself this time. So, when she was offered the lead role in what would arguably become the most celebrated movie musical ever shot, she declinedRebel Without a Cause star Natalie Wood got the part instead, with Marni Nixon dubbing over her singing voice.

9. WEST SIDE STORY'S 1961 CINEMATIC ADAPTATION SET AN ACADEMY AWARDS RECORD.

Seven months after its release, the flick brought home 10 Oscars, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and even Best Picture. Thus, it won more than any other musical ever had in Academy Award history. As of this writing, the distinction still stands.

10. A BILINGUAL REVIVAL OPENED ON BROADWAY IN 2009.

Laurents joined forces with producers Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, and James L. Nederlander to retell the story he’d helped craft over 50 years earlier. This time, he leveled the playing field. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the gangs somehow,” he explained. By letting the Sharks speak and sing in their native language during large chunks of the musical, Laurents hoped to do exactly that. Like the original, after a run in Washington, D.C. the show moved to New York, where it ran for 748 performances, wrapping up on January 2, 2011. 

Original image
Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
Original image
Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

Original image
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
Original image
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios