SONDHEIM’S WORST ENEMY By Peter Filichia
He’s done it again.
Stephen Sondheim has a way of minimizing his achievements.
It’s not false modesty. It isn’t even modesty. It’s hyper-criticism of his own work.
Even those who have only come to know musicals in the past few months probably know that that Sondheim has been highly critical of his work on WEST SIDE STORY. Plenty of books and articles quote him coming down hard on his lyrics for “I Feel Pretty.”
His explanation is so well-documented in so many articles that we can probably all say it in unison: “It’s just too elegant for a girl like Maria to sing ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel.’ That wouldn’t be unwelcome in Noël Coward’s living room. I don’t know what a Puerto Rican street girl is doing singing a line like that.”
Well, the Spanish language DOES include the word “alarmante,” which means “alarming.” Yet we know what Sondheim means: Maria might not think that being charming is at all alarming, or that the word would occur to her in the first place. The rhyme was wagging the meaning.
Fine. So it’s a mistake. So he was twenty-six or twenty-seven when he wrote it. Why must he beat himself up about it time and time again? Here’s betting that one reason that director Ivo van Hove of the current revival dared to drop “I Feel Pretty” from the production is that he knew Sondheim – the only original collaborator still alive – wouldn’t be up in arms about the decision.
But what Sondheim said in a recent interview for 60 MINUTES also diminished his accomplishment with WEST SIDE STORY as well as those significant ones provided by co-artists Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro.
First off, if you saw the thirteen-minute sequence on Sunday, Feb. 16, you may be wondering what I mean, for Sondheim was nowhere to be found on the segment. He was relegated to 60 MINUTES OVERTIME, the face and fate on the cutting room floor, now available on the CBS website.
In the video sequence that’s been titled “What Embarrasses Stephen Sondheim?” he tells of the fate of the original 1957 production:
“The show had a very limited run,” he said. “It was not a smash hit by any means … It’s endured because the movie made it popular.”
There’s no question that the 1961 film, winner of ten Oscars out of eleven nominations, added to WEST SIDE STORY‘s reputation. Baby Boomers, just coming of age, embraced it for a number of reasons. They too were teens looking for “a place for us.” They might have already experienced love of which their parents wouldn’t or didn’t approve; indeed, the film barely had a parent bothering any kid from going out and doing what he wanted.
Boomers also related to “Gee, Officer Krupke” with its hilarious lyrics about teen oppression (written by you-know-who). And, let’s face it, there are those teenagers that crave violence, and WEST SIDE STORY got them to see three murders of guys they’d identified with or bonded.
As for the stage show, all right, maybe theatergoers didn’t have to go from broker to broker in wan hopes of snagging a single for even a Monday night performance in January 1958. Still, we can’t call WEST SIDE STORY’s original stint on Broadway “a limited run.”
To be clear, Sondheim isn’t using the now-familiar term for shows that have a definite closing date before they even start rehearsals (such as those produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout and Second Stage). When Sondheim says “limited” he means it as a synonym for “not very long.”
Check the record books and you’ll see that from September 26, 1957 to June 27, 1959, WEST SIDE STORY ran 732 performances.
Yes, if a musical opens today and runs for that length, Broadway insiders aren’t much impressed. A show that can “only” last twenty-one months may wind up so deep in the red that carmine ink would be required.
Yet when WEST SIDE STORY closed, only nineteen book musicals had ever, ever run longer in the entire history of Broadway.
That seems nearly impossible now. Yet the facts show that when WEST SIDE STORY debuted, the longest-running-ever book musical was OKLAHOMA!
Now it’s in thirtieth place.
The reason between what seemed like long-runs then and what are truly long-runs now? Tourism. Approximately fourteen million visitors annually came to New York during WEST SIDE STORY’s initial run; now sixty-five million tourists each year get off of the train or the bus or the plane.
Many of them attend a Broadway show or two. Statistics show that more than sixty percent of the audience consists of tourists.
Why do you think that THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA will soon have run five times longer than MY FAIR LADY? If someone thinks the reason is that PHANTOM is five times the better show, I’ve never met this person.
No, the tourist population has swelled while the theaters basically have the same seating capacity. True, a few have added a row of seats here and there, but basically all the houses have virtually the same seating capacity that they did in 1957 through 1960.
But wait! There’s more! That initial production of WEST SIDE STORY was back on Broadway a mere ten months after it had left town to tour. Co-producer Harold Prince admitted in his memoir, “We pulled WEST SIDE STORY out of New York perhaps six months too soon.” So it returned and added 249 performances to its coffers.
Although theatrical record books insist that an original run cannot include a return engagement in its final figures, those who want to waive that rule will tell you that WEST SIDE STORY’s original production was seen on Broadway 981 times in a thirty-nine-month span. If we look at it that way, when it finally closed for good on Dec. 10, 1960, only NINE book musicals had ever run longer on Broadway.
Even in these days of intense tourism where much of Broadway in the theater district is closed off to cars to make more room for visitors, many of today’s musicals would be happy to notch “a limited run” of 732 performances. Take a look at the musicals that have made it to Broadway in this new century. We’ll only include those nominated for Best Musical Tonys from the 2000-2001 season to the 2017-2018 season, for those that opened after that haven’t yet had the chance to reach 732 let alone surpass it.
That leaves us with seventy-three musicals that opened in these eighteen seasons. (Remember, although each season offers four Best Musical nominees, 2015-16 sported FIVE contenders.) Forty-one ran fewer than 732 while only thirty-two could surpass WEST SIDE STORY – and NEXT TO NORMAL just squeaked by at 733.
Note too the 2014-15 season, when none of the four nominees – not even the winner (FUN HOME) – could run longer than WEST SIDE STORY even before the return engagement.
In 60 MINUTES OVERTIME, Sondheim also expressed favor and latitude of van Hove’s having his way with the show by stating “A musical lives on by its reinterpretations.” Well, yes and no; WEST SIDE lead producer Scott Rudin’s previous musical revival – HELLO, DOLLY! – did well despite virtually photocopying the original 1964 production.
Still, I’m up for a new version, too. Let’s get real: WEST SIDE’s 1980 and 2009 business-as-usual revivals resulted in comparatively few pulses racing. This reinterpretation’s
ultimate fate will depend on reviews, word-of-mouth, chat boards and interest. But whether or not this production is a hit or a flop, don’t let anybody – ANYBODY – diminish the esteemed status of the original.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.