“Cool” is a song from the musical West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein composed the music and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. This song is known for its fugal treatment of a jazz figure, described by one writer as “possibly the most complex instrumental music heard on Broadway to date”.
In early 2016, Carnegie Hall’s Somewhere Project culminated in three special performances of West Side Story at the Knockdown Center in Queens. Directed by Amanda Dehnert, this production blurred the boundary between students and professionals. High school–aged apprentice performers joined the cast of the production, immersing themselves in every dance step of this incredible work alongside professionals. The production also featured a choir of high school students from across the city, adding a new dimension to Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score under the direction of Marin Alsop.
West Side Story
West Side Story is a musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It was inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet.
The story is set in the Upper West Side neighborhood in New York City in the mid 1950s, an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood (in the early 1960s, much of the neighborhood was cleared in an urban renewal project for Lincoln Center, which changed the neighborhood’s character). The musical explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The members of the Sharks, from Puerto Rico, are taunted by the Jets, a white gang. The young protagonist, Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang’s leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre. Bernstein’s score for the musical includes “Jet Song”, “Something’s Coming”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, “America”, “Cool”, “One Hand, One Heart”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Somewhere”, “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “A Boy Like That”.
The original 1957 Broadway production, conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and produced by Robert E. Griffith and Harold Prince, marked Sondheim’s Broadway debut. It ran for 732 performances before going on tour. The production was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical in 1957, but the award for Best Musical went to Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Robbins won the Tony Award for his choreography and Oliver Smith won for his scenic designs. The show had an even longer-running London production, a number of revivals and international productions. A 1961 musical film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn. The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won ten, including George Chakiris for Supporting Actor, Rita Moreno for Supporting Actress, and Best Picture.
Two rival teenage gangs, the Jets (White Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican Americans), struggle for control of their neighborhood on the Upper West Side of New York City (Prologue). They are warned by police officers Krupke and Lt. Schrank to stop fighting on their beat. The police chase the Sharks off, and then the Jets plan how they can assure their continued dominance of the street. The Jets’ leader, Riff, suggests setting up a rumble with the Sharks. He plans to make the challenge to Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader, that night at the neighborhood dance. Riff wants to convince his friend and former member of the Jets, Tony, to meet the Jets at the dance. Some of the Jets are unsure of his loyalty, but Riff is adamant that Tony is still one of them (“Jet Song”). Riff meets Tony while he’s working at Doc’s Drugstore to persuade him to come. Tony initially refuses, but Riff wins him over. Tony is convinced that something important is round the corner (“Something’s Coming”).
Maria works in a bridal shop with Anita, the girlfriend of her brother, Bernardo. Maria has just arrived from Puerto Rico for her arranged marriage to Chino, a friend of Bernardo’s. Maria confesses to Anita that she is not in love with Chino. Anita makes Maria a dress to wear to the neighborhood dance.
At the dance, after introductions, the teenagers begin to dance; soon a challenge dance is called (“Dance at the Gym”), during which Tony and Maria (who aren’t taking part in the challenge dance) see each other across the room and are drawn to each other. They dance together, forgetting the tension in the room, and fall in love, but Bernardo pulls his sister from Tony and sends her home. Riff and Bernardo agree to meet for a War Council at Doc’s, a drug store which is considered neutral ground, but meanwhile, an infatuated and happy Tony finds Maria’s building and serenades her outside her bedroom (“Maria”). She appears on her fire escape, and the two profess their love for one another (“Tonight”). Meanwhile, Anita, Rosalia, and the other Shark girls discuss the differences between the territory of Puerto Rico and the mainland United States of America, with Anita defending America, and Rosalia yearning for Puerto Rico (“America”).
The Jets get antsy while waiting for the Sharks inside Doc’s Drugstore. Riff helps them let out their aggression (“Cool”). The Sharks arrive to discuss weapons to use in the rumble. Tony suggests “a fair fight” (fists only), which the leaders agree to, despite the other members’ protests. Bernardo believes that he will fight Tony, but must settle for fighting Diesel, Riff’s second-in-command, instead. This is followed by a monologue by the ineffective Lt. Schrank trying to find out the location of the rumble. Tony tells Doc about Maria. Doc is worried for them while Tony is convinced that nothing can go wrong; he is in love.
The next day, Maria is in a very happy mood at the bridal shop, as she anticipates seeing Tony again. However, she learns about the upcoming rumble from Anita and is dismayed. When Tony arrives, Maria asks him to stop the fight altogether, which he agrees to do. Before he goes, they dream of their wedding (“One Hand, One Heart”). Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo and the Sharks, and Riff and the Jets all anticipate the events to come that night (“Tonight Quintet”). The gangs meet under the highway and, as the fight between Bernardo and Diesel begins, Tony arrives and tries to stop it. Though Bernardo taunts and provokes Tony, ridiculing his attempt to make peace, Tony keeps his composure. When Bernardo pushes Tony, Riff punches him in Tony’s defense. The two draw their switchblades and get in a fight (“The Rumble”). Tony attempts to intervene, inadvertently leading to Riff being fatally stabbed by Bernardo. Tony kills Bernardo in a fit of rage, which in turn provokes an all-out fight like the fight in the Prologue. The sound of approaching police sirens is heard, and everyone scatters, except Tony, who stands in shock at what he has done. The tomboy Anybodys, who stubbornly wishes that she could become a Jet, tells Tony to flee from the scene at the last moment and flees with the knives. Only the bodies of Riff and Bernardo remain.
Blissfully unaware of the gangs’ plans for that night, Maria daydreams with her friends, Rosalia, Consuelo, Teresita and Francisca, about seeing Tony (“I Feel Pretty”). Later, as Maria dances on the roof happily because she has seen Tony and believes he went to stop the rumble, Chino brings the news that Tony has killed Bernardo. Maria flees to her bedroom, praying that Chino is lying. Tony arrives to see Maria and she initially pounds on his chest with rage, but she still loves him. They plan to run away together. As the walls of Maria’s bedroom disappear, they find themselves in a dreamlike world of peace (“Somewhere”).
Two of the Jets, A-Rab and Baby John, are set on by Officer Krupke, but they manage to escape him. They meet the rest of the gang. To cheer themselves up, they lampoon Officer Krupke, and the other adults who don’t understand them (“Gee, Officer Krupke”). Anybodys arrives and tells the Jets she has been spying on the Puerto Ricans; she has discovered that Chino is looking for Tony with a gun. The gang separates to find Tony. Action has taken charge; he accepts Anybodys into the Jets and includes her in the search.
A grieving Anita arrives at Maria’s apartment. As Tony leaves, he tells Maria to meet him at Doc’s so they can run away to the country. In spite of her attempts to conceal it, Anita sees that Tony has been with Maria, and launches an angry tirade against him (“A Boy Like That”). Maria counters by telling Anita how powerful love is (“I Have a Love”), and Anita realizes that Maria loves Tony as much as she had loved Bernardo. She admits that Chino has a gun and is looking for Tony. Lt. Schrank arrives to question Maria about her brother’s death, and Anita agrees to go to Doc’s to tell Tony to wait. Unfortunately, the Jets, who have found Tony, have congregated at Doc’s, and they taunt Anita with racist slurs and eventually simulate rape. Doc arrives and stops them. Anita is furious, and in anger spitefully delivers the wrong message, telling the Jets that Chino has shot Maria dead.
Doc relates the news to Tony, who has been dreaming of heading to the countryside to have children with Maria. Feeling there is no longer anything to live for, Tony leaves to find Chino, begging for him to shoot him as well. Just as Tony sees Maria alive, Chino arrives and shoots Tony. The Jets, Sharks, and adults flock around the lovers. Maria holds Tony in her arms (and sings a quiet, brief reprise of “Somewhere”) as he dies. Angry at the death of another friend, the Jets move towards the Sharks but Maria takes Chino’s gun and tells everyone that “all of [them]” killed Tony and the others because of their hate for each other, and, “Now I can kill too, because now I have hate!” she yells. However, she is unable to bring herself to fire the gun and drops it, crying in grief. Gradually, all the members of both gangs assemble on either side of Tony’s body, showing that the feud is over. The Jets and Sharks form a procession, and together carry Tony away, with Maria the last one in the procession.
Carnegie Hall’s Production of West Side Story
From March 4–6, 2016, three extraordinary performances of “West Side Story” were presented at the Knockdown Center, a restored factory in Queens. Directed by Amanda Dehnert and conducted by Marin Alsop, this production blurred the boundary between students and professionals, with high school–aged apprentice performers joining the cast of the production and a 200-voice youth choir adding a new dimension to Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score.
West Side Story is often regarded as the first show that requires a “triple threat”: a performer who is an experienced singer, actor, and dancer.
“I still have a lot of room to grow, but this has definitely prepared me for the future.” —Emanuel Figueroa, apprentice cast member
The original choreography by Jerome Robbins was reset by Julio Monge in this production. Here, he leads the dancers during auditions.
The score was expanded to include new arrangements for a 200-voice youth choir. Here, they rehearse in the Resnick Education Wing with Musical Supervisor Leslie Stifelman.
Citywide auditions were held for participation in the choir, which included singers from 26 different high schools in all five boroughs of New York City.
Morgan Hernandez and Skylar Astin, who performed the roles of Maria and Tony, respectively, take a break from rehearsal. At only 18 years old, this marked Hernandez’s New York City debut.
Emilio Ramos, Alex Ringler, and Olatuyo Bosede rehearse the “Jet Song” with members of the student choir, under the direction of Musical Supervisor Leslie Stifelman.
On February 21, the cast, choir, and orchestra joined forces for the first time. More than 300 performers came together to rehearse the score under the direction of Marin Alsop.
Marin Alsop, a protégée of Leonard Bernstein, discusses the music of West Side Story.
“It’s fascinating to see these kids rise to the occasion. I know this is going to change their lives.” —Julio Monge, re-creator of Jerome Robbins’s choreography
The orchestra included 40 musicians—larger than any Broadway production of West Side Story.
Skylar Astin (Tony) and Morgan Hernandez (Maria) rehearse the balcony scene. Given the warehouse location, an industrial stepladder made for a suitable balcony.
In the months leading up to the show, the 50,000-square-foot Knockdown Center was transformed from an empty warehouse into a fully functioning theater.
The expansive space—part–block party, part–city street—represented the open, community nature of the project, with no separation between the audience, cast, and orchestra.
Two clotheslines were strung across the stage pre-show—one with red shoes and the other with purple. As the production started, it became apparent that these colors identified the two gangs in the piece: red for Jets and purple for Sharks.
Before the performance, audience members could visit A Place for Us, an interactive exhibit showcasing work inspired by The Somewhere Project from community members across the city.
World roots band Brown Rice Family provided pre-show entertainment.
The band performed songs created by students and community members as part of The Somewhere Project.
With a colorblind approach to casting, the audience was able to identify the Sharks and the Jets through their clothing rather than by the color of the members’ hair or skin.
Jerome Robbins’s choreography is one of the most iconic parts of West Side Story. It draws on a mixing pot of influences: mambo, Lindy hop, American swing, stage fighting, and ballet.
In addition to Jerome Robbin’s choreography, Sean Cheesman created additional choreography for the production, bringing influences from popular dance of the last few decades into the mix, performed here by high school–aged apprentice Emanuel Figueroa (Big Deal) and Olutayo Bosede (Gee-Tar).
“What’s been so great mixing the professional actors/dancers/singers with these young students is seeing how the ‘old pros’ are mentoring the young kids.” —Sean Cheesman, choreographer
Musical Director and Conductor Marin Alsop conducted the orchestra and choir.
“It’s a show about young people and about youth, and [the choir] adds a level of authenticity and innocence and real beauty to this story.” —Marin Alsop, musical director and conductor
Members of the choir also joined Skylar Astin (Tony) and Morgan Hernandez (Maria) onstage for “One Hand, One Heart.”
“Somewhere,” sung by an offstage voice in the original production of West Side Story, was instead performed by the choir in this production. At the end of the song, the choir moved from its risers and onto the stage, surrounding the audience with the song’s hopeful message.
The high school–aged apprentices performed alongside the professionals. Here, Anijah Lezama (Estella), age 16, dances with Damon J. Gillespie (Chino) during “America.”
The apprentice cast members had the stage to themselves during Jerome Robbins’s “Somewhere” ballet.
Following the performance, Musical Director and Conductor Marin Alsop joined Donald Jones Jr. (Bernardo), Bianca Marroquín (Anita), Skylar Astin (Tony), Morgan Hernandez (Maria), and Manny Stark (Riff) onstage for the curtain call.
“The sound of so many voices added a layer of emotional plushness to the songs that was goosepimple–inducing, and utterly irresistible. So, really, was the entire production, which may have been conceived in part as a public-spirited educational project, but ultimately became a simple yet transporting production of a great musical.” —The New York Times
“If theater is a reflection of our society, The Somewhere Project’s take on the classic musical ‘West Side Story’ this past weekend provides hope that there can be peace if only we ask what it means universally to be human, instead of reinforcing the labels that make us different.” —The Huffington Post
Carnegie Hall is a concert venue in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, United States, located at 881 Seventh Avenue, occupying the east side of Seventh Avenue between West 56th Street and West 57th Street, two blocks south of Central Park.
Carnegie Hall’s mission is to present extraordinary music and musicians on the three stages of this legendary hall, to bring the transformative power of music to the widest possible audience, to provide visionary education programs, and to foster the future of music through the cultivation of new works, artists and audiences.