West Side Story arrives in Dubai and its legacy continues to endure

More than six decades after first hitting the stage, the American musical still has plenty of spring in its step

A handout photo of West Side Story (Photo by Nilz Boehme) *** Local Caption ***  BLOG14jl-stage-westside02.jpg
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The story template is simple: star-crossed lovers caught in the crossfire of two rival groups.

We've seen this in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but in 1957, the story was reimagined with a modern flair — a masterful take that has become a landmark piece of musical production, both on stage and on screen.

Now, West Side Story is playing at Dubai Opera, adding to the UAE's growing portfolio of international musical productions.

In Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, the buzz of the street meets the sophistication of the concert hall. Photo: Dubai Opera

The story is set in mid-1950s Manhattan in the blue-collar Upper West Side neighbourhood. Two teenage rival gangs from different ethnic backgrounds fight for street dominance. There's the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are from Puerto Rico. The musical focuses on Tony, a former member of the Jets, who falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks' leader Bernardo.

Themes of race, poverty, family, love and other social issues are shown throughout the story, told beautifully through music and movement.

A history of West Side Story

It all started in the '50s at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York where it had its stage debut. The musical was immediately a hit and continuously ran for 732 performances after closing in 1959. The production then toured the US for 10 weeks and returned to its home theatre in 1960 for another 253 performances.

At the same time, West Side Story also had its European debut, first in Manchester, UK, before transferring to London where it ran non-stop 1,032 times. In 1962, the West End production launched a five-month tour across Scandinavia.

These early years helped put West Side Story in history books as well as spotlighting the brains behind it: composer Leonard Bernstein; lyricist Stephen Sondheim and author Arthur Laurents; and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

The success of the musical was thanks to the talent of the four. The simplistic — archaic, even — premise was given some energetic treatment, from Bernstein's complex musical composition to Robbins' pivotal choreography. These aspects of the show have inspired modern musical theatre, setting the bar high.

One of the most celebrated elements of the show is the choreography and the way dance is used to drive important plot points throughout. For example, the show opens with a dance break between the two rival gangs. The intriguing, tension-building musical score is accompanied entirely by movements, with no dialogue whatsoever.

Robbins earned a Tony Award for his work. The show's choreography is an essential part of the storytelling, with movements that are character-driven, not just some complementary device used as a theatrical accessory.

Critics at the time accurately predicted the influence of West Side Story in modern musical theatre.

“Putting choreography foremost may prove a milestone in musical-drama history,” Time magazine wrote in a review in 1957.

It is also worth noting that the musical was Sondheim's first project. His lyrics hit the mark for audiences at the time, but have also managed to transcend generations and create universal relatability.

This is most evident in the show's power ballads and love songs, Somewhere and Tonight for example. But it's the song America that has perfectly conveyed Sondheim's wit, imagination and humour.

In 1961, West Side Story was adapted for the big screen and won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Rita Moreno, who played Anita, one of the supporting roles in the film, became the first Latina actress to win an Oscar.

Timeless themes

West Side Story's charm still lies in its story and what it means to audiences. Even as it takes inspiration from Romeo and Juliet's tragic love story, the musical breaks out of the formulaic narrative and delves into other heavy themes such as race and poverty.

The conflict between the Jets and the Sharks is a reflection of the racial tensions in 1950s New York, a murky political climate that still exists today. It's why when Steven Spielberg adapted the 2021 retelling of the classic tale, the story still felt relevant as ever.

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria in the 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story. AP

The main storyline of the protagonists, Tony and Maria, presents a more nuanced exploration of racial identity and politics. The two see past their differences, fall in love and are forced to confront their loyalties. Anita faces a similar strife, trying her best to get the best of both worlds by clinging to her heritage but also finding ways to assimilate into American culture.

This recurring theme of wanting to belong carries the heavier and more specific narratives seamlessly. The show has been staged in many languages, from Czech to Korean, but the heart of the story remains the same: we all want to belong.

West Side Story runs until Sunday at the Dubai Opera; tickets start at Dh290

Updated: April 26, 2023, 2:02 PM