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December 16, 2017

East & West Side Story

On this day in 1957 West Side Story opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater for a run of 732 performances. Jerome Robbins first presented the idea of a modern Romeo and Juliet to Leonard Bernstein in 1949 -- at this point he envisioned a Jewish-Catholic conflict fought on New York City's east side -- but neither had time to develop it further. When writer Arthur Laurents and Bernstein resumed discussions in 1955, they moved the turf war to the west side, made it Puerto Rican-"American" and, wrote Bernstein in his journal of the time, "Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses, and -- most of all -- I can sort of feel the form."

The source from which Shakespeare developed his play was a 3000-line poem by Arthur Brooke entitled "Romeus and Juliet," published in 1562; it was in turn taken or compiled from various Italian Renaissance sources, the earliest dating to 1474. Brooke's approach was anti-Catholic and highly moralized, or presented as such in his prefatory argument. As "each flower yieldeth honey to the bee," so his poem will "teach men to withhold themselves from the headlong fall of loose dishonesty":
    And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th' attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death.
To sharpen his lust-whoredom point, and in contrast to Shakespeare's telescoped action, Brooke's Romeus and Juliet fail to withhold themselves nightly for several months. For both Brooke and Shakespeare, the couple's day of reckoning is a misadventure of human and "star-crossed" proportions, one in which the lovers must die, and with poor timing. This was not always so for Shakespeare's play over the two centuries after his death: beginning in the 1660s, many British productions allowed Romeo and Juliet to live on, or had Juliet wake up for a simultaneous death-duet with Romeo; until about 1730, some companies played to all tastes, offering the 'tragic death' and the 'happily-ever-after' versions on alternating nights. Also popular, in both Britain and America, was the practice of having an actress play Romeo; in one 1845 production at London's Haymarket Theatre the Cushman sisters played the leads.

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