“Something’s comin’ / I don’t know what it is / But it is gonna be great.” So sings Tony when he’s overcome by the premonition that something big is about to happen to him. And of course that something big is meeting Maria, a name that instantly becomes the most beautiful sound he ever heard.
Chances are that you’ve at least heard of “West Side Story,” the groundbreaking 1957 Broadway musical from which these songs and characters come. In 1961, it was made into a movie with Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer and Rita Moreno that won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Last week the Hollywood Reporter announced that superstar director and hit-maker Steven Spielberg had begun casting for a new film production of it.
It’s apparently something he’s been thinking about for a while. In 2014 he said “West Side Story” was not only one of his favorite Broadway musicals but “one of the greatest pieces of musical literature,” ever. Almost two years ago Playbill reported that playwright Tony Kushner, who worked with Spielberg on his films “Lincoln” and “Munich,” was working on a screenplay. Also in on the project is Broadway producer Kevin McCollum, whose recent credits include “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical hit “In the Heights.”
“West Side Story” first opened on Broadway in September 1957, and saw New York revivals in 1960, 1964, 1980 and 2009. Touring productions hit the road in 1985, 1995 and 2010. In the 2009 revival, Miranda translated some of Stephen Sondheim’s original lyrics (such as Maria’s “I Feel Pretty”) into Spanish to add to the authenticity of the production. The Hollywood Reporter commented that given the casting call, the most striking difference in Spielberg’s production may be that the director “seems to be taking steps to cast the movie in an ethnically authentic manner,” something that wasn’t exactly the case in 1961.
The idea of an up-to-date and urbanized version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was something that composer Leonard Bernstein had been tossing around since 1949, but it had always remained on the back burner in light of his other projects. But worrisome news stories about juvenile delinquency captured the nation’s attention in the mid-1950s and rekindled his interest, along with that of author Arthur Laurents, choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. After short runs to great acclaim in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia it headed for Broadway.
“If all goes as well in New York as it has on the road we will have proved something very big indeed,” Bernstein wrote, “and maybe changed the face of the American musical theater.”
“Nearly every facet of the piece brought something fresh and vitalizing to the American musical stage,” wrote Misha Bernson in her 2011 book “Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.” “It was an idealistic collaboration by artists intent on jolting Broadway by storming the Rubicon between high-brow and middle-brow art, classical and contemporary culture.”
My initial reaction to hearing about all this was perhaps predictable: Why do we need another “West Side Story?” But then I considered the musical’s classic status and the fact that it’s been 57 years since the movie came out.
When you think about it, every generation needs to be reintroduced to the classics or they will pass into antiquity, becoming dusty heirlooms that appeal only to a dwindling number of devotees. Art needn’t be like that, because through a new production people may discover something half a century old that still has the power to speak to them.
That, as Tony might sing, would be something great.