West Side Story

Some trifling items of possible interest
to the fans of the masterwork.

REHEARSALS: Mickey Calin

Mickey Calin
Michael Callan, known at the time as Mickey Calin, waited no less than six months from the time of his first audition till the day of his final one. At first the ex-stuntman was told he had no chance at the show—as he relates the tale, one of the obstacles to securing the role was the fact that he was too good-looking, and perhaps he should "have a truck run over me and come back." Some six months passed before he was called in again, only to be rejected again. In the end, while touring with The Boy Friend, he finally was brought in one last time and was given the role of Riff. During the rehearsal period he endured the same difficulty with taskmaster Jerome Robbins as his fellow cast-members were experiencing, and he spent a long time believing he was miscast, so minimal was his director’s support, so unstated his confidence. "I was always the whipping boy in the show," he recalls, and Tony Mordente offered a more objective assessment: "...[Robbins] literally just pounded Michael down and just built him up again." Eventually, whatever the re-construction process entailed, Mister Callan managed to find his niche and created a superb Riff. He noted to an interviewer that his ultimate success was partly due to a character exercise that his director insisted he undertake faithfully: "When the curtain comes up," instructed Mister Robbins, "I want you to find something to hate." And Michael Callan went with what worked: "And by that time I just would close my eyes and say 'Jerry Robbins, Jerry Robbins, Jerry Robbins.'"

Source: The Making of West Side Story, by Keith Garebian

CASTING: Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera
Though she expresses no dissatisfaction with the role that in fact made her a star, Chita Rivera nevertheless once confessed to an interviewer her desire—her fantasy, perhaps—to play the leading role instead. "Now," she adds in a pragmatic, almost self-deprecating tone, "isn’t it typical of somebody like me to want to play Maria?" She does not elaborate on "somebody like me," but when describing Maria she uses words like "lovely,” “gentle," and remarks specifically on the pivotal fact that Maria grows up during the course of the two-day action, going from "a child to a woman," a challenging journey for an actress, she implies, that her own character does not undertake. She says all this wistfully, with no real regret, just the faint wish that she would like to have been offered such an opportunity. One can assume, after reviewing the gallery of larger-than-life characters she has made a career of performing—not one of which exactly incorporates "lovely" and "gentle," and none of whom came to the theater any less than fully grown—that perhaps “somebody like me” is an intelligent and objective evaluation of her powerful talent, and a confirmation of the knowledge that the chance to play delicate ingénues like Maria was going to elude her for a reason. The fiery and exhilarating characters that she has created during the half-century she has been performing non-stop since she gave life to Anita makes one wonder if the gentle, lovely ladies who actually do play Maria also advise interviewers how they wish "somebody like them" could play the roles that Chita Rivera has conquered and made immortal.

Auditions: Carol Lawrence

Carol Lawrence
By 1957 Carol Lawrence was a well-known personality in the theater community. Though not a first-magnitude star, she had her foot firmly in the door, having already appeared in four Broadway shows at the time West Side Story was being prepared. Nevertheless, Ms Lawrence endured no fewer than thirteen auditions in her pursuit of the role of Maria, a number considered unusually high even then, and reportedly no longer permissible according to the rules of Equity. The repeated call-backs were undoubtedly at the hands of the meticulous Jerome Robbins, for whom apparently no amount of time or expense was excessive when it was spent creating his art. Miss Lawrence finally crashed through thanks to an audition exercise for which she was instructed to hide herself on a scaffolding above the stage floor, as though on the fire escape, until Tony discovered her. (On this occasion she happened to be auditioning with Larry Kert.) Mr.Robbins’ reaction to her successful execution of this song- and dance-free accomplishment, and specifically the Balcony Scene which followed it, was affirmative but typically emotionless and unsupportive. According to her own recollections, it was Harold Prince who assured her, with some measure of warmth and excitement, that she indeed had the role.

Source: A Backstage Story, by Carol Lawrence.


Ken Le Roy
A New York-born son of vaudevillians, Ken Le Roy had been performing since the age of six and by 1957 had racked up a significant list of credits: He had appeared in the original companies of Oklahoma!, Carousel, Brigadoon, Call Me Madam, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, as well as the film version of The Pajama Game According to Garebian, Mister Le Roy was developing an interest in directing, and he joined the West Side Story company not to act on stage but to serve as an assistant stage manager in the hopes of broadening his backstage credentials in pursuit of his new ambition. He was present for the long audition process and as he watched the candidates come and go he clearly re-considered his immediate options. He was asked to audition for a number of open roles, and, typically, was initially rejected. The usual period of callbacks ensued, and ultimately he was offered the role of Bernardo which he played for a year in New York before repeating the assignment in the London production. His decision to explore a career as a director continued to be sidetracked as a few more onstage opportunities presented themselves: After West Side Story Ken Le Roy acted, sang and danced in I Can Get It for You Wholesale under the direction of Arthur Laurents, and was re-united with Jerome Robbins in the original company and the 1981 revival company of Fiddler on the Roof.

Source: The Making of West Side Story, by Keith Garebian

CASTING: Larry Kert

Larry Kert
The story goes that Larry Kert was tipped off about West Side Story auditions by his friend Chita Rivera with whom he had previously worked in Mister Wonderful. Odd as it may seem in retrospect, he first auditioned for the part of Bernardo, with little success as—and he was the first to admit it—he was not a trained dancer. Despite this honest evaluation, he was summoned once again, this time to audition for the role of Riff, with the same predictable results, since Riff performs more, not less, dancing than Bernardo does. It all may have ended there, had not Stephen Sondheim spotted him performing a calypso number in an industrial show. The lyricist asked him to read for the role of Tony, a futile prospect in Mister Kert’s estimation: “Every day you read that Leonard Bernstein is looking for a six-foot, blond, Polish tenor. I’m a five-foot-eleven, dark, Jewish baritone.” Whatever doubts or reservations he may have had, he came in once again, this time to read for Tony, thus acquiring the distinction of trying out for all three male leads. He performed “Maria” for the creative team, and was then introduced to Carol Lawrence, with whom he performed “Tonight,” a partnership in which the creators evidently saw some real possibilities. Events brought the pair to the afternoon described above, singing the duet that prompted Bernstein to state: “That is the most mesmerizing audition I have ever seen.” While Carol Lawrence recalls that she was finally cast at that session, it wasn’t until later that evening that Mister Kert received a phone call from Arthur Laurents. The author’s opening remark was unpromising: “They all said I should break the news to you;” but in fact the news was good: “How does it feel to have a lead on Broadway?” The next morning, columnist Sam Zolotoff reported that Romeo and Juliet had finally been cast with newcomers Larry Kent [sic] and Carol Lawrence. Thanks to West Side Story Larry Kert’s name became immediately and widely known, and people have generally been spelling it right ever since.

Source: The Making of West Side Story, by Keith Garebian

Anna Maria Alberghetti and
Frank Porretta

Anna Maria Alberghetti
Frank Porretta
During the long—and apparently grueling—casting period for the musical, rumors were circulating wildly (and rather grimly, for the auditioning candidates), reporting the wisdom that the romantic leads were going to be played by two well-known singers of the day, film actress Anna Maria Alberghetti and opera tenor Frank Porretta. Whether this item had any basis in fact, or was merely the kind of discouraging note of pessimism that attends any important work in progress, we have no reliable information stating that either of these talented people was ever invited to take part in the project during this early period. Nor do Mister Porretta’s later credits include any association with West Side Story, as far as we have been able to determine. Ms Alberghetti, on the other hand, famously played the role of Maria for several years on tours and in stock productions.

Source: The Making of West Side Story, by Keith Garebian

Visit Frank Poretta (and family) at:
Porretta Family Website

Visit Anna Maria Alberghetti at

Mini Tidbit   Anna Maria Alberghetti’s musical credits include the role of Marsinah, another romantic young girl crossing sociological barriers, whom she portrayed in a television production of the Broadway musical Kismet. Appearing opposite her as the Caliph was another well-known musical performer, Academy Award winner George Chakiris.

CASTING: Anita Ellis

Anita Ellis
From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, many of us might understandably believe that the role of Anita must have always been meant to be played by the electrically-charged Chita Rivera, so completely and satisfyingly—and utterly correctly—did she fill it. As is often the case, the likelihood of certain agreeable show-business legends and myths is not always supported by the facts. In his memoir Original Story by Arthur Laurents reports that the role was written for, and possibly even named for, jazz singer Anita Ellis, a talented lady with whom Mister Laurents acknowledges an early romantic relationship followed by a long and warm friendship. In addition to her club appearances and some jazz and pop recordings, her résume also includes a number of Hollywood dubbing assignments, perhaps the most notable of which would be providing the vocals for Rita Hayworth in her famous “Put the Blame on Mame” turn in 1946’s Gilda. It is not clear if Ms Ellis ever got to audition for the role of Anita; in his characteristically succinct style, Mister Laurents simply points out that "...she couldn’t dance, and Chita Rivera could." A year after West Side Story opened on Broadway without her, Miss Ellis appeared in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, playing a brassy night club singer while understudying two of the leads. By every account, it seems apparent that Anita Ellis’s brother, Larry Kert, won his role in West Side Story strictly on his own considerable merit, and not through this coincidental connection to the author.

PRODUCTION: Roger L. Stevens
Robert Griffith and Harold Prince

Roger L. Stevens

When Robert Griffith [left] and Harold Prince committed to producing West Side Story after many rejections, they weren’t just blowing smoke.

In an interview with Terrence McNally, Arthur Laurents describes Roger Stevens as “the original producer, the one who stuck it all the way.” Mister Stevens enjoys this distinction due to the twin virtues of believing in the show when apparently no one else did, and never changing his mind about it. Actually, he was scheduled to co-produce the show with Cheryl Crawford, whose interest in the show, to quote Jerome Robbins, lasted “up to the point where we auditioned the show to backers and raised not a cent.” Mister Laurents is widely quoted as noting her loss of faith in the book, and particularly in the slang he was inventing for the show’s characters; Ms Crawford was evidently very dismayed that no one in the play ever said “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” At a dangerously late point in the proceedings she announced that the creative team would have to re-write the entire book in order to ensure her participation, a decision that caused an understandable despair among the collaborating quartet. “We all stood up and said goodbye.” Contacting Stevens in London (collect, as Mister Bernstein recalls), they were somewhat re-assured; Laurents stepped out of the phone booth and reported, “Roger says whatever happens, keep working. He will guarantee everything somehow. Just don’t worry about it.” Laurents told Terrence McNally that “That was the life saver. I can never praise that man enough for that one moment when he gave us the strength to have the courage of our own somewhat shaken convictions.”

Mister Stevens’ commitment and loyalty notwithstanding, his own hectic schedule and responsibilities to other projects obliged the team to find a co-producer to fill the vacancy left by Cheryl Crawford, one whose daily presence would ensure the musical a smooth ride, and whose faith in the product would at least match that of Stevens. Enter Robert Griffith and Harold Prince, fresh off their successful New Girl in Town, the newest addition to their growing roster of hit musicals, following the likes of The Pajama Game, and Damn Yankees. Griffith and Prince were an established producing entity by now, and at this point very keenly in pursuit of a new project. Harold Prince was in fact one of a string of potential producers who had turned the piece down years earlier, but, knowing that much work had obviously been done since he last heard it, he showed up, as princes do, in the nick of time and, along with Griffith and Stevens, proceeded to save the day, much to the relief and gratification of four anxious and beleaguered artists.

Source: Broadway Song and Story Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., Ed.

Leonard Bernstein
Arthur Laurents
Jerome Robbins
Stephen Sondheim

Leonard Bernstein
Jerome Robbins
Arthur Laurents
Stephen Sondheim
Despite the random minor discrepancy here and there, the mythologies are in general agreement on the basic facts of the collaboration. The legend begins in 1947, when an actor friend approached Jerome Robbins for advice on how to play Romeo. Robbins pondered the idea and tried to come with a concept for presenting the great tragic romance in a modern setting with up-to-date cultural and social references. He presented the idea to his theater and ballet collaborator, composer Leonard Bernstein; the maestro’s reception was enthusiastic and he was initially interested in writing both music and lyrics. Author Arthur Laurents, who was working on another project with Bernstein, became enticed by the idea and began sketching outlines and rough drafts of scenes. The feud in Shakespeare’s play, whose cause is never explained, became a socio-religious conflict in the new work, which was tentatively titled East Side Story. The setting was Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the story pitted a Catholic faction against a Jewish one; the two romantic lovers, naturally, step into the action one from each side: a Jewish Juliet, an Italian-American Romeo. The idea lay dormant for several years until Bernstein met Laurents in California where they both were working on Hollywood studio assignments. One brought to the other’s attention a newspaper that prominently featured coverage of the ongoing gang warfare between Anglos and Chicanos in Los Angeles.* As they both were well aware, the situation on the east coast was comparable, with the young "natives" in New York City defending the turf against immigrating Puerto Ricans, and the Romeo and Juliet concept once again caught fire, this time for good. The idea of juvenile gangs fighting over ownership of the streets seemed an ideal overlay to the Shakespeare play, and certainly more timely than the original East Side notion. The three became four as the project developed and it became clear to Bernstein that the amount of music he was required to provide—not to say the quality of that music—was going to prevent him from carrying the double-load of music and lyrics. Mister Laurents brought in Stephen Sondheim, whose unproduced work Laurents had heard and admired, and despite Sondheim’s own desire to work in the theater as a composer rather than a lyricist, he was urged to join the party and the rest, to coin a phrase, is History.

Source: Broadway Song and Story Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., Ed.

*According to the Joan Peyser biography of Leonard Bernstein, the date of the meeting was August 25, 1955, and the newspaper was the Los Angeles Times.

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