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'West Side Story' Celebrates 50th Anniversary


American musical theater celebrates a major anniversary in 2007. Fifty years ago this month - on September 26, 1957 - "West Side Story" opened on Broadway. Based on William Shakespeare's famous tragedy "Romeo and Juliet," "West Side Story" introduced a dramatically new approach to the music, dance motifs, and storytelling of a stage musical. For producer George Dwyer, VOA's Jim Bertel reports on the golden anniversary reprise of an authentic American classic.

Set in the slums of New York City -- amidst the backdrop of 1950s-era ethnic gang warfare -- "West Side Story" revolutionized American musical theater.

"In 1957 when it came out it was unlike anything that had ever been seen before," says Nathan Scherich, who co-stars in an anniversary production of the now-legendary musical. He plays Tony, a young gang member who yearns for a better life. "He wants out of the gang. He knows there is something else going on in life rather than gangs. And he does not know quite what it is but then he gets to the dance at the gym and sees Maria for the first time that that is what he has been looking for."

Actress Sarah Darling plays Maria. "She is a very young girl who has just moved to America -- she has only been here for a month -- and she comes from a very protective family - over-protective really. And so she is just really anxious to grow up and experience life in America."

The exuberance of that life is portrayed in "West Side Story." But what made the show so innovative when it premiered 50 years ago was its depiction of urban slum life in a series of song and dance numbers the likes of which had not been seen before on the American stage.

Darling enthusiastically says, "The music is so amazing. It is the best there is in musical theater, so the music will get you as well."

The songs in "West Side Story" have left a deep mark on American culture. And today, half-a-century after it was first staged, the production still has the power to connect with audiences.

Scherich remarks, "People are touched in different ways. Some of them are mad at the end, some of them are sad. I mean, it affects people in different fashions."

Darling adds, "A lot of times in musical theater you end the show and everyone is just, 'Yea!' happy and excited. [But] in this one their joy and their applause come from a place of being deeply moved. That's really rewarding for me, and, hopefully, for them as well."

Credit for that goes partly to Shakespeare, of course -- his genius framed the basic story. But the combined genius of American masters in music, dance, and theater production are what make "West Side Story" a modern-day classic of unique and enduring delight.