Filichia Features: West Side Story - From the Mouths of Jets and Sharks

Filichia Features: West Side Story - From the Mouths of Jets and Sharks

"This is not what you'll find in textbooks. Now you'll hear it from the 'townspeople.'"

Martin Charnin put verbal quotation marks around the word "townspeople" because the individuals to whom he referred weren't citizens of a certain burg but the original cast members -- the original cast members -- of West Side Story.

September 27th marked the 60th anniversary of the day that they read in the papers that their show was "profoundly moving" (Atkinson, Times), "electrifying" (Kerr, Herald Tribune), "superb" (Chapman, News) and "a marvel" (Aston, World Telegram & Sun).

Ten were at St. Luke's Theatre under the auspices of Dancers over 40, its president John Sefakis and producers Dennis Grimaldi and Joey Dedio. On the panel were five who'd allied with the Jets: Charnin (Big Deal), Grover Dale (Snowboy), Marilyn D'Honau (Clarice), Tony Mordente (A-Rab) and David Winters (Baby John) as well as five who'd sided with the Sharks: Ronnie Lee (Nibbles), George Marcy (Pepe), Jamie Sanchez (Chino) and last but hardly least, Carol Lawrence (Maria) and Chita Rivera (Anita).

As these venerable actors spoke, I realized they were inadvertently teaching lessons they had learned from the show. For example, D'Honau noted that when she auditioned, she was still in high school.

Moral of the story? Yes, try out for your school or community theater show, but keep an eye out for professional productions that are auditioning performers your age; they might need people who are just-your-type.

Because Charnin seated everyone alphabetically, Rivera wound up next to Mordente -- her husband from 1957 to 1966. Rivera saw an irony there. Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins insisted that the performers playing the Jets be segregated in rehearsals from the ones portraying the Sharks; that way, he reasoned, they'd really come to feel like enemies.

"And yet I, representing Puerto Rico," said Rivera, "wound up marrying a Jet" -- and only 67 days after the opening!

Was there some leftover tension from the divorce? No, as soon as Rivera sat next to Mordente, she gave him an affectionate tap on the leg.

Moral of the story? That showmance that you start may lead to a marriage that ends in divorce, but after enough time, you'll rise above it.

On the other hand … after Mordente stated that he'd auditioned with "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" (A 1925 Charleston? Was that the best choice to show what you could do in a serious musical?) Charnin asked if he could do it for us -- and Rivera immediately answered for him, "No, he can't!" with the force that only an ex-wife can give.

Just as she did in her one-woman show of 2005, Rivera stressed in no uncertain terms that Peter Gennaro and not Robbins choreographed every Shark dance. Charnin agreed, saying that while many have assumed that Gennaro was the mere assistant choreographer, he was actually the associate choreographer (or, as the billing goes, co -choreographer).

Moral of the story? If you do the work and don't immediately get credit, you may well get it when the truth emerges someday.

Dale recalled that in 1959, Charnin, who was transitioning from actor to writer, approached him for a $1,000 loan to help finance Fallout, an off-Broadway revue for which Charnin had co-provided sketches and lyrics. The fallout from the critics meant a run of only 31 performances, so Dale had to wait until 18 years later when Charnin had a hit (and what a hit: Annie) to be repaid. "And," he added good-naturedly, "I had to go to the stage-door of the theater to collect it."

What Dale didn't mention was that he was cast in the show. We can rightfully assume that Charnin had something to do with that.

Moral of the story? When it comes to show business, don't expect either gratitude or a quick repayment.

Charnin asked about their first auditions. Winters said he thought he did terribly. "And yet," he said, "I was the first one signed for the show."

Moral of the story? After you audition, don't jump to negative conclusions. You never know what the creators are looking for, what precise quality they need or what you revealed about yourself.

Lee said "When I was growing up, I thought I was just as great a dancer as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Then I got West Side Story and saw people who were better than I."

Moral of the story? Prepare yourself for this. There's a good chance that no matter how great you believe yourself to be, someone out there is better. Realize that this doesn't necessarily mean disaster for you, but just that you may not be the first choice you expected to be.

That brings us to Marcy, who was dancing in Las Vegas and making a good living when he got the call to audition for West Side. He saw himself as Bernardo but by the time he flew in, Ken Le Roy already had the part. Marcy was offered the substantially smaller role of Pepe and the chance to understudy Bernardo. Marcy said "I thought: I left Las Vegas for this? And now I'm so proud that I did and became a part of theater history."

Moral of the story? A decision you impulsively make and think is a mistake could turn out to be the greatest one you'll ever make.

Lawrence assumed that Bernstein's music would be arduous so in addition to a pop song, she told her agent she wanted to do "Un bel di vedremo." Said the agent: "You're not good enough to do that." Lawrence, however, was determined to sing it and did -- as her agent "knelt in the corner with his hands over his head," recalled Lawrence with a wince. "When I finished, Lenny said 'I'd like to hear you do it again.'"

Moral of the story? Agents don't have all the answers. If you've reached the point where you know what you can do, trust your instincts.

Gene Gavin who played the Shark known as Anxious, died in 2015. But he left behind a memoir from which his nephew read. The passage revealed that Gavin had previously worked with Robbins, so when he came to audition, he expected a smile and effusive welcome. Instead, Robbins acted as if he didn't know him.

Was this just another example of Robbins' famous aloofness? Gavin provided his own moral of the story: Robbins wanted to be fair to the other dancers and didn't want them to think that someone he'd worked with before had an advantage over newbies.

Sanchez said that he was merely making a living working at Howard Johnson's with no particular career plans when a customer asked him "Are you an actor?" Sanchez wasn't, but said "Yes!" -- and was told he had the right look for this new show that was casting.

Moral of the story? As the West Side Story lyricist wrote some 30 years later, "Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor," so grab it when you can. Talent is lovely, but there's nothing like being in the right place at the right time.

Charnin finished by asking "What is West Side Story actually about?" The answers from the nine were variations on a theme: acceptance of others, the futility of intolerance, the ignorance of not understanding. And yes, such antagonism has lessened in six decades, but hasn't completely disappeared. We'd like a world in which West Side Story's lessons have been fully learned. But we're not there yet.

Read more Filichia Features.

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com . His book, The Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.