Filichia Features: Happy 99th, Leonard Bernstein; Happy 60th, West Side Story

Filichia Features: Happy 99th, Leonard Bernstein; Happy 60th, West Side Story

By Peter Filichia on August 25, 2017

To directors who have chosen West Side Story as your next production, here’s another way you can advertise it.

Say it’s part of the Leonard Bernstein at 100 celebration.

For the next two years, more than a thousand events featuring Bernstein’s music will be heard on six continents. (Antarctica? Oh, please!) Each will the mark the centennial of Bernstein’s birth in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25th, 1918.

Sixty August 25ths ago, Bernstein was celebrating his 39th birthday in Washington, DC, where West Side Story was having its world premiere. “Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim,” the window card then said. Bernstein’s lyrical contributions were few to begin with and becoming fewer, so he offered to give Sondheim sole credit and an extra percent of the royalties.

Sondheim accepted the former offer and graciously refused the latter  which he later regretted. But wasn’t Lenny nice to offer?

High school directors, there will soon be a West Side Story: School Edition that’s pretty close to the original; the excisions are only about as deep as paper cuts.

That doesn’t mean it’s toothless. Better to know now, though, that there’s the occasional questionable word (“marijuana”), phrase ("a telephone call girl") and sentence (“Your mom is still hot for me” … "Go walk the streets like your sister.").” Not only does a Jet refer to “dumb broads," but one girl also takes issue with the "dumb" and not the “broads.” And there is that unfortunate ethnic slur: “greaseball.”

Some might even wince at Tony’s admonition to Anybodys, the tomboy desperate to be a Jet: "You're a girl -- be a girl."

Note Sondheim’s lyric that has Anita looking forward to Bernardo’s arrival: “He’ll walk in hot and tired -- so what? Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s hot.” (Already Sondheim, a Broadway rookie, was showing his greatness in coming up with two different meanings of the word “hot.”)

Well, most of the characters are teenagers (Lieutenant Shrank, who comes out with nasty barbs to the immigrants, should know better). But the teen-heavy cast gives high school directors an advantage over most professional productions. West Side’s original Broadway cast had leads range from 21 to 30; the film went from 22 to 29. Unless your actors are super-super seniors, they’ll be far more age-appropriate.

I’ve now seen two productions of West Side Story: School Edition: Bradford Theatre Arts Troupe from Kenosha, Wisconsin debuted it at the 2017 International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska and the Moorestown (NJ) Theater Company tackled it this month. Both succeeded mightily.

Kenosha cast a Shrank who was substantially shorter than Bernardo, whom he insulted and terrorized. It’s a great role for an undersized actor, for he can go toe-to-toe with Bernardo with little fear of repercussion; he knows he has the law to back him up.

Bradford’s Sophia Mateucci had Maria make a wise choice in the way she sang "It's alarming how charming I feel" in “I Feel Pretty.” Here’s the lyric that Sondheim himself has criticized for the last 59.9 years. Mateucci delivered it in an overly pretentious, putting-on-the-dog fashion that made it sound right for a teenager who has seen pretentiousness in others and now mocks it.

The show doesn’t demand much in the way of sets. Those who perform in gyms will be all set for “Dance at the Gym.” A male and female mannequin are enough to suggest the bridal shop in which Anita and Maria work. Chain-link fences -- not that expensive and easily attainable -- create the right oppressive atmosphere. The biggest challenge is the fire escape for Maria and Tony’s first love scene.

“That’s hardly a problem,” you say. “It’s the dancing that makes West Side so difficult.”

That wasn’t the case for Bradford or Moorestown. Jets, Sharks and their girlfriends rose to the occasion.

“Even the boys?” you ask.

Yes. And how about this? A high school director once told me “Whenever I do West Side, I just find out who tried out for this year’s basketball team but didn’t make it. There’s a real parallel between moves on the court and moves on the stage, so I get the boys who are now available for a very different after-school activity.”

As for “Dance at the Gym,” if you went to a real high school dance you’d see some terrific dancers and some not-so-hot ones. Whatever kids you have will simply replicate real life.

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at