West Side Story Turns 50

"It's just really hard to believe that its 50 years," said Chita Rivera after the curtain went up on the West Side Story half a century ago this week.

Chita Rivera, as the original Anita, would help change the American musical, reports CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason.

"When you take me back, its still so thrilling and so moving," said Rivera.

The movie would later take it to the rest of America. West Side Story was young, edgy and ethnic. And in 1957 Broadway had never seen anything like it.

"I remember looking at the script for the first time - a musical with a dead body being carried over the heads at the end," said Rivera. "Well, this just can't work."

The authors were a quartet of Broadway all-stars - Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins - who conceived the musical as a modern day Romeo and Juliet, with its own two warring families.

"This has been paraphrased into two gangs," said Jerome Robbins. "One is the native born Americans, the Jets. The other are the Puerto Rican born or island born Americans, the Sharks."

In the middle was Maria, the Puerto Rican girl who falls for Tony, the American boy.

"And all she wants is to become a part of America," said Carol Lawrence, who first played the part of Maria. "It was such a fantastically blessed time for me."

Lawrence still remembers the audience response after the first preview performance.

"They leapt to their feet screaming 'bravo,' stamping, sobbing," said Lawrence. "And you knew something had struck a nerve in the American public."

And the morning after, it opened in New York, as one critic likened it to an atomic bomb, saying, "The radioactive fallout must still be descending on Broadway."

But the reviews were not all glowing, adds Mason.

"Brooks Atkisson, in the New York Times, said while he admired the execution, he found the subject matter disturbing," said Brantley.

And Broadway gave the Tony Award that year to a more conventional musical: The Music Man.

But West Side Story has endured. This year alone there will be 250 productions.

That's why for all those there at the beginning, says Lawrence, "West Side Story is in a realm of it's own. It's just blessed."
  • Anthony Mason

    CBS News senior business and economics correspondent; Co-host, "CBS This Morning: Saturday"

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